Figures of Speech exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum
Left: Joshua White – JWPictures.com; Right: © Gymnastics Art Institute
Left: Takashi Murakami and Virgil Abloh, Time: Flames, 2018. Acrylic on canvas mounted on cardboard. Courtesy of Takashi Murakami and Gagosian. © Virgil Abloh Securities/Shannon Abloh and © Takashi Murakami. Right: Virgil Abloh, 2020 is also an architectural problem, 2020–21. Silkscreen on T-shirt. Courtesy of Gymnastics Art Institute and Virgil Abloh Securities.
The centerpiece of “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” a traveling survey of the late designer’s work which has just arrived at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, is social sculpture, a seemingly simple wooden house built around the existing columns of the museum. But closer examination reveals rough, misaligned edges, boarded-up windows, and a jumbled patchwork of wood tones; indeed, this work has its origins in a quote by artist David Hammons on “the architecture of negritude”, that is, “the way black people make things”.
“Nothing fits, but everything works,” Hammons once said. “But he doesn’t have that neatness, the way white people put things together; everything is 1/32nd of an inch.
Almost three years ago – long before Abloh, the prolific fashion designer and industrialist known for breaking barriers as LVMH’s first black creative director, died suddenly last year at the age of 41. years – he dropped this quote in a WhatsApp conversation with exhibition curator Antwaun Sargent; it was soon to be followed by a set of building plans. What Abloh envisioned was “a museum within a museum, where young creatives show up and exchange ideas,” Sargent recalls.
Now, for the duration of the exhibition, which is on view until January 29, Social carving provides space for multidisciplinary programming led by black creatives – photography and sneaker design workshops for children and teens; DJ sets and hours of listening; and much more. In its very unconventional character as well as its focus on today’s youth, Social carving is a living testament to late multi-talented talent.
Professionally trained in architecture, Abloh was also known for his receptivity, both to the creative dialogue of each member of his team and to the young people who contacted him on social media in search of words of encouragement. “He used to always say, ‘I draw for myself at 17,'” Sargent recalled. “I think he meant the spaces are not designed with black kids in mind. He decided he was going to modify these spaces just enough to allow everyone to enter.
Abloh’s career has been defined by his small alterations to the existing world, often laden with irony – seeing his Ikea rug stamped with the words WET GRASS – and references to black culture. A collaboration with Braun hanging near the living room entrance, for example, reimagines a 1965 wall-mounted hi-fi audio unit in chrome as a tribute to “slab car” culture.
Abloh’s trademark 3% rule—that a new design could be created by altering an original by only 3%—was often polarizing; his fashion brand Pyrex was skewered for printing his logo on mass-produced rugby flannels, and a fashion critic’s scathing analysis is now immortalized on a black woven rug on the floor of the exhibition itself. same.
“This part of the process has been underestimated or misinterpreted as copycat,” says Sargent; conceptually, making changes in a world largely designed by and for white people was Abloh’s way of claiming authority over an object’s value.
All of this was underpinned by Abloh’s love of architecture: his master’s thesis project from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s architecture program – a Chicago skyscraper “folded” at the waist for that its residents can have sweeping views of Lake Michigan—appears in the show alongside fashion campaigns shot at Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and transparent sound equipment designed to reference modernist glass houses.
And the accompanying wall text describes the architectural methods of everything he did, “the relentless process of making, testing, redesigning and retesting,” Sargent says, recalling the notes Abloh scribbled on the documents. “Not every idea worked, but for him it wasn’t about whether it worked or not. It was about having an idea he needed to go out into the world.
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