Antonio Lopez

Even if you don’t know the name Antonio Lopez, you’ll surely recognize the people whose careers he helped launch: Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland, Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall, Bill Cunningham. Lopez was a fashion illustrator – notably for the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily – but his influence goes well beyond his sketches. Through his work, he made significant strides in representing women and men of color in high fashion during the racially turbulent '60s and '70s.

On June 14th, “Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion” will open at El Museo Del Barrio in New York, paying tribute to the artist’s three-decade career (he died at the age of 44 in 1987 of complications related to AIDS). “If you think about the time in which he was working, what was going on in the United States with race relations, with these subtle but powerful images, he was making a point,” says Amelia Malagamba-Ansotegui, a co-curator of the exhibit and a scholar who’s studied Lopez extensively.

“He was really reaffirming and relocating the issues that were happening at the time,” Malagamba continues. “That’s huge, because we can talk art history and people like [Paul] Gauguin and others who were looking at the brown body, but they were looking at the exotic. [Lopez] made it intimate, made it honest, made it powerful in that ways that I don’t think other people thought would be possible.”

His vibrant illustrations brought his youthful, sexually-liberated world into magazines and newspapers. And his world happened to involve the right crowds in New York and Paris – included in the exhibition are drawings of Diana Ross, Oscar de la Renta, Billy Idol, Andy Warhol, and Norma Kamali. He collaborated with designers including Charles James and Karl Lagerfeld, who put Lopez and his partner Juan Ramos up in his mother’s apartment in Paris. “They created their own tribe,” says Malagamba.

Yet despite his access to the rich and famous, Lopez was constantly seeking out the common man. Malagamba recalls him taking to the streets to find models before he taught a workshop in Paris – even though the school had already hired its own.

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And no matter the subject of his illustrations, his interest in the ethnic or racialized body always showed through. Malagamba points to a 1985 pencil and watercolor picture of a woman in an Oscar de la Renta gown. “It is a white woman, bowing like if she was in a beauty contest accepting the accolades, but historically you can see some other influences,” she says. “One, the flowers [she’s holding] have the quality of a Japanese painting.” Second is the influence of music - especially funk, soul, disco and Latino tunes. “When you see the figures that he draws you can see the kinetics…they’re not stationary. They’re not like paper dolls,” says Malagamba. “The current of music that he was listening to as he was creating is part of that process and the end results is these fantastic images full of movement and light. Those currents came from the African and Latino diaspora.”

For the exhibit, El Museo de Barrio gathered over 300 pieces of Lopez’s work, including drawings, Instamatic photographs, archival photographs and his shoe and clothing designs. He was prolific, to say the least, with an eye towards change. “He said, early on when he was in Paris, that the fashion illustration world had been very boring,” says Malagamba. “He brought such an energy, such a passion and joyfulness.”

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