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Figures of Speech

Niela Orr

Virgil Abloh, the artist and fashion designer, died on 28 November of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He was 41. The news was unexpected, as Abloh had chosen to keep his diagnosis private.

An exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019 was called Figures of Speech. The show emphasised language, especially the lingo of advertising. As the catalogue text put it, Abloh’s work turns ‘the objects he designs and the people who wear his clothing into “figures of speech”’. Abloh’s signature artistic gesture across all his work – fashion, furniture, gallery art, bookmaking, concept cars – was the use of quotations to call attention to the material, linguistic and historical contexts of his products. He dipped things in drip, and basted them in irony. His influences included Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Bathing Ape, Marcel Duchamp, and Christo and Jeanne Claude.

One of his best jokes was to put the words ‘FOR WALKING’ in bold, all-caps lettering on a pair of women’s cowboy boots. He marked up Nike’s Air Force One trainers with Helvetica text and hovering quotations. The name of the original shoe, designed by Bruce Kilgore, was itself a play on the call sign of the US presidential plane, a symbol of American exceptionalism, military might and outsized economic force. Abloh peppered the word ‘AIR’ across the midsole; given how much they cost, I’m sure wearers were supposed to feel on cloud nine.

On Sunday, the NBA superstar LeBron James shared a photo of a pair of bright yellow Air Force Ones Abloh had personally marked. There was a ‘footnote’ referring to the shoe’s origins in Beaverton, Oregon in 1982 and a lot of the stitching is clearly visible, a reminder of the work that went into its making. On the inner midsole of the left shoe, Abloh wrote in black marker: ‘VIRGIL WAS HERE.’ That’s also the title of Abloh’s final Louis Vuitton show, in Miami on 30 November.

Abloh-isms, a collection of his sayings edited by the art collector and publisher Larry Warsh, was published earlier this year (Warsh also edited Basquiat’s notebooks, and books of aphorisms by Ai Weiwei, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol). In an interview with Rem Koolhaas in 2019, Abloh explained: ‘Once I started learning the safeguards of the art and the design worlds and what the prototypical artist or architect was, I learned that I needed to – in a way – be subversive, and to embed in my work the messages of what an African artist looks like, or what a black artist looks like.’

‘Being a black American in Paris fashion,’ Abloh once told the fashion journal Vestoj, ‘there’s no context for someone like me, no path to follow.’ He went on: ‘I like ready-mades, I make things out of other things. I like that it forces you to think about the context of an object, not just the object itself.’ He had a brand and more than six million Instagram followers; his likeness sometimes behaved like an object out there in the world. There was no trademark symbol behind his name, as there was for his fashion label Off-White, but there was an impression of one trailing him as he walked down a runway after a Louis Vuitton show and hands slapped at his back and shoulders. The touches were certainly gestures of support and praise, but the grasping hands also looked oddly like the urge to commodify made flesh. As Abloh told Flash Art, ‘an artwork for the art world is any idea attached to an invoice.’

He was happy to supply them: in 2015, he told i-D that his practice involved ‘trying to avoid a day job by having ideas … thirty ideas a day’. Like Basquiat or Jenny Holzer (a later collaborator), Abloh understood the power of a few words densely arranged. He explained a ‘general recipe’ for his work to Flash Art:

1 part desire a.k.a. a reason for existing

1 part provocation of convention – the unraveling of the accepted facts of the current time period by a new generation

1 part the notion that an everyday object is an art object regardless of the context

Stir with a whisk of minimalism that reduces the sum of all of these parts down to a clear and transparent final product that communicates the process of its creation to the viewer whether they are a tourist (a newcomer to art elitism) or purist (seasoned elitist).

Abloh was born in the Chicago suburbs of Rockford, Illinois to Ghanaian parents – a seamstress mother and a father who managed a paint company – and grew up inspired by DJing, graffiti, hip-hop, skateboarding and streetwear (before it became ‘streetwear’). He got degrees in civil engineering and architecture. He interned at Fendi with Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West), whom he’d met at a Chicago print shop, and became a major collaborator of his. In 2010, Ye named him the creative director of DONDA, his creative agency, and in 2013 Abloh founded Off-White. In 2018, he was made the artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, the first Black man to work in that role.

‘I feel like now is a tremendous time in culture,’ Abloh told the Guardian in 2019. ‘I feel like it’s the Renaissance. I feel like Bernini just sculpting away, defining a moment of enlightenment.’ Also like Bernini, he enjoyed the patronage of a fabulously wealthy man, not Pope Urban VIII but Bernard Arnault, the French owner of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and the third-richest person in the world. Abloh art-directed Ye and Jay-Z’s album Watch the Throne (2011), a project marked by the insistent, orgiastic, disorienting ‘Niggas in Paris’ and Riccardo Tisci’s ornate, gaudy gold cover. He also designed the cover of Westside Gunn’s Pray for Paris (2020), a reimagining of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, the David figure wearing platinum chains.

Abloh was often called a ‘disruptor’, though he wasn’t fond of the term himself. Was the presence of a Black American of Ghanaian descent at a European fashion house meant to upend the continent’s cultural dominance or to reinforce it? Louis Vuitton introduced a collection of handbags with ‘tribal mask’ clasps as recently as 2015, and, under Abloh’s tenure, a ‘Brazza wallet’, a nod to the French-Italian coloniser Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who helped to seize the Congo. Was Abloh a ‘subversive’ stain on a strained legacy – a graffiti tag on an old establishment – or simply a pop of colour? Probably both, maybe more or less one or the other depending on the day, or the rooms he entered.

‘I consider my practice a modern form of graffiti,’ Abloh told Flash Art. As well as Daryl ‘Cornbread’ McCray, the father of modern graffiti, who once broke into the Philadelphia Zoo and tagged ‘Cornbread Lives’ on an elephant in response to false rumours of his untimely demise, Abloh’s work shows the influence of the poet June Jordan, who was also an architect and worked with Buckminster Fuller to reimagine Harlem; Dapper Dan, the legendary Harlem haberdasher; Michel de Certeau’s ‘practice of everyday life’. There are also shades of signifyin’, the elaborate Black vernacular practice that Henry Louis Gates defined in The Signifying Monkey as ‘a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony (the master tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes and metalepsis’.

Despite all this sign-threading and signifyin’, words fail. ‘Words are often just another box to be put in,’ Abloh told Net-a-Porter. In 2013 he produced a flipbook for his first design company, Pyrex Vision. The word ‘pyrex’ appears a few times (nods to scientific research and black market chemistry), and so does the number 23 (a reference to Michael Jordan). But as the pages flash by, with a soothing ASMR thrum, the imagery is mostly a wordless, fleeting experience, gone before you can fully grasp it.