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