Virgil Abloh "Figures of Speech" is a must see exhibition at the MCA

Virgil Abloh "Figures of Speech" is a must see exhibition at the MCA
Virgil Abloh. Photo: Carole Kuhrt Brewer

When it comes to art, are you a tourist or a purist?

A purist is a person who insists on following traditional rules. A tourist is open to change and new ideas. Virgil Abloh, whose groundbreaking exhibition opens today at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), sees himself as both a "tourist" or enthusiastic novice, and a "purist" or expert insider.

If you are only a purist, “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place,” as announced loud and clear on a neon sign in the exhibition--a quote from the film “Pretty Woman,” that Abloh used as a prop for a 2016 runway show for his clothing label Off-White.


The MCA exhibition offers an in-depth look at the defining highlights of Virgil's career with signature collections, video documentation of his most iconic shows, music highlights, and his distinctive collections of furniture, design, and graphic work.

Organized by MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling, Darling describes the exhibit saying  "An exhibition like this in a major contemporary art museum is the next milestone in the evolution of Virgil's practice. 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."


Abloh was born in 1980 outside of Chicago in Rockford by parents who emigrated from Ghana. His mother was a seamstress. His dad was a manager in a paint company. From an early age he showed an interest in music, fashion, and design but was also a typical kid who enjoyed skateboarding and other traditional activities. He attended Boylan Catholic High School, graduating in 1998 before leaving Rockford to pursue higher education first at University of Wisconsin (Madison) and from there obtaining a master's degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.


A flag attached to a 50-foot flagpole on the MCA plaza displays Abloh's advice to "Question Everything."

A flag attached to a 50-foot flagpole on the MCA plaza displays Abloh's advice to "Question Everything."

While still a student at IIT, Abloh teamed with Kanye West’s DONDA firm, where he worked on album covers, concert designs, and merchandising for over a decade.

In 2013, Virgil took the experience gained from working with West to his own stand-alone fashion brand Off-White™, which is designed in Milan, Italy, and presented at the seasonal shows of Paris fashion week alongside luminaries of the high fashion world.

Always in motion, Virgil moves between many worlds as the retrospective showcases: “Early Work,” “Fashion,” “Music,” “Intermezzo,” “Black Gaze,” “Design,” and “The End.” 


Virgil Abloh. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Virgil Abloh. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Abloh launched the brand Off-White in 2013, bringing a formula of texts, graphics, and logos to men's and women's clothing. The name was meant to suggest a post-racial reality, neither black nor white. Key motifs in the collections include the diagonal black-and-white stripes that have become the brand's signature, long nylon belts borrowed from the shipping industry, and caution stripes that symbolize that the wearer of the garment is part of the city.
This section includes highlights from Off-White's men and women's collections from 2014-2019. Some of the representative elements include Abloh's interest in word play in the titles of his collections, such as "Moving Still," "You Cut Me Off," and "Nothing New." 
Abloh also includes fine art references in his fashion designs, from incorporating a Caravaggio painting in his early Pyrex Vision line, to using a reproduction of a Surrealist painting by Giorgio de Chirico on a dress, to referencing the Italian modernist artist Lucio Fontana, known for slashing his canvases, with roughly cut patches affixed to overcoats and scraps of fabric attached to bags. 
Abloh's attraction to music has led him to professionally DJ at prestigious venues and festivals around the world, such as Lollapalooza and Coachella. 
Highlights from this section include a large-scale version of the album art for Kanye West's Grammy-nominated sixth album, Yeezus (2013). In another work, One-of-a-kind DJM and CDJ turntable, (2018) Abloh worked with audio company Pioneer to make a transparent version of the turntables he favors when deejaying.


Abloh compares his design activity to prototyping, constantly testing new ideas. The sculpture, Pink Panther: Scales of Justice (2019) represents one of these ideas using insulation foam to fashion a modern sculpture reminiscent of those by the artist Alexander Calder. Foam is a material regularly used in architecture and design offices when rehearsing new concepts, and for Abloh it also recalls the teenage practice of salvaging construction materials to make skateboard ramps and other structures.


This section explores Abloh's approach to fashion and art through the lens of black cultural experience. The launch of the Off-White brand appealed to a diverse new generation of consumers with collections that celebrate black artists, athletes, and musicians.

In 2018, Abloh assumed the position of artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, becoming one of the very few black designers to helm a major Parisian fashion house.

Highlights include Abloh's collaboration with filmmaker Arthur Jafa in the work Wakanda Never(2018). The text on the back of the jacket is a play on the black nationalist rallying cry "Wakanda forever" from the 2018 film Black Panther - with a twist that implies that a black utopia is an impossibility.

Also included are Abloh's designs for the Nike "Queen" Dress for tennis star Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open, and an Off-White dress for Beyoncé for her 2018 Vogue cover photo shoot.


Abloh's design practice - covering architecture, furniture, painting, sculpture, and shoe design - embraces many of the techniques used by modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: transparent materials, emphasis on function, and attention to detail. Abloh's focus on process and ideas allows him to question the use of images, structures, and materials in new ways, using techniques such as appropriation and wordplay.

IKEA rug. Photo: MCA

IKEA rug. Photo: MCA

Prototypes for rugs designed for IKEA in 2018 are also featured, which reflect his interest in wordplay and provoking viewers to question what they are seeing.

Abloh designed shoes. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Abloh designed shoes. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Nike asked Abloh to redesign ten of the company's most famous shoe styles. Abloh used collaged elements, transparent materials, self-referential labels, tabs, and zip-ties to emphasize the shoes' construction, inviting people to take a second look at these iconic sneakers. The display of shoes also features unreleased designs from subsequent Off-White × Nike collaborations in various stages of prototyping.


The final section presents recent works critiquing the influence of advertising, and how the phrase "The End" is only a figure of speech. In "Keep All," (2019) Abloh re-imagines several of Louis Vuitton's signature products, including the classic Keepall bag that was originally released in 1930. His new version adds heavy ceramic chain links, which have appeared across Abloh's clothing and accessory designs.

Look 11, Louis Vuitton Men’s Collection, Spring/Summer 2019 (“Dark Side of the Rainbow”). Photo: Louis Vuitton Malletier/Ludwig Bonnet.

Look 11, Louis Vuitton Men’s Collection, Spring/Summer 2019 (“Dark Side of the Rainbow”). Photo: Louis Vuitton Malletier/Ludwig Bonnet.

The chain refers back to Abloh's origins in streetwear while offering a sly commentary on the wearer's enslavement to branded luxury. A reproduction of a Newport cigarette billboard addresses the insidious power of advertising, offering unrealistic fantasies of the good life. "Newport ads are a Chicago thing I grew up with - black people looking happy and joyful, but they're living in circumstances that don't look like the adverts," said Abloh.


A special Virgil Abloh pop-up store which Abloh named "Church & State" features chromed stainless steel finishes on the shelving and retractable accordion doors, with industrial PVC plastic curtains for the fitting room, and colored plastic palettes serving as fixtures along with large graphics of photographs related to the exhibition taken by German fashion photographer Juergen Teller.
The store features a variety of products related to Virgil Abloh, many created exclusively for the MCA, at varying price points from affordable to the sky's the limit.


The MCA presents Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech" from June 10 to September 22, 2019. Timed admission tickets to view the exhibition are on sale online at These advance tickets are available for the regular admission price ($15). Admission for anyone 18 and under is free.

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