First museum exhibition of multidisciplinary artist and designer Virgil Abloh’s work spans nearly two decades featuring fashion, painting, sculpture, music, and design

(Boston, MA—March 5, 2020) The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) presents Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” the first museum exhibition devoted to the work of the multidisciplinary artist and designer Virgil Abloh (b. 1980, Rockford, IL), opening July 4. The current artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, Abloh is known for his work in music, visual art, and the fields of design. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and set in an immersive space designed by Rem Koolhaas’s renowned architecture firm OMA*AMO, the exhibition will offer an in-depth look at defining highlights of Abloh’s career, including signature clothing collections from his stand-alone fashion brand Off-White™, video documentation of iconic fashion shows, distinctive furniture, graphic design work, and collaborative projects with other artists. The exhibition comprises nearly 70 works, including a new sculpture that will be on view for the first time in the Boston presentation. On view July 4 through October 18, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” is organized by Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator of the MCA Chicago. The exhibition is designed by Samir Bantal, Director of AMO, the research and design studio of OMA. The ICA’s presentation is coordinated by Ruth Erickson, Mannion Family Curator.

“We are so excited to welcome Virgil Abloh and his art, fashion, and explosive creativity to Boston. We are equally eager to welcome Abloh fans to the ICA and share the references, appropriations, and samplings from art, architecture, street and skatewear that Abloh deftly uses to redefine 21st century culture and design,” said Jill Medvedow, the ICA’s Ellen Matilda Poss Director.

“Abloh’s work brings a wide-ranging and innovative approach to creativity, celebrating the spirit of streetwear culture, while also appropriating and altering high culture to create something exciting and new. ‘Figures of Speech’ guides visitors through signature moments in the past twenty years of Abloh’s creative life, presenting a range of projects and collaborations that reflect his ability to channel far-reaching influences—from Caravaggio and Mies van der Rohe to skateboarding and 1980s graffiti—into his own unique approach,” said Ruth Erickson, the ICA’s Mannion Family Curator.

The exhibition offers an unprecedented survey of Abloh’s creative work over nearly two decades and pulls back the curtain on his process. Prototypes are presented alongside finished artworks, product designs, and fashion to reveal his myriad inspirations—from centuries-old painting to commonplace signage at construction sites. Running throughout the exhibition is an emphasis on dialogue, which Abloh creates through his inventive use of language and quotation marks, turning the objects he designs and the people who wear his clothing into “figures of speech.”

Exhibition highlights

Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” features five galleries that chronicle the different pillars of the artist’s work in fashion, music, art, furniture, and graphic design. Setting the tone for visitors as they enter the exhibition, the museum’s elevator shaft will feature “PSA” (2019), an 18-foot-long flag that reads, “QUESTION EVERYTHING”.

Early work
Abloh got his start in fashion with a t-shirt. In the early 2000s, his fledgling designs caught the attention of Kanye West’s creative team, and West was so impressed that he invited Abloh to join his inner circle. Over the next decade, Abloh witnessed experiments in fashion and concert merchandise design. He also completed an internship at the Italian fashion house Fendi and, in 2012, was ready to go out on his own. Abloh returned to graphic t-shirts, designing clothing with streetwear brand Hood by Air and later his own brand Pyrex Vision, which featured mass-produced sweatshirts and plaid shirts onto which he screenprinted “Pyrex,” (the glassware used in home drug labs) “23,” (Michael Jordan’s basketball number) and images of a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio. These references allude to stereotypical ways disadvantaged youth can overcome their hardships: by selling drugs or becoming a famous athlete. The video “A Team with No Sport” (2012) helped to promote the launch of Pyrex Vision and included members of the then-emerging rap collective A$AP Mob. Abloh’s early work was inspired by sports uniforms and hip-hop and skateboarder fashion, as well as provocative images and graphics found in contemporary art. It shows the first signs of his subversive interest in taking something basic—even boring—and injecting it with new meaning, and then sending it out into the world to be seen again in a fresh way.

