Antonio

If you think it’s intoxicating to look at images by renowned fashion illustrator Antonio (1943-1987), imagine what it was like to pose for one.

Susan Baraz could tell you. In the early ’60s, soon after she and Antonio left FIT ( both majored in Illustration; Baraz, ’62, graduated with honors), she modeled for him. The illustrations, many of which appeared in The New York Times’ fashion magazine, became famous.

“Drawing was a physical, visceral process for him,” recalls the pixie-ish Baraz, petite, with a funky blond bob. “He’d start by moving his arms like an orchestra conductor. He’d roll his tongue and go into a sort of trance. Male, female, straight, gay—everyone who modeled for Antonio fell in love with him. It was like electricity passed between you. Some of the clothes he was given to draw were so ugly, you can’t imagine. But it was never specifically to show a garment. It was to capture a feeling.”

Baraz pauses. Her eyes well up. “And while you posed for him, you became the sexiest woman, or man….. You manifested that inside you. You became the thing he wanted to draw.

A BLK W HORNS SMOKING 80S ARABIAN

Antonio’s Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1988), the illustrator’s clearest foray into fine art, inspired by a book he loved as a child.

Throughout his career, Antonio Lopez, known as Antonio, effected such transformations. In 1962, he took a full-time job drawing for Women’s Wear Daily, and left a few months later to do freelance work for the Times. Illustration had been steadily losing ground to photography in fashion editorial, but over the next several years, Antonio, working with his art director, erst-while romantic partner, and fellow FIT alumnus Juan Ramos, Interior Design ’62, staked out new territory. Typical illustrations of the time featured staid white women in stiff, artificial poses; Antonio portrayed his subjects dancing, or riding motorcycles. He incorporated people of color, contemporary social issues, overt sexuality, and references to modern art. (One of the first series Baraz worked on with Antonio was an homage to paintings by the French artist Fernand Léger.)

Antonio’s signature style was a lack thereof. Apart from a certain luxuriousness of line, no one trait or motif identifies his work. He drew brilliantly in many media—charcoal, watercolor, pen-and-ink, collage—adapting each to the assignment. This protean ability, coached and styled by Ramos, proved ideal for the rapidly changing times. His advertisements for department stores; illustrations for campaigns by Missoni, Oscar de la Renta, and other designers; and his editorial work for French and American Vogue, GQ, Interview, and other magazines are as collectible (and, today, as expensive) as works of art.

Antonio sketches Pat Cleaveland.

Antonio sketches Pat Cleaveland.

This year, several events coincided, creating an Antonio “moment”: in September, Rizzoli published a coffee-table monograph, Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco, by Mauricio and Roger Padilha (see sidebar p.22). Suzanne Geiss organized a related solo exhibition in her Soho gallery, a hothouse for contemporary artists. A current show of fashion illustrations at the Brooklyn Public Library singles out Antonio for his influence—the curator calls him “the Picasso of illustration” because his style continuously evolved, as Picasso’s did.

His most important contribution, however, may be harder to define. Like Andy Warhol, he attracted a wide variety of people into a cohesive milieu. For about 25 years, the duration of his career, Antonio, and the people who were drawn to him, behaved as though life were a fashion editorial. As is evident in a recent book of Antonio’s snapshots, Instamatics (Twin Palms), this entourage never stopped posing. Their personal styles became trends, and the people they celebrated—Pat Cleveland, Jerry Hall, and Grace Jones, to name a few—became celebrities. They did more than observe fashion; they led it, made it, and embodied it.

Baraz posed for this image, for Fashion of the Times, 1966. For the series, illustrations were collaged onto photographs depicting contemporary social issues such as civil rights.

Baraz posed for this image, for Fashion of the Times, 1966. For the series, illustrations were collaged onto photographs depicting contemporary social issues such as civil rights.

Baraz grew up in Queens, a “very insecure, self-conscious girl,” she says. On her first day at FIT, she went to the snack bar, then in the basement of the Marvin Feldman Center. “There were booths, and a jukebox, and you could dance,” Baraz recalls. She was tucked shyly in a booth when a handsome, soft-spoken young man approached. “He came over to me and said, ‘Why do you wear your hair like that? Take your hair off your forehead; it’s a beautiful forehead.’ Then he said, ‘You wanna dance?’ He offered his hand, I took it, and I stepped into Antonio’s world.”

At another time, or in the eyes of a different illustrator, Baraz might not have been a beauty icon. Antonio’s girls, however, were not typical. “He thought the models of the time were interchangeable, banal,” she says. “Sexy, to him, was something a little askew: people without eyebrows, or with spaces between their teeth.”

