A review by Holland Cotter for The New York Times.
Gay Pride Month, a season of optimism and solidarity, was slammed by a nightmare last weekend with the murder of 49 people in a gay dance club in Orlando, Fla. Adding further weight to the blow, the assault was on difference within difference, taking place during the club’s Latin night.
What you do with the emotions raised by the attack, I don’t know. Anger, sorrow, resigned bitterness: It’s a complicated package. Politically, the L.G.B.T.Q. movement has always been built on a shaky balance of expectation set against lived experience. The expectation is that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have the protection of full citizenship. Experience reaffirms, time and again, that they are, as they’ve always been, outsiders under threat.
Maybe there are some safe houses. “Every night at El Museo will be Latino night and L.G.B.T.Q. night, ” said Jorge Daniel Veneciano, director of El Museo del Barrio, at the Tuesday opening of “Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion.” It is a career survey of a Nuyorican artist and designer who, beginning in the years before Stonewall and until his death in 1987, created an out-gay art and helped change the ethnic profile of the fashion industry.
Mr. Lopez was born in Puerto Rico in 1943 and moved with his family to East Harlem when he was 7, attending grade school two blocks from El Museo’s current location. Both his parents worked in the clothing industry, his father as a maker of mannequins, his mother as a seamstress. The artist’s talent was spotted early. By the end of 1963, still a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, he had been hired as an illustrator by Women’s Wear Daily and by The New York Times.
At school he met the artist Juan Ramos, also Puerto Rican-born, who became his lover and creative partner. A division of labor soon developed. Mr. Lopez, a brilliant draftsman, was responsible for all illustrations and designs. Mr. Ramos did pretty much everything else: researching assignments, setting up studio sessions (Mr. Lopez liked to work from live models rather than photographs) and sometimes adding color to pictures. They considered the one-name signature on all the work, “Antonio,” to be a joint attribution.
They arrived during a dynamic moment, when the civil rights movement, gay liberation and the women’s movement were about to change American culture utterly. Both artists were deeply interested in history. In 1964 in Greenwich Village, where they were living, they met the great couturier Charles James (1906-1978), at that point all but forgotten. They undertook a decade-long project of illustrating, and that way preserving, his designs. It was from him that Mr. Lopez learned to see clothing as an essentially sculptural medium, as is evident in a four-image sequential drawing from the 1970s. On the left stands a model in a streamlined green dress; then in three sequential images she disappears until only the dress, an abstract shell — it could be cast from auto-body steel — remains.
Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ramos were also thoroughly invested in the culture of the moment, in new art and music, and in the eroticized atmosphere of gay urban life that coalesced in New York in the late 1960s and ’70s. Their professional and social lives were indistinguishable. They worked in a state of creative near-chaos, as documented in photographs by friends (among them the young Bill Cunningham, long before he came to The Times). The show itself — organized by Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, a curator at El Museo, and Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui, an art historian — has a scrappy, hectic vibe. It’s like a portfolio thrown open, chronology scrambled, contents roughly sorted by theme.
Among the more than 400 paintings, drawings and photographs, almost all from an archive maintained by the artist Paul Caranicas, are images of the partners at work and play in various shared studios, including some in Paris. Visitors stream through, from fashion heavies (Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent) and entertainers (Mick Jagger, Klaus Nomi) to people from the streets (graffiti artists, break dancers, urban beauties), with Mr. Ramos controlling traffic and Mr. Lopez knocking out, to the beat of hip-hop tapes, fantastical images for Vogue, Elle and Interview, and his own designs.
Not that their activity was studio-bound. As Mr. Lopez noted in the daily journals he kept all his life, the work day extended into the night, which found both men in bars and dance halls surrounded by favored models: young women and, less often (at least in the photographs here), men who they had “discovered” and were promoting.
Several of these models — Alvina Bridges, Pat Cleveland, Angelo Colon, William Cordero (“Bill Blast”), Carol LaBrie, Toukie Smith, Amina Warsuma, the graffiti artist Doze and the disco diva Grace Jones — were black or Latino, and their arrival represented a multicultural shift in fashion industry demographics. So, of course, did the presence of Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ramos, with their Nuyorican roots and taste for pop culture. They commissioned graffiti artists from the South Bronx to paint murals for their studios and invited break-dance groups like Rock Steady Crew to hang out. Mr. Lopez incorporated hip-hop dress styles and body moves into work, changing the standards of beauty in commercial illustration. And he began to approach the act of drawing itself as a species of performance art.
In a scrappy 1983 video, we see him executing a life-size charcoal portrait of Mr. Colon (who often served in films as a double for Ms. Jones) in front of an art school audience. He applies each stroke with a focused balletic flourish, and revises nothing. The finished piece is on view in the gallery, looking exactly as it does in the film.
From the late 1970s onward, Mr. Lopez’s designs grew increasingly futuristic, featuring female cosmonauts in warrior gear and broken-up male bodies that suggested disassembled robots. “Star Wars” and other films had created a vogue for space imagery, but Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ramos seem to have found additional inspiration in a subcultural music and literary genre that would come to be called Afrofuturism. It filtered African-American history through the lens of science fiction, projecting a utopia in which race and gender were fluid, and existing social inequities corrected or transcended.
While this work was in progress, Mr. Lopez learned he had H.I.V./AIDS. Near the end of the show, a diary dated 1986 is open to pages filled not with notes about jobs, parties and friends, but with long lists of pills with careful instructions for taking. He died, at 44, the next year. Mr. Ramos died of AIDS in 1995 at 53.
So, the show is not, after all, a story of at-risk people surviving. Danger tracked them down in the form of a disease, one all but ignored by the United States government at the time of Mr. Lopez’s death — Act Up was founded that year. It was a disease that turned victims into pariahs, cut down creative lives, and tainted and buried reputations, including those of Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ramos, who had faded from view until the recent publication of books about them, one by Mr. Caranicas, and now this survey.
Are they really back in the spotlight? No and yes. Their futuristic late work would appear to be in neat sync with the theme of the monumental exhibition “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and of which their hero Mr. James is a star. Yet Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ramos are all but unimaginable in that context, partly because their art has a specifically period feel, but more because it is fundamentally, flamboyantly anti-classical, meaning anti-institutional, pro-alien, unassimilable.
It’s an art of what Mr. Veneciano, on the opening night, called “multicolored bodies,” poly-ethnic, performative, mutable. It’s an art in love with the street, with grit, the stuff display cases are supposed to keep out. At a time when so much gay culture aspires to honorary heterosexual status, their art is true L.G.B.T.Q., loud and proud and unguarded. And it’s in exactly the right museum at exactly the right time.