Buenos Aires

Alejandro Kuropatwa

For Argentineans, photographer Alejandro Kuropatwa (1956–2003) embodied a new type of celebrity, born from the freedom and anxiety of the ’80s as the country emerged from military dictatorship. Eccentric, witty, and openly gay, he is remembered as a talented, capricious, and colorful “diva” who enjoyed night life in the company of artists, musicians, and writers, and, with them, members of local high society, all of whom he eagerly captured in his art. Two years after his death from AIDS, this exhibition, “Kuropatwa en technicolor,” paid tribute to this Argentinean original, but—as its curator Andrés Duprat insisted—the show presented the artist as if he were still alive, thanks to the “optimistic” images that the photographer produced at the end of his life. Yocasta, 2000, named after Oedipus’s mother, consists of four large color photographs hanging over wall-mounted tables shaped like the sterilizers hairdressers use for their tools; it depicts the head of a robust beauty—a postmodern, pedestrian Hélène Fourment with an elaborate hairdo. Headshots of this type can more easily be found on the walls of cheap, suburban beauty salons than in museums. “Flores” (Flowers; 2002), a series of gigantic close-ups of flowers and plants with evident sexual allusions, revels in baroque sensuality; bigger than life, they look exquisite in the gallery space.

Throughout his career, Kuropatwa photographed his friends with the sentimentality of a fashion photographer. As many of them also succumbed to AIDS, these portraits might be seen as a gallery of new desaperacidos, who died not because of the political violence so prevalent in Argentina’s history but of a deadly disease spreading globally. In the late ’90s, Kuropatwa sought out aging women from Argentina’s high society (“Marie Antoinette” [1998]) and photographed them with a stark sincerity verging on cruelty—as if they were relics of some ancien régime dressed in Prada. What’s so moving about these glamour-meets-decay pictures is the emotional fragility of the models, who, despite, or perhaps because of, their elaborate poses, elegant gowns, and expensive jewelry, look painfully sad once stripped of their celebrity status (which is, in any case, recognized only locally).

For all that, Kuropatwa was an artist with a predictable imagination. His theatricality and celebration of clichéd gay identity can be irritating, as can his enthusiasm for the trite aesthetics of advertising and fashion. His brightly lit, lipstick-colored world often seems shallow or escapist; and yet behind that staged superficiality a real person keeps appearing in his work. After the 1996 World AIDS Conference in Vancouver, during which scientists announced the discovery of a combination of drugs for treatment of aids, Kuropatwa took pictures of the medicine he started taking on a daily basis. Known as the “Cóctel” (“Cocktail”) series (1996) these works are like a contemporary vanitas, speaking of life’s fragility in the face of death. Dealing with reality as a predominantly tactile experience, in these works the photographer pairs colorful pills with a spoon, a shoe, a glass mug, and a rose—and records the reoccurrence of beauty in all of them.

Marek Bartelik