MCA Chicago’s ‘Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech’ is an Exhibition Experience Dedicated to the Fast Rise of the Artist/Designer

October 14, 2019

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.

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.”