Virgil Abloh sat on stage Tuesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art, slipped the thick hardcover catalog for his just-opened “Figures of Speech” exhibition to the floor beside him, and stood it up on end. “That’s what artists’ books are — kind of a tombstone,” he laughed. “Like, ‘Virgil is dead.’”
The crowd — yes, in this emerging, late-pandemic world, a real crowd! — laughed. So did the curators sharing the stage with Abloh: Ruth Erickson and Michael Darling (from the ICA and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, respectively). Because it was funny. And because it was true.
At the hurry-up intersection of social media and high fashion — Abloh’s natural habitat — museums, with a priority of making space for contemplation, would seem to him like interment. Was the joke just for show? Maybe. In the catalog, Darling, who proposed the exhibition for the MCA back in 2016, writes that Abloh saw a museum survey as the apex of his cultural ambitions. But there’s no denying the dissonance. Museum shows sit static for months, creating codas for art careers that typically unfold in slow motion; Abloh barely sits still for a minute.
His ascent from do-it-yourself-streetwear to design director for the menswear line of Louis Vuitton, one of the most storied labels in fashion, spans barely a decade. This show opened in Chicago in 2019, pre-pandemic. In the intervening years, Abloh, who designs six collections a year for both Vuitton and his own Off-White label, has literally made tens of thousands of things.
At 40, he seems compulsively consumed with what’s happening this very second more than anything from last week, never mind years before. His Instagram, with more than 6 million followers, is peppered with constant updates. (A warm-off-the-internet video here, “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light,” was a savvy inclusion by Erickson, exclusive to the ICA presentation. Just a few months old and with 1.6 million YouTube views, it’s destined to be eclipsed by another Abloh film, posted last week, already with nearly a million views of its own.)
So what can these few rooms provide that Abloh’s Instagram and YouTube channel don’t? For one thing, how about coherence? A famous polymath, Abloh trained first as an engineer (at the urging of his practical-minded parents, who came to a Chicago suburb from Ghana a few years before he was born). But Abloh chafed at the field’s bland pragmatism. Architecture promised a sideways shift into a more creative field. So Abloh got his master’s at the Illinois Institute of Technology (not coincidentally, the very school Mies van der Rohe transformed into the heart of the American Bauhaus after fleeing the Nazis, but more on that in a minute).
Abloh didn’t linger long in either field. At the ICA, he described himself as impatient to make an impact. He saw fashion as the “express lane” to achieving the kind of notoriety that would make his aesthetic ideas and priorities most widespread. But his educational background informs almost everything he does. For all his restlessness — “I’m sort of allergic to disciplines,” he said — Abloh is a canny maker, interested as much in the guts of things as their sleek surfaces.
The show is organized, a little surprisingly, in the very conventional mode of chapters. “Design,” where Abloh shows a wall of his work for Nike, is sprinkled with shoes deconstructed from the outside in. Nearby, a cluster of projects for Ikea are piled in a heap, like cast-offs. One’s a clear knock-off of Pierre Jeanneret’s rare and coveted Chandigarh chair, an icon of democratic design turned fetish object. Abloh’s is composed, cheekily, of rough chipboard. The Swedish purveyor of good-design-made-cheap backed off putting it into production for fear of legal action.
The appropriation seems a tad ironic for Abloh, whose Off-White lawyers have filed more than 1,500 lawsuits for intellectual property theft in recent years. But this is Abloh playing the game. Armed with both a design background and an Internet-savvy mind, Abloh speaks the vocabulary of subversion from both sides — a Warholian conceptualist with consumer critique at heart, and a genius marketer with no squeamishness about conspicuous consumption. Vuitton, frequently chided in Abloh’s designs for its history of louche exclusivity, lets him do whatever he wants, which is the best choice they could make.
You can see his work as politically charged. His first streetwear line, 2012′s “Pyrex 23,” combined the name of household glassware favored in home drug labs with the number of Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan to critically highlight paths out of poverty stereotypically assigned to Black Americans.
But Abloh’s work has much grander and more complex subversions. In the “Early Work” chapter, where you’ll find a promotional video for “Pyrex 23,” I was far more struck by the inky-black monochrome painting hanging nearby, above a logo for the JCDecaux billboard company. The painting references Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square,” from 1915, bowed down to as the first abstract painting, a harbinger of international Modernism. The logo makes Abloh’s point: Everything’s for sale.
