PRINT February 1989


“BY NOW, IN THE 1980S, we are all disenchanted enough to know that no work of art, however much it may fortify the spirit or nourish the eye and mind, has the slightest power to save a life.” So wrote Robert Rosenblum, in an essay already much criticized (by Douglas Crimp and others), in the catalogue for the 1987 Art against AIDS project. I can’t say that the fashion illustrations of Antonio Lopez, who died of AIDS shortly before the catalogue appeared, ever saved a life or even prolonged his own. What I can say, and want to with some feeling, is that Antonio’s art knew nothing of the kind of disenchantment to which Rosenblum’s sweeping “we all” so blithely consigns us. Of the many reasons for which I esteem his work. not least was its power to refute the impotent claim that art cannot cause social change directly. Antonio’s art used enchantment to break spells of racial prejudice. The enchantment was that of beauty.

I had admired Antonio’s work for several years before I finally met him, in Paris. in 1970. I had no great interest in dressing fashionably, but I used to look at fashion magazines quite regularly in those days because fashion was a form in which my generation was publicly defining itself. Music was the main medium for this process, and to some extent independent film, but if you wanted an easily accessible form of visual definition at a time when art was retreating from the visual world, fashion photography and graphic design were the places to look. You could count on the fashion magazines for pictures that would show some new kind of beauty—some new thing to do with the hair, the eyes, the feet, the space around the body—and, more than that, to bubble over with the infectious expectation that new kinds of beauty were possible, and would always be.

Antonio was part of that bubble machine. As a name, he wasn’t in a league with the big fashion photographers, but he had the advantage of youth. For though the photographers were instrumental in projecting the youth culture, the fact was that Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, even Bert Stern and David Bailey were really of an older generation. Antonio was in his early 20s when his work began to be known, and the work reflected that, seemed to incarnate in its sketchy elegance the restless energy we felt bursting up from the streets. I had the opportunity to meet him when, a few days after I’d arrived in London to go to school, I met a former assistant of his and it seemed the thing to do to get on a plane and go to Paris. A few hours later we were sitting in a bedroom on the Left Bank, guests at what I suppose was a kind of levee with Cathy Dehman, the first of “Antonio’s girls,” and Cathy’s boyfriend, an English actor whose exposed rear had been widely admired not long before in Franco Zeffirelli’s movie of Romeo and Juliet. Heaven.

Shake-it, shake-it, shake-it, shake-it: midnight at Le Fiacre. Top girl this season is bleached-blonde Donna Jordan, whose denim-fitted rear is soon to be notorialized all over Italy in billboard displays for Jesus Jeans: “Chi mi ama mi segua.” The French are certainly following Donna tonight. When Antonio’s group strides into the club, the disc jockey spins “No Matter What Sign You Are,” and at the part near the opening where Diana Ross lets out a squeal, Donna squeals even louder, and the jockey starts the record again (this is clearly a nightly aperformance) as the French clear the dance floor to watch this gap-toothed, not particularly pretty, but dazzling girl put her hands up to the side of her head and go, “Eeeeeaow!” And again, “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaow!”

Antonio’s girls and boys: some recognizable from Andy’s cast at the Factory, which made the contrast between the two scenes all the more striking, as striking as the difference between pleasure and pain. Perhaps they were two different kinds of Catholicism, a northern and a southern; whatever the reason, a high percentage of Andy’s people seemed to end up in hells of his or their mutual making, while quite a few of Antonio’s—Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland—ended up with careers.

I never got close to Antonio or Juan Ramos, his longtime partner. I loved them but was too much a wallflower to follow them, though I followed Antonio’s work fairly faithfully over the years. My admiration increased as the ’70s unfolded and the photographers seemed to lose their interest in new forms of beauty; they were either going retro or spicing up tired looks with violence and soft-core porn. Antonio never stopped looking for new beauty and never stopped finding it, though it wasn’t always easy to find Antonio: a spread in GQ here, a full-page ad for Bloomingdale’s there; then, in the ’80s, many wonderful pictures in a hard-to-find Italian magazine called Vanity.

