Installation view of “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” at MCA Chicago

 

THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART CHICAGO is presenting the first museum exhibition dedicated to Virgil Abloh. The fast-rising designer and inveterate collaborator is the head of menswear design at Louis Vuitton and founder of the “streetwear” label Off-White. A traveling survey spanning two decades, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” explores the products, partnerships, and creative processes of the artist, architect, and designer.

The exhibition opened on June 10 and last month MCA Chicago announced it was extending its run by one week, “due to popular demand.” Now the show will remain on view until Sept. 29, and then it will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

A spokesperson for MCA Chicago told Culture Type that 100,000 people had visited the Abloh exhibition during the first two and a half months of the show. By comparison, the museum reported its annual attendance was 317,000 in 2017, an institutional record, and 278,000 in 2018.

While the lines between art, fashion, and design, have long been blurred, the contemporary nexus across the disciplines is quickly becoming the norm. Abloh, 38, is among the most visible in a new generation of genre-bending creatives with global bonifides and social media influence. As museums try to figure out how to reflect their communities and attract new audiences, “Figures of Speech” is drawing a massive amount of visitors.

“An exhibition like this in a major contemporary art museum is the next milestone in the evolution of Virgil’s practice,” Michael Darling, chief curator at MCA Chicago, said in a statement. “This show examines the choices Virgil has made, the media he works with, and the context of his artistic inspiration. His projects have unfurled with intention, precision, critique, historical awareness, cultural sensitivity, and rigor, and when taken out of the buzzy, frothy context of luxury fashion, celebrity mannequins, and hip hop one-upmanship, a very measured vision emerges.”

“This show examines the choices Virgil has made, the media he works with, and the context of his artistic inspiration. His projects have unfurled with intention, precision, critique, historical awareness, cultural sensitivity, and rigor, and when taken out of the buzzy, frothy context of luxury fashion, celebrity mannequins, and hip hop one-upmanship, a very measured vision emerges.” — MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling

Named men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton in 2018, Abloh established Off-White in 2013. Off-White has collaborated with all manner of brands and companies such as Nike, Champion, Montcler, Timberland, Levi’s, Jimmy Choo, and the concept store Kish. Abloh has worked with a Swedish perfume house and a French restaurant. He’s also designed costumes for the New York City Ballet and released Air Force 1 collabs exclusively at the MoMA Design Store.

In 2018, Abloh paired up with Takashi Murakami presenting art exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery in London, Paris, and Los Angeles. (Murakami had his own solo show at MCA Chicago in 2017 and has previously collaborated with Kanye West and Louis Vuitton, before Abloh arrived.) Abloh also designs rugs and furniture for IKEA. Last month, the first Off-White home goods collection was released.

Organized by Darling, plans for the MCA Chicago exhibition were underway before most of that happened. Off-White was in its infancy. There was no deal with IKEA and Abloh had yet to be hired by Louis Vuitton, where he is the French luxury label’s first black artistic director.

 


Installation view of “Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” MCA Chicago, June 10–Sept. 22, 2019. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 


Installation view of “Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” MCA Chicago, June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 

EXPLORING ABLOH’S multidisciplinary practice, the exhibition showcases his work in fashion, music, art, graphic design, and furniture. Racks of clothes, rows of limited-edition sneakers, and images of advertising campaigns are on display.

Examples from his Off-White men’s and women’s collections (2014-2019) are presented, along with custom Off-White work such as his designs for the Nike “Queen” tutu-style dress made tennis champion Serena Williams wore at the 2018 U.S. Open and a black and white striped dress made for Beyoncé’s September 2018 Vogue cover. (The historic project was photographed by Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue. Ultimately, the Off-White dress was not selected.)

Highlights also include IKEA prototypes, a large-scale version of the album art and packaging he created for “Yeezus” (2013), Kanye West’s Grammy-nominated sixth album, and Louis Vuitton legacy products reimagined in ceramic with chain links, directly referencing consumers enslavement to fashion, luxury labels in particular.

Throughout the show, Abloh’s connections with artists via inspirations and collaborations is evident. A Caravaggio painting is reproduced on Pyrex Vision products, an early clothing line that pre-dates Off-White. Abloh’s has also used a painting by Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico on a dress and attached rough cuts of fabric to coats and bags, a nod to the Italian modernist Lucio Fontana known for slashing his canvases.

Jenny Holzer produced video projections of scrolling poetry about the circumstances endured by refugees. (The reference relates to Abloh’s use of materials from rescue and emergency professions in some of his designs.) Abloh also collaborated with artist/filmmaker Arthur Jafa on a “Wakanda Never” jacket that is included in the exhibition. The reinterpretation of the “Wakanda Forever” mantra from the film “Black Panther” casts doubt on the possibility of a black utopia.

An audio experience accompanies the exhibition, with commentary from Tremaine Emory and Acyde of the London-based collective No Vacancy Inn, fashion critic Amy Verner, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss curator and artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London. (In December, Obrist moderated a panel with Abloh and Jafa at Design Miami.)

