As the science of anatomy advanced, artists of the Renaissance learned to render bodies not as components of an image but as flesh in the world, and enhanced their presence in space by portraying the effects of gravity and light on the fabric that covered them. The influential fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez (1943–1987), who was born in Puerto Rico but lived in New York and Paris, wrought his own vision of anatomy from a late twentieth-century concept of the performance of selfhood in his work for magazines and fashion houses and his own personal sketches. Inspired by disco, bodybuilding, and other ascendant subcultures of his time, he drew images of bodies becoming images.
Take, for example, a series of drawings he did for Yves Saint Laurent, some of the first works you encountered in “Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion,” a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio. Three men bend and flex to spell YSL with their bodies. Jockstraps frame their buttocks and fissures delineate their musculature (the two types of detail having been depicted with negative space, using the white of the paper). Fabric, light, and physical contortion here define the body in equal measure. In Lopez’s poster design for the 1976 Olympics, displayed nearby, three pairs of runners’ legs show extreme vascularity; a swimmer’s back bears ribbonlike curves indicating muscle in contraction; and the torchbearer’s singlet clings so closely to his abdomen that it’s hard to tell a ripple in the fabric from a fold in his skin.
Lopez produced his works in collaboration with Juan Ramos (1942–1995)—who was also his partner in life—under the name “Antonio,” a brand of sorts. The museum emphasized the collaboration in wall texts and in the accompanying publication, a newsprint facsimile of an issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview that the two guest-edited. A few black-and-white snapshots of construction workers glimpsed on New York streets in the 1960s were attributed solely to Ramos, but his primary role was to network and correspond with clients so Lopez could be free to focus on the art. Ramos also selected palettes and added pigments to Lopez’s pencil drawings.
The work in “Future Funk Fashion” didn’t come from the world of fine art, and the exhibition didn’t follow the conventions of the retrospective. There was no chronology put forth, and it seemed hard to parse one out; while some of the drawings had titles and dates, most didn’t. The show was hung like a spread-out sketchbook, with drawings for a Missoni campaign or variations on a concept, for instance, arranged salon-style. Some swaths of the walls were painted ultramarine, peach, lavender, and forest green—all prominent colors in Antonio’s 1980s palette—to underscore the groupings. Scrapbooks, photographs, and handwritten notes appeared in vitrines. You got the sense of curators rummaging through portfolios, trying to piece together a history that was filed away in haste as Lopez and Ramos rushed to keep up with the flurry of their life and work.
But the chaos of the exhibition seemed to highlight fashion’s appeal for Lopez: its promise of constant transformation, its play of surface and bodily substance. “Future Funk Fashion” generously represented Lopez’s photographic series, which he shot on an Instamatic and arranged in grids of nine. One shows a model in a sudsy bath. She’s underwater; then she breaks through the surface, and the shimmery wet sheen of her skin makes her a part of the pool and the pool a part of her. One of Lopez’s drawings presents a series of four sketches in which the image of a woman is increasingly abstracted. First she is shown standing with her chest out and her arms behind her; in the subsequent images, she turns into a dress form and then stretches beyond exaggeration until her arms bend backward into an impossibly high stiletto spike and her torso contorts into a curvy sole. Lopez’s beautiful mutants play up the fantasy of self-presentation. His unfolding transformations always reveal the depths in the surface.