There’s an abiding cynicism to Abloh’s work that only a student of design could make, with ideas that get to the underpinnings of Western culture — unquestioned for decades. Let’s remember that his alma mater was made famous by Mies van der Rohe, who, along with Le Corbusier, both proposed and popularized Modernism as a transformative social force. (Le Corbusier’s famous notion of apartment buildings as “machines for living,” earnestly coined in a quest to democratize housing, helped beget the public housing projects now widely seen as failed and dehumanizing in cities all over the world.)
“Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light,” the film snagged for the ICA show, is a virtuoso take on Modernism’s false promise and a paean to the richness of difference. In the video, sleek figures parade through a bright space lined with green marble, a favorite Miesian motif. Above, a grid of light bleaches the scene in repressive sameness.
The film reminded me of “Playtime” (1967), Jacques Tati’s absurdist anti-Modern film, in which a bumbling protagonist navigates the hard surfaces, sharp corners, and cold indifference of a Miesian world (required viewing for architecture nerds). But Tati’s movie is funny and tragic, where “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light” is neither. Extravagantly-clad young men swan about the space, clustering, finally, at its core. One lurches into the space through a breach in the wall, revealed to be not marble but faux-façade blocks. (The film was made as a remedy to the pandemic ban on fashion shows. It is, fundamentally, an ad for Abloh’s 2021 Fall/Winter Louis Vuitton collection.)
Not clear enough for you? Abloh is calling out Modernism’s false claims of purity for the hollow charade it was. The odd man out lunges and sways in a Bill T. Jones-esque dance performance, while free jazz plays. The box is broken, the scaffolding revealed, and the men stand and flow out of the space in an unchoreographed river of humanity. Their exit is punctuated by an urgent rap by slam poet Saul Williams, rejecting prescriptive structure once and for all. My only complaint was that the screening was out on the gallery floor, not in a big dark room with comfy chairs for watching again and again. It is, in my mind, the show’s finest moment.
I don’t know if you can look at works like “Frontin,’” 2020, a clean-lined and perfectly proportioned skateboard half-pipe, as anything but a retort to the social engineering that architecture enforced through much of Modernism’s rule: A community generated the half-pipe structure, instead of a structure trying to generate a community. Draped behind it, “False Facade,” made for a 2017 Off-White show, screens on a vinyl tarp the image of a neo-classical façade, complete with fluted columns and cherubs. The tarp gathers at both ends and rumples in heaps on the floor. To me, it disputes European aesthetic lineage as absolute, whether in fashion or architecture, and serves as a parable for Abloh’s necessarily complex world view.
In a chapter called “The Black Gaze,” Abloh’s primary concern is right on the surface. Remember Malevich’s “Black Square”? Here it is again, this time emblazoned with the logo for Cotton Incorporated, a trade organization established in the 1970s in the face of a rising synthetic fabric market. The implication is right there, cotton being the crop historically harvested in America by enslaved people. Abloh takes Malevich’s suggestion of formal purity and applies a taint appropriate to his industry and his country.
From his earliest days of “Pyrex 23” through to Off-White — a name that speaks for itself — Abloh’s fashion career is marked by unsubtle activism around the industry’s prejudice against Black designers holding positions of power. Abloh was sensitized to it firsthand as the right-hand man of Kanye West, for whom he started working as a graphic designer (remember: allergic to disciplines) and ascended to be his top lieutenant over their shared passions for art and fashion.
Abloh watched as West’s ambitions were shrugged off or rebuffed until the market affirmed what the elite would not: that West’s creative power was a commodity force to be reckoned with. Secure in his own position, Abloh has repeatedly used his own power to amplify the field’s casual discrimination, saying the quiet part out loud.
“YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY IN THE WRONG PLACE” reads the neon sign on the wall, looming over monochromatic castings of male models of color wearing Abloh’s collections. It’s a quote from “Pretty Woman,” the 1990 Julia Roberts vehicle, from a scene where she’s snubbed by a high-end boutique clerk. In this context, you can guess what Abloh means. Which would be provocative enough in a museum, but it’s already been seen — and by millions — when he installed it at the entrance to his 2016 Fall/Winter collection show for Off-White.
It begs the question: Here in a museum, with a relatively tiny audience and standing stock-still while the world spins faster every day, is Abloh in the right place? Take a breath. Push pause. The answer is obviously yes.
VIRGIL ABLOH: FIGURES OF SPEECH
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, July 3-Sept. 26. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
UPDATE (July 2, 2021): This review has been updated with an accurate description of Cotton Incorporated.