 


Virgil Abloh and Arthur Jafa, Jacket for Arthur Jafa (front and back), 2018. | Courtesy of the artists

 


Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago. June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. Shown, At left, Off-White dress created for Beyoncé’s 2018 Vogue cover shoot (but ultimately not featured). | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 

“FIGURES OF SPEECH” bears the stamp of renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. The immersive, fourth-floor gallery space is designed by Samir Bantal, director of AMO, the research studio of Koolhaas’s architectural firm OMA.

Beyond the objects on view in the show, there is a dizzying array of programming and projects happening on and off site, including a few public art projects. A billboard in front of MCA Chicago features a photograph of Abloh lying on the floor of his studio buried under a pile of Off-White clothes. The image is by Juergen Teller.

Further afield, additional graphic images featuring photographs by Teller have been displayed on Chicago public transit in CTA trains cars on the Red Line. (A German photographer who lives and works in London, Teller shot Rihanna for December/January 2018 cover of Paris Vogue and the images blatantly appropriated the work of artist Mickalene Thomas.)

Monochromatic Louis Vuitton pop-up stores featuring selections from the men’s fall/winter 2019 collection opened in Chicago’s West Loop (orange) and in New York on the Lower East Side (green).

A pop-up shop within the museum curated by Abloh and his team accompanies the exhibition. (Earlier this year, Abloh was criticized online when he posted a photo of his all-white design team at Milan-based Off-White, which has since been removed. He responded with a statement about his commitment to diversity and providing a platform for other black designers.) Named “Church and State,” the retail operation features early Off-White products and during the run of the show has been introducing new items inspired by the exhibition and available exclusively at the museum. At the end of August, he dropped a capsule collection of Caravaggio-inspired handbags.

Designed in close collaboration with Abloh, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” was published to coincide with the exhibition. There are two versions of the catalog. A special edition comes in a slipcase.

Abloh issued a design challenge to Chicago youth. And following the opening gala, there was a late-night museum takeover that involved roller skating. An extensive programming schedule has included talks, tours, and musical events. A public conversation with Abloh scheduled for Aug. 24, was canceled.

 


Jan. 18, 2019: MCA Book Meeting, “PERSONAL COPY,” Louis Vuitton HQ, Paris, France. | Photo by Hanna García Fleer

 


Installation view of “Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” MCA Chicago, June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. Shown, Reimagined Louis Vuitton legacy products produced in ceramic and featuring chains. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 

ABLOH’S PARENTS came to the United States from Ghana. He was born and raised in Rockford, Ill., about two hours from Chicago. He earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and holds a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

When Abloh met Kanye West, the rapper and producer was fixated on design. Abloh came to prominence working with West, handling creative direction for everything from album covers to concert-related design and merchandising. Both Abloh and West, a Chicago native and fellow multi-hyphenate creative, were fashion fans who sought to disrupt and reinvent the European-dominated industry. They frequented the fashion shows in Paris, interned at Fendi, and made it their business to study the craft and business in anticipation of establishing their own brands.

Abloh is not the typical artist who gets a solo museum show. How did he become the subject of one at MCA Chicago? In an interview with Phillips auction house, Darling said the exhibition is in keeping with MCA Chicago’s early identity as a multidisciplinary institution, dating back to its founding in 1967.

Music and performance exhibitions such as “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” curated by Naomi Beckwith, and shows focused on John Cage and Merce Cunningham, set the stage. A David Bowie exhibition, Darling said, “really opened the museum up to new audiences, and to new creative fields like music, stage design, poetry and fashion design.”

Abloh’s practice is similarly multidisciplinary, bridging music, street culture, and media with fashion, art, and design. In addition to his many other talents, Abloh is a DJ. In the past year, he’s performed all over Europe, at Oasis Festival in Marrakech, Potato Head Beach Club in Bali, and closer to home in Chicago, Detroit, Brooklyn, and at Coachella in the California desert. He’s also done sets at Art Basel Miami Beach. This element of his resume made it into the exhibition, too.

Writing for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica calls the display “one of the show’s most convincing arrangements.” He continues: “On the left is Mr. Abloh’s D.J. setup—austerely beautiful wooden speakers (by Devon Turnbull), glimmering CD turntables (by Pioneer DJ)—presented as a shrine. And hanging on the wall to the right is a cease and desist letter from the United Nations chiding Mr. Abloh for using its logo on fliers for D.J. gigs.”

This multidisciplinary passion that defines Abloh’s life and work is what intrigued Darling. “I had come across Virgil’s work in magazines, and was quite interested that this trained architect was doing fashion, but was also a furniture designer, and lived in Chicago: it really started to check a lot of boxes I was looking for,” Darling told Phillips. “I invited him to come over to the museum, and I could see something really exciting happening if we joined forces. That conversation happened in summer 2016, so this was three years in the making.”

