Photo: Katrina Wittkamp.

inside virgil abloh's first museum exhibit

Now open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 'Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech' spans the designer's work from fashion to architecture.

by Sarah Moroz
11 June 2019, 3:25pm

Photo: Katrina Wittkamp.

A consummate multi-hyphenate, Virgil Abloh’s transversal practice spans music, graphic design, architecture, streetwear, and luxury. The first-ever museum survey of his work, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” is now open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Abloh rose through the ranks as part of Kanye West’s creative agency team, working on album covers and merchandising. The splash he made in 2013 launching his own Milan-based label, Off-White, eventually became a turning of the tide when he was appointed Men’s Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton in 2018.

As Samir Banta, who designed the scenography of the exhibition, noted in the exhibition catalogue: “young people do not come to a museum anymore to just look at a Van Gogh. You have to provide something else.” (Samples of "something else" provided at the Abloh expo? A Louis Vuitton kite, an unreleased wood-and-metal cabinet prototype for Ikea, Yeezus album studies.) Michael Darling, chief curator of the MCA, understands that the museum experience has changed. i-D spoke to him about addressing this new type of museum-goer, how to showcase cross-disciplinary work, and the power of the black gaze.

You approached Virgil in the summer of 2016. What prompted you to reach out?
I had been aware of his work in fashion, but I was intrigued by the fact that he was working in multiple disciplines at the same time. We met up and had an exciting conversation; we started developing a prospectus. When I first invited him, I didn't know we were going to do a big survey.

What clarified the scale?
Getting to know the extent of the work he’d been doing, and recognizing that it was pretty vast — it needed a lot of square footage in order to really do it justice. At first we thought half would be devoted to Off-White, as he started getting involved in other things, like ramping up his DJing activities and doing more fine art projects, we scaled back the Off-White story to be just one of many. Laying this foundation of music, design, architecture, and fine art was the thing we really wanted to get across. People might know of his work in one or two fields, but not four or five. That’s the story we really ultimately wanted to tell. It’s changed a lot from the very beginning because his work over the last three years has really expanded, exponentially, especially with some of these high-profile collaborations. We were defining what was going to be in the exhibition up until late last year.

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

What are the challenges pertaining to someone’s first museum exhibition?
When you do a first exhibition, you know there will be other exhibitions in the future, so you want to lay the groundwork for later. You can't do everything or take on every possible topic. I would love to see someone do a comprehensive, exhaustive look at Off-White, from start to finish, someday.

Given Virgil’s Chicago roots, does the locus influence the show?
I think it’s important for us, as a Chicago museum, and for him, as a Chicago-based artist, for it to happen here — for him to be recognized and celebrated by his hometown institution before anywhere else. Other than that, the exhibition doesn't have a strong Chicago-centric narrative and that’s because Virgil himself is not very regional anymore. There are regional aspects to his origin story — his demeanor and personality is very Midwestern, in a lot of ways. But the work is global because of his lifestyle and how he’s constantly looking at things all over the world. It would be hard to say there’s a Chicago aesthetic in his work, or even an American aesthetic, for that matter. In the catalogue we do talk about him coming up through Chicago and Illinois Institute of Technology and the connections with Kanye.

In the catalogue, Virgil talks with Rem Koolhas and Samir Banta of 0 MA and AM 0 about differences between “the tourist and the purist” — zigzagging between fields versus being deeply dedicated to one field. What is your take on that duality?
He can toggle back and forth. I think Virgil really sees himself as, on the one hand, a wide-eyed kid who's excited about new things, and is really an enthusiastic observer. He's open-minded, which you can see through the frequency of his collaborations and his wanting to bring other people into the process. But he’s a connoisseur and respects history and legacies and studies them to know who the masters were, who the innovators were in any given field.

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

It was funny that, in the catalogue, Virgil said that when he was young: “I was going into the luxury stores because to me they were like museums… The museum is one block away, ironically. But we would go to the luxury store, not the museum.”
We very consciously program exhibitions we think will cut across different audiences… rather than a really specialized contemporary art museum audience. When we had our Murakami exhibition two years ago, we knew that was going to cross over to a younger generation especially attentive to streetwear, anime, and manga. [“Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” was the highest-attended exhibition in the MCA’s 50-year history.] It’s a way to introduce that: the museum is for you, or can be for you. Virgil… will not only appeal to a contemporary art audience but architects, furniture designers, fashion designers, music people—it reaches out to all of those audiences. That’s part of our strategy: to make this museum a resource to different creatives besides the visual arts.