It was immediately apparent that Antonio had a special ability. “It was always beautiful, exquisite work,” says Steven Stipelman, Illustration ’63,  assistant chair of the college’s Fashion Design- Art Department and an esteemed illustrator himself. “He was a year ahead of me at FIT. The teachers were making us draw more like what they drew in the ’50s. Antonio drew his period. He always pushed it to what was next. But he was great at the classic stuff, too—even simple charcoal drawings.” Baraz remembers fellow students stealing his rejected sketches out of the trash.

At FIT, Antonio also met Ramos. Aside from their Puerto Rican heritage and mutual attraction, they shared a love of street fashion and a dandyish devotion to personal style. (Later, Antonio adopted jeans and a T-shirt as his standard look.) Their artistic partnership was both profound and abiding. Antonio signed the work, but it was always collaborative. Initially, Ramos simply approved the finished drawings; as the partnership evolved, he provided styling and direction based on his extensive knowledge of art history. Devastatingly handsome, he could also serve as a model.

The painter Paul Caranicas, who met the duo in Paris in 1971, was Ramos’s lover until his death, from AIDS, in 1995. Caranicas says, “Antonio totally relied on Juan. He was like a parental figure. He’d look over Antonio’s shoulder and say, ‘No, no, no.’” Maureen Goss, who modeled for the pair, recently published a book about them, That Pair of Friends. She writes, “A slight lift of [Juan’s] lip would send Antonio ripping the page off his pad and hurling it in the garbage can. When Juan stood behind Antonio, looking over his shoulder like a sphinx  staring into other worlds, I knew Juan loved [the piece]. Antonio would not know this until Juan began talking about what colors he wanted to mix….” Caranicas says blocks of solid color, and any geo- metric backgrounds in the images, were painted by Ramos.

Female figure with large hat and Borzoi dog. Color

An Antonio sketch in FIT’s Special Collections.

Imagine Antonio’s studio above Carnegie Hall in the mid ’60s. It’s three o’clock in the morning, or whenever the muses start to sing. The entourage has just returned from dancing at a club. Covering the walls: Mayan calendars, Goya reproductions, drawings of animals, photos of Marilyn Monroe. Music plays—Diana Ross, maybe. Photographer Bill Cunningham is one of many people who might drop in from down the hall at any moment. The clothes Antonio is assigned to draw lie about, unworn. A model is engaged in a deep conversation with Antonio. “Tell me about your love life,” he says softly. Conversation commences; the pencil moves. Baraz says, “It was essential to be in love to create this work.”

Antonio was known for his surprising versatility. “That’s what he was all about,” Stipelmansays. “The drawings were styled the way a photo shoot for an ad campaign might be now.” Antonio and Ramos treated each assignment like a new collection, and devised a medium and style to match. Stipelman says, “ You’d think, ‘How is he gonna approach it this time?’” Some of their inventiveness got them in trouble. In a presentation at FIT in 1980, Antonio said, “We were famous for making  things up. The shoes didn’t exist, the accessories didn’t exist. They were just in my head. The Times was a very conservative paper….they didn’t like that,” he said. They got away with it, Ramos said, by turning in work late—too late, in other words, to be edited.

By the same token, Antonio sometimes “over-imagined” the garments. Baraz recalls an assignment drawing lingerie for a major department store. After the ad ran, a buyer called. “Customers were upset,” Baraz says. “They wanted what was in the drawing, and the actual lingerie was just some schmatte.”

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In 1969, Antonio and Ramos decamped to Paris in search of new creative horizons, and for six years, worked for the European magazines Depeche Mode and Paris Match, among others. They secured an assignment drawing for Karl Lagerfeld, then the designer for Chloé. Entranced, he set them up in his apartment on Rue Bonaparte, and made their entourage his. In her book The Beautiful Fall, which chronicles the intertwined careers of Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, Alicia Drake describes the impact of Antonio’s circle: “The Americans carried with them a whole new culture of fashion that was underpinned by the visual references of contemporary American art, Andy Warhol’s pop mentality, Hollywood movies, and the throbbing beat of soul and dance. Theirs was a new-world culture that was profoundly different from any Parisian notions of elegance set down by  Balenciaga or Dior. It was their approach that heralded the future: a careless merging of street, screen, art, irony, music, and the individual.”

