Abloh’s ability to command incredible fees for his streetwear designs, like when he sold an edition of 999 orange painted bricks for the Swiss design house Vitra for 140 euros each to giddy, champagne-sipping fans, has caused some critics to write Abloh off as more of a showman than a design savant. “For those who are unconvinced by him, his main talents are in orchestrating hype and self-promotion,” wrote The Guardian newspaper. Unapologetic detractors include art magazine Frieze, which called the Chicago show “a crass and corporate affair.”
But for Abloh, the beauty of a traveling exhibition dedicated to the range of his work is a chance to counter that notion that he is unfocused and creatively promiscuous. “Figures of Speech” crystallizes a narrative through-line for his multidisciplinary approach.
“A museum show allows me to unveil the hidden intention in a lot of different mediums of my work,” says Abloh.
Abloh’s trajectory has been unique in both the fashion world and the world of contemporary art where not too many black contemporary artists have had the luxury of a major mid-career retrospective at the age of 38. He has broken boundaries that aren’t always open to that kind of perspective.
“Snobbery and racism are a fact of human nature,” says Abloh, who grew up in Rockford, Illinois, the son of Ghanian immigrants. But the effort to make a change is worth it, he believes. “What I love most about art and fashion is the way they challenge human nature.”
In addition to most of the work exhibited at the Chicago show, Abloh created new pieces specifically for the Atlanta show. Works include striking, oversized photographs from a Louis Vuitton ad campaign shot by fashion photography sensations Inez & Vinoodh and a collection of Abloh’s designs for Nike, “An Array of Air.” The exhibition sums up how Abloh neatly blurs the lines between art, fashion, the media and art history in ways that recall other artists who use their work to comment upon pop culture and the world around them.
Michael Darling, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator and “Figures of Speech” originator, who worked on the show for three years, calls Abloh’s talent for reading the cultural zeitgeist, a “spidey sense.”
“He kind of knows where culture is at any given moment. He’s very much in the mold of an Andy Warhol or a Jeff Koons, playing with found ideas, found objects, found imagery,” says Darling.
In addition, Abloh is a brilliant businessman and social media maven, always thinking of how his work will be received by his audience, says Darling. That approach is evident in how Abloh shaped the advertising around “Figures of Speech.”
“As we were laying out the exhibition and installing it, he was very attentive to viewpoint,” says Darling. “And he was thinking about what this would look like on Instagram and what visitors would post.”
“Figures of Speech” is poised to do much of what it did at MCA: open up the museum experience to a younger, more diverse audience. The High’s chief curator Kevin Tucker sees Abloh’s multidisciplinary approach as a unique, timely part of his appeal for Atlanta audiences.
“Considering contemporary culture is driven by this incredible level of sensory input, his work captures a certain zeitgeist around how we deal with that relative to technology, commercial branding, identity and the larger question of what it means or can mean to be a designer in the present age.”
The same irreverent attitude Abloh brings to his design work has helped him explode the usual idea of who the art world serves. “Figures of Speech” attracted a younger, more diverse audience to the Chicago museum, and the results have been jaw dropping says Darling, who heard stories of 12- and 13-year-olds begging parents and grandparents to take them to the show.
“I was really inspired by those stories,” says Darling, who anticipates a similar frenzy among young audiences in Atlanta also heavily influenced by hip hop, graffiti and skateboarding, the influences that bookended Abloh’s own youth.
Younger audiences will undoubtedly also embrace the cheeky element of play and subversion in Abloh’s work, whether he’s adding a zip tie to Nike sneakers to make them look as if they’ve just been swiped from Macy’s or designing a tongue-in-cheek rug for his new Ikea home goods collection to look like a receipt from the Swedish mega retailer.
The perfect illustration of how Abloh tweaks existing designs to create something wholly new, says Darling, is Abloh’s redesign of the luxury travel brand Rimowa’s iconic suitcase with “See Through” in 2018.
“He took this form that’s very recognizable and has a certain status in the world, and he made it clear and transparent and automatically calls into question some of the role that a suitcase plays for people that need it to travel — especially concealing what’s inside and a certain amount of privacy — he sort of flipped that on its head.”
For Darling it represents “this idea of never taking anything for granted. That everything you put on the table is up for investigation and deconstruction. How can we do this differently? How can this be more interesting? No detail is too small.”
In addition to the nods to luxury, pop culture and fashion in “Figure of Speech,” there are pointed messages aimed at an audience of young men Abloh connects to, who represent where he once was.
His work “Options,” for instance, which features the kind of numbered evidence markers you’d find at a crime scene, are a statement on Chicago’s notorious gun violence and its impact on kids growing up with that weight hanging over them. “It represents a reality of many young black kids,” says Abloh.
Darling sees “Figures of Speech,” whether in Abloh’s hometown of Chicago or in the civil rights and hip hop capital of Atlanta, as a vital example for marginalized youth of what hard work, ingenuity and creativity can achieve.
“Virgil really sees this exhibition as an opportunity to put his life story out there so other young kids can see it and say, ‘Wait a minute, if he can do this maybe I can do this, too.’ He almost sees this as an instruction manual for how to take over Louis Vuitton and as a manual for young people coming up.”
'Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech.' Nov. 12-March 8. $14.50. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., N.E., Atlanta 404.733.4444, www.high.org