Some of Virgil’s work makes overt art references — like a sweatshirt with Caravaggio for Pyrex Vision or a bag with “Sculpture" written on it from Off-White’s "Nothing New” collection. Is there anything in the exhibition that talks about his direct engagement with art?
We didn't choose to break that out as a subset unto itself. That might be theme for another exhibition, really! One of his most recent collections had to do with Impressionism, and another was really inspired by Lucio Fontana. Art is a pretty constant reference in his work.

How does Virgil’s link to an iconic luxury house open up — or complicate — the certain subjects, like money or class?
For Virgil, one of the exciting things about the Louis Vuitton opportunity is the chance to have more of a global reach and a platform for his ideas about youth and streetwear culture—and the democratization of rebelliousness that comes from streetwear culture. Trying to bring that ethos into this luxury brand that has this global reach is super exciting. He is always mindful of people who can't shop at Louis Vuitton. He’s doing things that still speak to them and are available to them. Ikea, or even Nike, is a great example.

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

For our exhibition, we’re selling memorabilia that he's designing at an everyday price point, rather than an Off-White or Louis Vuitton price point. He’s talked about how he wanted Off-White to be priced at a certain level that’s high-fashion, so it becomes aspirational, not only for the people who are watching him but also for himself — setting the standards to the highest bar, rather than a middle rung. There’s something about that brashness and ambition that has to be attached to fashion, which also means the highest price points. It’s a delicate balance. In the exhibition, we’re actually presenting the Louis Vuitton collection in the context of other work Virgil is doing about race and inclusion and diversity. That’s a subversive and not always subtle message that he's baked into his work for Louis Vuitton, where he’s pushing against the general whiteness of high fashion — especially high French fashion. There’s definitely a political angle that he's bringing to that. It does get lost when it’s just reporting on the sales figures of his products. I’m trying to reorient people to get back to the messages that he's embedding in those products.

How is the show organized?
Thematically and by discipline. The first gallery will be looking at his early work, primarily in fashion, with Pyrex Vision and with Shayne Oliver at Hood by Air, and then there’s a section that’s just devoted to Off-White. There’s a whole gallery devoted to music, and a section devoted to design: product design, furniture design, architecture. There’s a section he's calling the "black gaze," in which he’s really talking about his role as a spokesperson, now, through all these brands he works with. He uses his own biography as a starting point, but also talks about inherent racism in the fashion world and culture at large.

What does the black gaze section encompass?
These really beautiful images of a young African child playing with Louis Vuitton bags and wearing sweaters. He's using this glamorous fashion advertising machine to put out a different kind of face. Not only because there’s a disconnect between a young child wearing these men’s clothes, but the race is in stark contrast to what we would typically see in those types of ads. There will be examples of clothes that he did for Serena Williams, for the 2018 US Open. There’s a dress that he made for Beyoncé; it was supposed to be in the September 2018 issue of Vogue that didn't make it into the magazine, so no one’s seen it before. There’s some fine art work, including a painting that he’s made of the cotton logo, which brings up this history of slave labor in America. There’s a neon sign he used for one of his fashion shows: “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place.” It really talks about Virgil’s biography and how he felt uneasy in this world of fashion and never saw people like himself depicted at the highest level. It talks about his discomfort with structural racism — it makes white audiences come to terms with it too. These themes have been in his work for a long time, but don't always get the same kind of attention that other aspects of his work do: the celebrity aspect and all that.

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

Will the celebrity aspect be discussed?
Not so much. There’s a snippet video that shows Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid walking down the runway from his “Track and Field” Off-White collection. That one is important because it connects him to Instagram and how it’s been important in popularizing fashion, and models are part of that generation. There’s a little bit in the music section about his work with Kanye and also with Jay Z, but as musicians.

Will anything be surprising to viewers, even those who have followed his career?
I think the impulse to make social commentary has been there from the beginning, but hasn't always been so legible — it will come out as something straightforward and consistent throughout the exhibition. And I think just the pleasure of being in the same room as some of these objects, some of which are brand new: that will be one of the surprises.

Will the show travel?
Yes. It’s going to the High Museum in Atlanta after us, then the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and then the Brooklyn Museum. There might be another North American venue, and we’re having conversations with people in other countries, to send it around the world.

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