A key element of that approach was a startling spontaneity. Once, when Antonio needed an unconventional model, he remembered a striking blond American woman he’d noticed in the Bois de Boulogne. He put up flyers in the streets near his studio, and the woman, a then-unknown Jessica Lange, who was in Paris to study mime, showed up, flyer in hand. Another time, Antonio was sketching at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, documenting the oeuvre of the American couturier Charles James. One dress was too slim for the model, so Antonio slipped away and returned with a lean Latino boy he’d found on the street; it was a perfect fit. Photographer Roxanne Lowit, Textile Design ’63, was part of Antonio’s circle. He gave her her first camera, an Instamatic, in the ’70s. Today, her stylish pictures of nightlife and celebrities for the likes of Vanity Fair and V Magazine capture spontaneous moments the way his illustrations once did.

She witnessed the Antonio effect on Paris first hand. “We would all get dressed—this was a very big deal—and go out to La Coupole for dinner at 10 o’clock at night. Everyone would stop eating to look. I can remember Antonio dancing on tables with [Yves Saint Laurent muse] Loulou de la Falaise at Club Sept.”

Back in New York, Antonio and Lowit g rew closer; he even lived with her while his place was  being renovated. She made him her daughter’s godfather, and has tender memories of the two playing together. “One New Year’s Eve, Vanessa wanted us to celebrate with her, but Antonio and I wanted to go out,” she says. “We turned the clocks ahead so Vanessa thought it was midnight, and we put on hats and blew noisemakers. Then, when she was asleep…..”

Lowit says Antonio’s immense charisma magnified his ability to interpret fashion. “Every- one wanted to be close to him,” she says, in her patient, soft-spoken way. “He was always at the center of things. He knew how to put people together. He would say, ‘You two are going to be like sisters,’ and you would. He introduced me to Anna Piaggi, who published my pictures in her magazine, Vanity [Piaggi, the storied Italian editor, died in August.] He introduced me to my husband, and [the late fashion model and muse] Tina Chow to her husband. He was interested in everybody—all the important people as well as the not-so-important people—the cook, the fireman, break dancers, models, teachers, celebrities. Everyone had something for him—their vibe, their energy.”

An editorial for 'Depeche Mode,' 1973, featuring Paul Caranicas and Juan Ramos '62, who painted the yellow background.

An editorial for ‘Depeche Mode,’ 1973, featuring Paul Caranicas and Juan Ramos ’62, who painted the yellow background.

The painter and illustrator Alvaro is an exuberant character bursting with infectious enthusiasm. He grew up in the ’70s besotted with Antonio’s work. “I was a kid from the South Bronx, a Puerto Rican  like him,” Alvaro says. “I would say, ‘One day, I’m going to meet Antonio, and I’m going to work with him.’”

Alvaro came to FIT to study Illustration in 1983, and that fall, Antonio gave a talk at the college. Alvaro took great pains with his own outfit, and attended the lecture flanked by his own entourage. When it was time for questions, Alvaro stood up and asked where the illustrator got his inspiration. “He said, ‘My mother,’” Alvaro recalls. Something about this innocuous exchange made an impression on Antonio, and soon the young man was interning, and modeling, for him.

Antonio and Ramos’s work had changed by the ’80s, Caranicas says. “They got older, more serious. Antonio was getting assignments from places like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. You can’t exactly do protest pictures for them,” he says. Antonio was obsessed with his own health and regularly consulted two separate hypnotists (one was also a psychotherapist) for bouts of creative block. The times had changed, too: in 1984, Antonio found out he had AIDS. With the diagnosis, he began to seek out shamans and healers in addition to his regular doctor.

To the awestruck Alvaro, however, being in Antonio’s studio was “like magic.” The ambitious intern answered phones, vetted models, and traced finished drawings to have as a record when the work was mailed out. He also modeled himself— not always as a man. “I posed as Patti LaBelle for a Playboy illustration,” he says. The sitting was arduous: “My mouth had to be open the whole time. But you always felt like you had to please him.” He also modeled as himself for a series about break dancers, and for Antonio’s version of The Thousand and One Nights, perhaps Antonio’s clearest foray into fine art. Through Antonio, Alvaro met Warhol, who pronounced Alvaro’s sketches “fab,” and the supermodel Iman, who remains a friend. “But my favorite memories,” he says, “were the personal ones—going with him to see Gremlins, or the Saturday conversations when he would call if he was down.”

Americans in Paris. Ramos and Antonio (both born in Puerto Rico_ as Latin dandies, taking the City of Light by storm, 1972.

Americans in Paris. Ramos and Antonio (both born in Puerto Rico_ as Latin dandies, taking the City of Light by storm, 1972.

