Meeting Andy Warhol by accident, during a winter rainstorm in 1977, launched the careers of the New York–based artist couple, Ruben and Isabel Toledo. The couple fled the storm and ran into Fiorucci, a scene-y clothing store on 59th Street that was known as the “Daytime Studio 54” of the ’70s: a place where artists, performers, writers, designers, and filmmakers met and shared their art. They started talking to a drag artist named Joey Arias, who took a portfolio of Ruben’s artwork and handed it to Warhol who was mingling near them in the store, wearing his signature white wig and black leather biker jacket.
After their unexpected encounter with Warhol, the couple met artists like Keith Haring, Klaus Nomi, Halston, and Basquiat, and both started creating work that became more widely recognized and mainstream. Isabel is a fashion designer who has dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, and Ruben’s paintings and illustrations often depict women in fashionable clothes. Both Cuban immigrants, the pair married in 1984 and is now considered a power couple in the design world. “What matters is to have free expression always — which we picked up from Andy immediately,” recalls Ruben.
For their latest project, the artistic duo created clothing, sculptures, paintings, and illustrations for a new exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Titled “A Labor of Love,” the show highlights the synergy between fashion and art: Isabel designed clothing that accompanies permanent artwork already on display in the museum’s galleries, and Ruben painted and illustrated accompanying imagery to works like Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals.
One particularly striking piece is called Synthetic Cloud: In the museum’s contemporary gallery, sky-blue dresses with tulle skirts hang above the hard edges of a sculpture by Donald Judd, and a geometric painting by Frank Stella. To create the dresses, Isabel sewed rectangles of the same fabric together in a multitude of colors — orange, hot-pink, neon-green, and lavender — aiming to reflect the repetition of shapes and patterns in modern art, like Yayoi Kusama’s repeated polka-dots. The effect is like “a soft, poetic mist floating above you,” says Ruben. “They become like flowers floating up in the sky.”
“Ruben & Isabel Toledo: Labor of Love” will be on view at the Detroit Institute of Art through July 7, 2019.