Fashion
Abloh’s first fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, was based on a limited template of screen-printed store-bought shirts, shorts, and sweatshirts. A year later, in 2013, Abloh signaled the expanded scope of his ambition, launching the clothing brand Off-White™, establishing a studio in Milan—the fashion capital of the world—and showing his work at the prestigious design showcase Paris Fashion Week. The brand’s name hints at his critical eye toward social preoccupations with race, suggesting an ambiguous place that is neither black nor white. Nearly every Off-White™ collection investigates a theme, tackling class, race, history, and the established rules of fashion. His architecture background and interest in the urban fabric also come into play in patterns and graphics derived from roads, signage, buildings, and uniforms. This gallery presents a dynamic display of Abloh’s work in fashion, leading visitors from some of his earliest forays in fashion to highlights from Off-White™ and Louis Vuitton seasons. Bracketing this display is video documentation of select fashion shows, elements from his innovative scenography, and such signature objects as “FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY,” (2018) Abloh’s re-imagination of Louis Vuitton’s classic Keepall bag, and Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh™ for Beyoncé (2018), an Off-White™ dress Abloh designed for Beyoncé’s 2018 Vogue cover photo shoot, (though it was not published in the magazine) that combines a traditional flowing silhouette with Abloh’s signature black-and-white diagonal stripes.

Music
This section captures Abloh’s collaborations with stars such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and A$AP Rocky, among others, and his prodigious work as a DJ and in the music industry. As with his work in fashion, Abloh connects with subcultures and offers alternatives to the status quo in his work with music, performing wide-ranging DJ sets at venues and festivals around the world. Parallel to his work on Off-White™, he has constructed a comprehensive visual approach to branding his work, drawing not only on his skill in graphic design, but also on his experience working for West’s creative company. There, he oversaw the creation of concert merchandise, album packaging, and stage designs for West as well as other musicians in his orbit. The work “IN HIS IMAGE” (A TRIBUTE TO YEEZUS) (2019) is a large-scale version of Kanye West’s sixth album, Yeezus (2013), which features album art designed by Abloh. The new version pays homage to the Grammy-nominated album and the graphic clarity of its design. The packaging reveals Abloh’s modernist architectural sensibility: only the necessary elements are retained, reducing the packaging to a single red sticker that keeps the CD’s jewel box closed and displays the album’s name. Other works bring elements of Abloh’s performances into the gallery, including the 14-minute sound piece First Person (2019) that features spoken word sound-tracks Abloh often plays before his Off-White™ shows, and the text-based video In Other Words (2017) often projected behind Abloh during his concerts.

Black gaze
This section presents Abloh’s fashion and artworks that reflect on black cultural experiences in the United States. With the 2013 launch of Off-White™ in Milan, Abloh challenged the elite fashion industry’s long-standing exclusion of black talent. Abloh marketed Off-White™ prominently on social media, appealing to a younger, more diverse generation of consumers. Off-White™ campaigns have celebrated black artists, athletes, and musicians, providing a platform and affirming their identity as creators in their own right. In 2018, Abloh assumed the role of Men’s Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, becoming one of the few black designers to helm a major Parisian fashion house. He now uses his high-profile platform to forge a more inclusive vision for high fashion. Highlights include selected photographs from striking advertising campaigns as well as two recent sculptures by Abloh. “AS IMPOSSIBLE” (2019), a ladder sculpted from blue foam and too fragile to ascend, serves a symbol of Abloh’s improbable rise and the serious challenges faced by people of color in most industries, and “OPTIONS” (2019) points to the violence against black people through the arrangement of yellow markers like those used for marking evidence at a crime scene. Another work, a neon sign titled “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place” (2015/19), originally welcomed attendees to the Off-White™ Fall/Winter 2016 runway show, referencing a line from the film Pretty Woman (1990) where a woman is dismissed by a snobbish saleswoman at a high-end clothing store.

Design
For Abloh, design is as much about the process as it is about the final product, which he achieves by asking questions and prototyping. Picking apart established norms in art and design including materials and imagery, he upends expectations to call critical attention to our surroundings. The transparency inherent to his method nods to his training in architecture and his admiration for modernist German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose buildings make their structures and functions readily apparent. This section surveys Abloh’s expansive design practice, including forays into architecture, furniture, painting, sculpture, and shoes. A series of Abloh’s concrete benches and chairs titled Efflorescence (2019) anchor the gallery along with the towering sculpture Dorm Room (2019) built from prototype furniture with rugs Abloh created in a 2018–2019 collaboration with global housewares retailer IKEA. “AN ARRAY OF AIR” (2019) features unreleased shoes from Abloh’s collaborations with Nike in various stages of prototyping. Abloh’s designs for Nike used collaged elements, transparent materials, self-referential labels, tabs, and zip ties to emphasize the shoes’ construction, inviting people to take a second look at these iconic sneakers. These prototypes offer a behind-the-scenes view of Abloh’s design process, which involves working through many concepts and iterations of a project before reaching the final result.