Finally in 1982 a book came out, Antonio’s Girls, and I wanted to write about it (for by then I’d found my dance step), even though it was a disappointment. It had some good quotes from the models but visually it was bland, and it made me wonder whether, after all, fashion illustration wasn’t too evanescent a form to bear looking at after a season had passed. The retrospective show this winter at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology cast out all such doubts. Here Came Everybody, fresh as spring, surging forth from the walls like an Easter parade in paradise: early work that revealed Antonio’s aspirations toward art (quotations from Fernand Léger and Roy Lichtenstein), and toward an old-fashioned kind of Seventh Avenue glamor; then images of men, tough-chested, motorcycle-fierce; women with hungry American lips, wet from a Coke bottle’s cold kisses; women transformed in stages into shoes, by sorcery or just by a long night on a hard dance floor; then black and Latin models, nostrils flaring, mouths scowling, whiskers bristling, bursting onto the page as though they’d ripped the paper to get through, like Spanish Harlem roses growing through the concrete; and to dress them, an increasingly lusher, more decorative Latin style: Bronx Baroque, like Latin living rooms (patterned transparent slipcovers over patterned upholstery, or patterned gold-stamped lampshades on painted end tables covered with flower-encrusted china candy-boxes). The comparison I’d earlier drawn with Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t seem extravagant enough.

There’s a part in Antonio’s Girls where Jerry Hall talks about runway model Pat Cleveland: “Pat’s still workin’. Every year she sits down an’ very intelligently thinks it out. Either she has a new idea, a new hair-do, a new look, a new way of walkin’ . . . if she doesn’t have anything new to offer, she won’t go to Paris. I call that the heighth of professionalism.” And I think that’s how Antonio thought of drawing, too: if he couldn’t show us some new way to thrust the hip, jut the jaw, set the eyes, twist the wrists, some new way the city could be worn around the shoulders or the hips, he just wasn’t going to pick up a pencil.

And I think that impulse came not from the fashion industry’s relentless quest for the new, for his quest was even more relentless and was not contained within fashion’s structured seasonal cycle, but from the people who were his inspiration—the people on the street, in the clubs—because they had that idea about themselves, and showed it on their bodies: in motion, in adornment, in the confidence that a body can project a self into a vision in an infinite number of ways. Born in Puerto Rico, he’d grown up in Spanish Harlem, the son of a seamstress, surrounded by cloth, color, trim, and their application to the bodies of women who came every day to his house to be fitted for the world outside. Probably before he left that uptown world for the media’s world of fashion, Antonio understood as well as Pascal how, had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed. And he passed on that understanding to his models, and to those of us who had never seen black or Latin looks, eyes, legs where he put them, in the world of our desires.

“It was a black thing—definitely,” Hall said. “It was a period when the fashion shows were really pickin’ up because all these black girls used to walk like magic, an’ they’d drive everyone wild. I learned everything about walkin’ from them. I used to watch them like a hawk.” And it was a Latin thing just as definitely. Around the time Antonio’s Girls came out, Antonio had a show of drawings at the Hudson River Museum out in Yonkers. He rounded us all up and put us on a bus, a mix of white, black, brown, and yellow, and on its way out the bus drove through Harlem, and as it was making a turn it got stuck on a corner. A crowd began to gather, it was a Sunday and people were dressed up, and some people on the bus, two Latin twins, stuck their heads out the window and yelled to some friends on the sidewalk. The whole crowd started to clap and yell, maybe to make fun, maybe to make contact, maybe because it was just something to cheer, this bus half full of Latin models breaking down as it passed home.

The last time I saw Antonio was on a dance floor. It was the summer the Palladium opened, the summer of 1985, and he danced over my way and made a truly stately bow. I noticed he was dancing slowly, and I thought, Ah, age? Well, why not. Then later, when I heard he was sick, I thought that was the reason. Actually, as I look back, it was probably just that he found the Palladium boring, for Arata Isozaki’s sanitized, classicized street scene was the antithesis of Antonio’s kind of dance. He wanted to heighten the movement of street life, not to tame it. He gave his pencil free reign to capture the kind of truth Albert Hofstadter ascribed to beauty, the truth that “comes about when a being projects and realizes its own being.”

And it wasn’t only his personal being, or that of his models, but the being of our whole new world city. In an interview last year with Latin Beat, Juan Ramos was asked whether Antonio had accomplished what he wanted to do in life, and Juan answered, “I always thought that all his life what he really wanted to be was a social worker.” Well, Antonio was that, probably more than he knew. For me, he’s a counselor still, counseling me to look, advising me not RI worry when the White Boys start harping about the End of Art (even when they harp gracefully and persuasively, as Arthur Danto does), for there are still many people waiting to sit down at the table. They have a lot more to put on it, and all it takes to enjoy what they bring is a pair of hungry eyes.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at Parson’s School of Design, New York, and writes regularly for Artforum.