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The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago's New Exhibit Showcases 20 Years of Virgil Abloh's Work

"Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech'" explores the designer's work in fashion, music and more while shining a light on the "beating heart of inquiry" at the center of it all.
Virgil Abloh. Photo: Katrina Wittkamp/Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

Virgil Abloh. Photo: Katrina Wittkamp/Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

Though Chicago isn't exactly Virgil Abloh's hometown — he grew up some 90 miles northwest of it, in Rockford, Illinois — it's certainly his town this summer. The multidisciplinary artist and creative director designed the buzzy NikeLab Re-Creation Center, which is open on Michigan Avenue through July 28; and in the West Loop neighborhood, a bright-orange Louis Vuitton pop-up shop (guaranteed catnip to Instagrammers) will sell his Fall/Winter 2019 menswear collection until July 7. But the most expansive celebration of Abloh's work can be found in a new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which takes visitors through the past 20 years of his creative process.

"Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech'" was three years in the making. Chief Curator Michael Darling, known for celebrating artists who are making an impact in real time, organized the far-reaching exhibition. In a press preview held a few days before the exhibition's June 10 opening, Darling described the inspiration behind the title — and the very purposeful quotation marks therein.


"This exhibition is called 'Figures of Speech,' and with so many of Virgil's works and actions there's multiple meanings to it," Darling says. "In this case, we were thinking not only of how he puts quotation marks on lots of different words to kind of call attention to them, but also, so much of his fashion work involves signs, symbols, words. And so, people wearing his clothes as they're out in the world become figures of speech."

The exhibition starts with a Culture Wall, displayed in the fourth-floor lobby just outside its entrance. Splashed with images of that seem almost disparate, the wall "shows the markers of [Abloh's] own upbringing," Darling says. "There's images of Axl Rose in here but also Jay-Z. There's skateboarders and Mies Van der Rohe. There's McDonald's and the Marina Towers. There's also political and historical material here, like the Iraq war and 9/11. These things have shaped the world that Virgil entered into as a young adult and as he launched his career."

Beyond the wall, the first two galleries focus on Abloh's work in fashion. In a room themed "Early Work," a video shows his designs for the 2012 fashion experiment Pyrex Vision, which featured screen-printed designs on mass-produced T-shirts. In the "Fashion" gallery, carefully selected garments showcase the evolution of Milan-based Off-White, from its beginnings in hoodies and sweatshirts to its current iteration as a brand that sends complicated gowns and expertly tailored, gender-bending garments down the runway in Paris.

Inside "Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech.'" Photo: Nathan Keay/Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

Inside "Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech.'" Photo: Nathan Keay/Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

But fashion is only a part of the retrospective for Abloh, who's studied engineering and architecture, deejayed Coachella and Lollapalooza, served as Kanye West's creative director and collaborated with brands ranging from Ikea to Rimowa. (If that wasn't enough, he also paints and sculpts.)

The "Music" gallery displays a large-scale sculpture of the album art Abloh created with West for his 2013 album "Yeezus"; there's also a transparent turntable he designed with Pioneer.

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A gallery called "Black Gaze" shifts into weightier subject matter and is what Darling refers to as "the meaty part of the exhibition in many ways." On one end of the gallery, there's a neon sign that spells out a line from the film "Pretty Woman": "You're obviously in the wrong place." There are also framed images from Abloh's past fashion campaigns and a new painting that features the Cotton logo with its colors inverted.

Inside "Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech.'" Photo: Nathan Keay/Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

Inside "Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech.'" Photo: Nathan Keay/Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

"The Black Gaze," Darling explains, marks an effort "to really show how there's a political undercurrent to so much of what Virgil's done, since the very beginning. [This allows us to] see it through an autobiographical lens: him being amazed at this almost impossible journey from a black kid growing up in suburban Illinois to taking over one of the major fashion houses in Europe." (In 2018, Abloh became the artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton.)

The "Design" gallery displays furniture, paintings, transparent luggage and prototypes for Ikea rugs and Nike shoe styles. The space highlights Abloh's design philosophy, which Darling describes as: "A real effort to pick objects apart, show us their constituent structure and make things transparent." (Indeed, the luggage he designed for Rimowa is completely see-through.) The incorporation of prototypes hints at a deeper theme, too. "There's a sense of an unfinished project that runs throughout the exhibition, which of course can only lead to more work and more ideas as this exhibition comes and goes and Virgil moves onto his next phase," Darling notes.

The sense of something to-be-continued is echoed in the final gallery, dubbed "The End." According to Darling, "it is in quotes, which makes us think that this is not really the end, and of course it's not for a 38-year-old artist. There's lots ahead of him."

Clearly. But first, the curator hopes that the exhibition challenges expectations of what does lie ahead for Abloh's work, as well as show off his past contributions to so many genres in a more intellectual light.

"It really tries to reorient Virgil's work; it tries to call attention to the seriousness that's always been there," Darling says. "Even when we all get distracted by all the glamour and the hype around [it], there's this beating heart of real inquiry in the work that I'm really hoping people will notice."

The show runs through September 22, 2019, in conjunction with a pop-up shop open just outside of it. Called Church & State, the shop stocks best-selling Off-White items, along with limited-edition products created specifically for the museum. Find ticket info here

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