In the Phillips conversation, Darling said other museums were initially hesitant to get on board. “…They had a really hard time understanding what this would be, didn’t know exactly who he was,” he said.

Darling told the Chicago Tribune that when he approached Abloh, the designer initially thought he wanted him to DJ at the museum. Once he understood what the curator he had in mind, Abloh said he was ready.

“His second comment,” Darling recalled, “was that all of the work he had been doing up to that point was exactly in order to get the attention of a curator and to be featured in an art museum.”

 


Installation view of Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” MCA Chicago, June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. Shown, Art and packaging Virgil Alblh created for Kanye West’s “Yeezus” (2013) album.| Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 


Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago. June 10 – September 22, 2019. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 

ABLOAH MAINTAINS a hectic schedule, flying internationally multiple times a week. Earlier this month, he told Vogue magazine he was slowing down for a few months for health reasons, heeding the advice of his doctors. He is canceling a number of appearances, including the forthcoming Off-White ready-to-wear show in Paris (Sept. 26) and the opening of “Figures of Speech” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in November.

“For me, ‘Figures of Speech’ is an art exhibition rooted in advertising and ‘the projected image.’ Any time an idea takes shape on a particular surface—a photo print, a screen, a billboard, or canvas—it becomes real,” Abloh said in a statement.

“This exhibition demonstrates how I wrestle with this concept freed from any one medium, looking for personal and specific solutions. This twenty-year survey shows how I am constantly looking for a way to transform myself from consumer to producer, navigating a path between ‘Tourist’ and ‘Purist,’ between the literal and the figurative.”

After MCA Chicago, the exhibition is traveling to three additional venues:

  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta: Nov. 9, 2019-March 8, 2020
  • ICA Boston: July-September 2020
  • Brooklyn Museum, New York: Winter 2020 to Spring 2021

MCA Chicago currently has several shows on view, but Abloh is the only exhibiting artist who is featured on the main navigation of the museum’s website. Among primary menu items such as Visit, Exhibitions, Programs, and Collection, “Virgil Abloh” appears and is linked to a special site dedicated to his show.

“Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” isn’t an ordinary exhibition. It was clearly envisioned as an experience. It’s cross-promotional, brand forward, and directly reflects (or perhaps informs) the current retail and runway environment. It’s a nexus of art and design, commerce and consumption not ordinarily seen in the context of an art museum, the merits of which have been debated in many reviews.

Meanwhile, one of the public artworks that accompanies the exhibition is a flag by Abloh flying outside the museum. It implores visitors to “Question Everything.” CT

 

“Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” on view at MCA Chicago, June 10–Sept. 29, 2019

 

READ MORE Virgil Abloh in conversation with Arthur Jafa in the Autumn 2019 issue of i-D magazine

FIND MORE about Virgil Abloh from an “oral history” published by GQ Style in March 2019

 

BOOKSHELF
Designed in close collaboration with Abloh, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” was published to coincide with the exhibition. The uniquely bound catalog features essay and interview contributions by Darling, Bantal, Koolhaas, Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, and Taiye Selasi, a British-American writer and photographer of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, among others. Reflecting the breadth of his practice, more than 1,800 images culled from Abloh’s personal archives are also published in the volume, along with an index cross referencing the illustrated plates. A special edition of the publication is housed in a slipcase silkscreened with “Personal Copy” on the fore edge.

 


In this video featured in the exhibition, Virgil Abloh talks about his first “creative gesture,” shares his views of fine art, the power of advertising, and how he defines streetwear. | Video by MCA Chicago

 


Virgil Abloh in the IKEA Prototype Shop in Älmhult, 2017. | Photo courtesy of IKEA

 


Installation view of “Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” MCA Chicago. June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. Shown, Various Virgil Abloh for IKEA products. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 


Virgil Abloh for Nike. | Photo by Hanna García Fleer

 


Virgil Abloh and artist Takashi Murakami. | Photo by Hanna García Fleer

 


Virgil Abloh, at right, Autumn Winter 2019 Off-White Womenswear Runway Show. | Photo by Bogdan Plakov

 


Left and right, Autumn/Winter 2019 Off-White Womenswear Runway Show. | Photo by Bogdan Plakov

 


Virgil Abloh, at center, Autumn Winter 2019 Off-White Womenswear Runway Show. | Photo by Bogdan Plakov

 


From left, Looks 36 and 28, Louis Vuitton Men’s Collection, Spring/Summer 2019 (“Dark Side of the Rainbow”). | Photo by Louis Vuitton Malletier/Ludwig Bonnet

 


Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago. June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 


Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago. June 10-Sept. 22, 2019. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 


Virgil Abloh × MCA pop-up store, “Church & State,” MCA Chicago. | Photo by Peter McCullough, © MCA Chicago

 


Virgil Abloh × MCA pop-up store, “Church & State,” MCA Chicago. | Photo by Peter McCullough, © MCA Chicago

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an editorially independent solo project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for your support.