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Virgil Abloh: A Streetwear Trailblazer Remixing Ideas from Art History’s Great Disruptors

As a black creative making history in the luxury fashion world, Virgil Abloh references innovators like Duchamp and Caravaggio in his streetwear designs.

By Katie Domurat, Coordinator of Museum Interpretation, High Museum of Art

In the exhibition Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech, there are numerous references to designer Virgil Abloh’s interest in art history and creative innovation. Sometimes he faithfully recreates a well known image in a new medium, or he simply refers to designs past when he uses similar shapes or forms. Some references are more blatant than others, which turns the exhibition into a scavenger hunt of innuendo, subtle admiration, and art historical commentary.

Let’s go through and analyze some of our favorite homages found in the exhibition.

MARCEL DUCHAMP’s FOUNTAIN

As you enter the exhibition, one of the first pieces you encounter is a portrait of Virgil Abloh taken by German photographer Juergen Teller. If you look closely at Abloh’s sweatshirt, you will see the text “R.Mutt” on his chest. This is an homage to French artist Marcel Duchamp and his ready-made Fountain from 1917 that he famously signed “R.Mutt.”

Duchamp created the concept of ready-mades, or mass-produced, commonplace objects selected and presented as artworks. At the time (the beginning of the twentieth century), this was a tough concept for the conventional art world to swallow. It brought up complex questions about how we define art and what it means to be an artist or an author of creative work. As an innovator in the fashion world, Abloh knowingly references this work and its history.

Photograph of Virgil Abloh by Juergen Teller.
Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made artwork of a urinal with the signature R. Mutt.
Juergen Teller (German, born 1964), What Is Virgil Abloh? №7, 2017, photograph and lightbox, courtesy of Juergen Teller; Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968), Fountain, 1917, ceramic, glaze, and paint, courtesy of artsy.com.

CARAVAGGIO’s THE ENTOMBMENT OF CHRIST

Caravaggio’s painting The Entombment of Christ can be seen on silkscreens and clothing in the exhibition. When Abloh was in college, he came to admire Caravaggio as a highly influential and daring artist. Caravaggio’s story convinced Abloh that one artist’s innovations can alter the course of history, so he included the painter’s work in his clothing line to inspire others. Abloh has also screen printed other influential Italian paintings on his designs, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Giorgio de Chirico’s Piazza d’Italia.

A black T-shirt and a yellow hoodie designed by Virgil Abloh with an image of a Caravaggio painting.
Caravaggio’s painting titled “The Entombment of Christ.”
Virgil Abloh (American, born 1980), Pyrex Vision Clothing, 2012–2013, printed cotton, private collection; Caravaggio (Italian, 1571­–1610), The Entombment of Christ, ca. 1602–1603, oil on canvas, courtesy of the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

BAROQUE ARCHITECTURE

Abloh collaborated with Jay-Z and Kayne West on designing the cover of their 2011 album, Watch the Throne. The design is a digital update of a decorative pattern used in Baroque architecture, an opulent and ornate style used in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The style developed as a reaction against the Protestant push for a simple, severe aesthetic.

The printing plate seen in the exhibition was used to make the original embossed packaging. In comparing this work to great pieces of Baroque architecture like the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, you’ll notice many striking similarities.

Brass printing plate for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s album “What the Throne.”
The glimmering, golden, highly decorated Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.
Kanye West (American, born 1977), Riccardo Tisci (Italian, born 1974), Shawn Carter (American, born 1969), Virgil Abloh (American, born 1980), Watch the Throne album press plate, 2011, brass plate in acrylic case, courtesy of the Virgil Abloh Archive; Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France, courtesy of Versailles Palace.

MIES VAN DER ROHE’s BARCELONA COUCH

In November 2019, Abloh released a collaborative line with IKEA. As a trained architect, Abloh was inspired by the modernist design aesthetic of such architects as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Like Mies van der Rohe, many of Abloh’s furniture designs embody the key principle of transparency. Abloh’s MARKERAD Daybed (seen in the installation work Dorm Room) greatly harks back to the Mies van der Rohe classic Barcelona Couch.

Virgil Abloh’s Ikea daybed inspired by the famous Barcelona couch.
Mies van der Rohe’s modern Barcelona couch in white leather.
MARKERAD Daybed, 2019, Virgil Abloh (American, born 1980), designer; IKEA, Swedish, established 1943, manufacturer; courtesy of IKEA; Barcelona Couch, 1930, Mies van der Rohe (American, born Germany, 1886–1969), designer; Knoll, American, established 1938, manufacturer; courtesy of Knoll.

And there are many more! What other references can you find while you explore Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”?

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