A reworking of 10 classic Nike sneakers with the addition of zip ties and text. Tinted, see-through PVC Louis Vuitton bags with decorative chains. Album art for Kanye West’s “Yeezus.” Collaborations with artists Jenny Holzer and Takashi Murakami.
These are some of the multifaceted creations of Chicago’s Virgil Abloh, an artistic and entrepreneurial whirlwind who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2018. Holding multiple posts and working across fashion, art, design and music, he blows up traditional norms and flips established hierarchies upside-down.
“What we do is make our own future,” Abloh said. “There is a internet now. There’s all sorts of new jobs — new realms of creativity that allow my generation to be successful.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is set to showcase the 38-year-old cross-disciplinary innovator and consummate collaborator in his first museum exhibition anywhere. It runs Monday through Sept. 22, then travels to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Brooklyn Museum in New York.
To celebrate the opening, the MCA was holding a gala fundraiser Saturday with an “urban ruins”-themed dinner in the museum’s reimagined concrete parking garage and a concert by English producer and vocalist Dev Hynes.
Michael Darling, MCA’s chief curator, became interested in Abloh’s work in 2016, and the two clicked during their first meeting. “We’re always looking for shows,” Darling said, “to complement our hard-core contemporary visual art exhibitions, things in architecture or furniture design or dance.”
He sees Abloh’s show as the third installment in a kind of exhibition trilogy that has included the museum’s 2014 David Bowie blockbuster and a 2017 retrospective devoted to choreographer Merce Cunningham.
“All three,” he said of the artists, “were blurring boundaries between genres of art-making and seeking out collaborators in all these different fields.”
A son of Ghanian immigrants, Abloh grew up in Rockford but spent frequent weekends in Chicago with his extended family. Skateboarding, hip-hop and Michael Jordan had an enormous impact on him growing up.
“He was our local player,” Abloh said of the basketball legend. “He was like Superman in a Ferrari Testarossa.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Abloh went on to earn his master of architecture degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
While still a grad student, he met Kanye West, who grew up in the Chicago area and still has ties to the city, and the two began working together, with the artist-designer ultimately serving as the rapper’s creative director.
“His body of work is obviously influential and, safe to say, generation-defining,” Abloh said. “Being able to work alongside him as he crafted his career gave me insight on me crafting my name as an artist in my own right.”
After interning at Fendi and experimenting with a clothes line called Pyrex Vision, he planted a more permanent flag in the fashion world in 2013 with his Milan-based company Off-White, which incorporates such signature elements as zip ties, quotation marks and barricade tape. It has played a major role in making streetwear a force in high fashion.
The MCA exhibition will illustrate how Abloh’s creative pursuits interrelate and highlight his unifying creative process.
“If I were to distill it down to one specific thing, it’s a way of making,” he said of his approach. “It’s a little about exploration. It’s not taking things as fact.”
Darling said he and other museum staffers learned the worst words to say to the artist-designer are: “This is how we usually do it.”
“He doesn’t want to go there,” Darling said. “He wants to go to the way that’s never been done before and the new solution. So that’s the part that has been really exciting about working with him — throwing out assumptions and conventions.”
The show is subtitled “Figures of Speech,” which has literal and figurative connotations. It refers to the artist-designer’s fascination with language. But he also sees the works in the show as kinds of “figures of speech” that speak for him.
The exhibition is divided into seven sections, which offer an overview of his fashion design, his work in and around music and what Darling called “fine art objects and interventions.” It also looks at the sociopolitical undercurrent that runs through much of what the artist-designer does.
“We think people have not paid as close attention to that as they have to the more glamorous aspects of what he is doing, so we’re trying to reorient people to this more social message that’s really present in the work,” Darling said.
Timed to coincide with the exhibition is the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center c/o Virgil Abloh, a temporary space at 673 N. Michigan Ave. that Abloh helped design. Open through July 28, it is meant to be a store and also a mentoring center for youth.
“It’s a cultural space and not just a commerce space,” Abloh said.
The MCA estimates that more than 200,000 people will attend “Figures of Speech.” Darling expects contemporary art enthusiasts to come, as well as creative professionals from realms like advertising and architecture who have been influenced by Abloh.
“Then, there is a whole legion of young fans of Virgil’s work between 13 and 25 who will really flock to this show,” he said. “They’re following all the shoes and fashion, hip-hop and skateboarding and all the intersections between those different” aspects of pop culture.
Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.