Antonio died of AIDS in 1987, age 44, leaving behind questions about what he might have achieved. “He wasn’t able to figure out how to do what Warhol did, which was to make his work so valuable,” Lowit says. It’s a little mysterious why this virtuoso remains largely obscure today. Now that his entourage has disbanded, Lowit wonders, “Who will know who Antonio is?”

Fashion illustrators know, certainly. “You can’t say he was ‘the greatest,’” Stipelman says. “But he was an original. He experimented and brought the craft to other places.”

Individual works hold up beautifully. The illustration on the cover of this magazine, for example, still has power and grace. Its idiosyncrasy rewards sustained attention—note the surrealist touch of the paisley dripping out from the umbrella—and makes it hard to classify as commercial art, though this piece was created for Bloomingdale’s. Though she didn’t want Hue to name the figure, Suzanne Geiss divulged the price of a simple line drawing from the ’60s. Let’s just say it would put a sizable dent in a fashionista’s budget, but it was nowhere near the astronomical sums commanded by Warhol paintings.

But Antonio’s legacy can also be measured in the lives of the people he influenced. Alvaro’s illustrations (one recently appeared on the cover of Vibe magazine) certainly owe something to the master. Baraz, who took care of Antonio in her Santa Monica home at the end of his life, co-founded the nonprofit Focus on AIDS to honor his memory. The organization has raised millions. She co-chairs the prestigious Lucie Awards for fine art photography, and is a respected consultant in that field.

This is how they talk about him. Lowit: “Everyone he touched, he changed their lives for the better.” Alvaro: “I called him ‘Pop,’ and ‘Dad.’” Baraz: “I still talk to him sometimes. I’m always hearing him say things like, ‘You can do it.’ He was always pushing me to be something more.” All three wept as they recounted their Antonio stories.

Poster for the Italian Fashion Company Cassina, 1983.

Poster for the Italian Fashion Company Cassina, 1983.

The last person I interviewed for this story was Paul Caranicas. I met him at the Suzanne Geiss space, and we walked around looking at Antonio’s work. It looked fantastic hanging on gallery walls.

After a while, we sat down to talk in front of some TV monitors that were showing 8 mm movies Antonio and Ramos made in the early ’80s. I asked Caranicas to tell me about Ramos: What was he like? How did he behave? I wanted stories. Caranicas thought about it. He glanced at the screen. A very young Bill Cunningham appeared, waving. Ramos popped up into the frame, then disappeared. “He was like that,” Caranicas said. “He would appear, and then…..” He trailed off, thinking private thoughts.

I waited. Suddenly I realized I had been hankering after something like gossip, and this seemed incredibly rude. I had come to the Antonio party too late, and now I was clinging like a fan, hoping for dish.

Caranicas had some friends in the gallery, including Maureen Goss, author of That Pair of Friends. I started to write down their conversation, without attribution:

“Antonio wasn’t merely of his time. The work is contemporary, but there’s more than fashion to his art.”

“He was ahead of his time, combining art and fashion like that.”

“Now I think art and fashion are catching up.”

“His work for Vogue was commercial—”

“What’s commercial?”

“It means you make money.”

“Fine artists don’t make money?”

“In fine art, there’s an introspection.”

“Antonio was Andy’s favorite artist, because he captured the essence of the person. Warhol presents what the person presents; Antonio looks underneath.”

“Antonio is more old-fashioned than Andy.”

The group decided to go to lunch, and they invited me along. I put my notepad away. I saw that I had finished reporting, even though I didn’t have all the answers.

We took a cab to Morandi, a restaurant in the Village. Caranicas and his friends chatted happily. I was brooding about the dead end to my story, but my mood slowly improved. I was thinking that it wasn’t the ’60s anymore or even the ’80s; it was the fall of 2012, and it was pouring rain outside, and cold, and I wasn’t in Antonio’s world. That world, with its freedoms and spontaneity, was gone, and its leaders had died of AIDS. I was on the verge, though, being so near someone who had been a part of it. He was sitting beside me and we were sharing a spelt salad and pizza with artichoke. We sat through the long afternoon with his friends, and we ate every last bite, and everything tasted magnificent.”

 

Gianni Versace campaign image, 1982.

Gianni Versace campaign image, 1982.


Images courtesy of Paul Caranicas. All artwork and photography © The Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, except photos by Roxanne Lowit.

This piece originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of Hue’s online magazine, in conjunction with the Museo del Barrio exhibition.