Audio experience

A 30-minute audio experience, accessed via smartphone, is available for visitors to the exhibition. The audio experience features commentary from Virgil Abloh and a multidisciplinary cast of his collaborators, including Arthur Jafa, Amy Vermer, Tremaine Emory, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Virgil Abloh pop-up store: “Church & State”

A special Virgil Abloh pop-up store called “Church & State” accompanies the exhibition. Abloh and his team have completely reimagined the concept and design of the store for the ICA, transforming the museum’s John Hancock Founders Gallery on the fourth floor overlooking Boston Harbor. The pop-up store will feature a variety of products related to Virgil Abloh, many created exclusively for the ICA, including limited edition collaborations and a retrospective of best-selling Off-White™ items.

Exhibition catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated 512-page monograph. Produced in close collaboration with the artist, the catalogue uses Abloh’s signature “question everything” approach to explore his creativity in a three-books-in-one format. The museum section offers an overview of Abloh’s multidisciplinary work by exhibition curator Michael Darling, and features essays and interviews with key voices in art, fashion, design, and architecture, including Taiye Selasi, Lou Stoppard, Michael Rock, Samir Bantal, Rem Koolhaas, and Anja Aronowsky Cronberg. In the archives section, more than 1700 images culled from the artist’s personal files reveal the remarkable breadth of his influences and interests. Statements from peers in the creative community, including George Condo, Jenny Holzer, Michele Lamy, Heron Preston, and Anna Wintour, attest to Abloh’s rich collaborations and wide-ranging network. An illustrated index section cross references plate and archive images according to categories established by Abloh for his unique practice. Designed by OK-RM and Playlab, the volume is published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and DelMonico Books-Prestel. The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase at the ICA Store.

ICA Gala
Fri, Apr 17, 7 PM

Join us at the center of contemporary art, fashion, music, and performance for the ICA’s most anticipated event of the year. The ICA Gala 2020 will honor two exceptionally exciting and multidisciplinary artists of our time: Sterling Ruby and Virgil Abloh at an unforgettable evening of art and celebration at Big Night Live in Boston’s West End. The space will be transformed into a fashion-forward, industrial setting designed and produced by Tyger Productions. Cocktail hour begins at 7 PM, followed by a three-course dinner prepared by The Catered Affair. The evening features a program with introductions by artist Arthur Jafa and fashion critic and journalist Cathy Horyn, live music performances by artists serpentwithfeet and the Grammy-nominated group Tank and the Bangas, followed by dessert, dancing, and a DJ set by DJ Saucy Lady & U-Key. Proceeds from the Gala support the ICA’s commitment to youth arts education, while also funding the ICA’s broader mission, including exhibitions, performances, acquisitions, and programming that explore the intersection of art and civic life. For information about the Gala, including sponsorship and ticketing, please contact Deputy Director for Development Katie Mayshak at kmayshak@icaboston.org or 617-478-3198.

The Artist’s Voice: Sterling Ruby and Virgil Abloh
Sat, Apr 18, 2 PM

Sterling Ruby and Virgil Abloh, exhibiting artists at the ICA this season, have broken barriers and notions of how and where today’s contemporary artists can or should work. In this special program, Ruby and Abloh come together to discuss their work, backgrounds, and influential creative practices that transcend any one discipline, crossing into art, fashion, design, and more. Hear more about the artists’ highly anticipated exhibitions at the ICA in this public talk, moderated by Eva Respini, Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the ICA. 

About the ICA

Since its founding in 1936, the ICA has shared the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, imagination, and provocation that contemporary art offers with its audiences. A museum at the intersection of contemporary art and civic life, the ICA has advanced a bold vision for amplifying the artist’s voice and augmenting art’s role as educator, incubator, and convener for social engagement. Its innovative exhibitions, performances, and educational programs provide access to contemporary art, artists, and the creative process, inviting audiences of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the excitement of new art and ideas. Spanning two locations across Boston Harbor, the ICA offers year-round programming at its iconic building in Boston’s Seaport and seasonal programming (May-September) at the Watershed in an East Boston shipyard.

The ICA is located at 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA, 02210. The Watershed is located at 256 Marginal Street, East Boston, MA 02128. For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit our website at icaboston.org. Follow the ICA at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” is organized by Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator of the MCA Chicago. The exhibition is designed by Samir Bantal, Director of AMO, the research and design studio of OMA. The ICA’s presentation is coordinated by Ruth Erickson, Mannion Family Curator

The exhibition tour is made possible by Kenneth C. Griffin.

Major support for the Boston presentation of Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” is provided by Encore Boston Harbor.

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Support is provided by Northern Trust. 

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The Artist’s Voice: Sterling Ruby and Virgil Abloh is made possible, in part, by The Ronni Casty Lecture Fund and The Bridgitt and Bruce Evans Public Program Fund. Additional support is provided by

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