Michael Darling Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago discusses Virgil Abloh’s Figures of Speech Exhibition

An insight into his curatorial decisions, engagement with Hypebeast culture, pricing strategies, and his response to art critics


Virgil installing his exhibition at ICA Boston in the summer of
          2021.Photographed by Michael Darling.
Virgil installing his exhibition at ICA Boston in the summer of 2021. Photographed by Michael Darling.

What made you want to work with Virgil Abloh?

Michael Darling: When I was working at the Museum Contemporary Art Chicago, we came up with this formula, which sounds very strategic, recognising that every other summer, we wanted to do an exhibition that would stretch beyond the normal contemporary art audience. The museum was very interested in diversity at that point, in 2016, wanting to bring artists of colour into the conversation. I also really felt an interest and need to pay attention to the Chicago-based creatives as well.

With Virgil, it was one of those things where I knew the minute I started talking to him that he was really incredible and special and that I really wanted to do something with him. But he had almost no name recognition at that point outside of niche fashion circles. We had no idea what an exhibition of his work would really look like at that point, so he and I had to strategise what an exhibition would look like and start to popularise that amongst the staff.

In the catalogue, you mention the exhibition’s aim was engagement with the youth. Do you think the commerce elements within Virgil’s brand helped this?

At that early point, I didn’t really have a sense of the interconnectedness of commerce, youth, Virgil, streetwear, and sneaker culture, nor did I recognise that voracious appetite to collect and buy the things that are associated with those makers.

Did you fear the exhibition being associated with Hypebeast culture and what feelings do you get when this is made?

I didn’t really understand Hypebeast culture at the time we were first talking about the show and it probably wasn’t until I went to the first Complexcon in Long Beach, California and saw the culture all there together that I recognised the power of it, and I brought those findings back to the museum.

Once we understood the Hypebeast community it really stirred the museum to do merchandise drops as a way to crystalise demand and interest around Virgil’s work. And personally, I didn’t shy away from that business model. I think there is something specific and cool about the term Hypebeast that makes sense to me and who that pertains to. That was an audience that I absolutely wanted to be excited about Virgil’s show.

Did exhibition visitors grow a long-term interest in the arts?

I came to develop a curatorial strategy where I find an exhibition concept that has an easily understood hook and could be appealing to a lot of people but still maintain some art historical or intellectual depth. Get them in the door and then teach them something that they didn’t think they knew or wanted to learn.

My Murakami exhibition (Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats its Own Leg) was like that for me because people recognise his flower paintings and some of his characters and things like that. But I just knew there was a lot more to his work and so when people came to his show, I really took them through a deep dive through his work. And the same with Virgil. I knew his name would pull people through the door, but that there is so much more that they don’t know about him. When the exhibition first opened, people expected they would get access to some new sneaker drops on the first day of the exhibition but really what I wanted to do was to teach people the breadth of Virgil’s work. That it is not just about sneakers.

Have you seen a change in museum visitors?

There was thinking and hope from “David Bowie Is” (brought to the MCA from the V&A) to Murakami to Virgil that we were building an audience who would say, ‘Hey the MCA is a pretty fun and friendly place to go to and I won’t be intimidated when we go there’. We did see repeat visitors and the same demographic of visitors who were coming to Murakami and Virgil and events after. Young, diverse, interested in a broad definition of culture.

I would say that in today’s world Instagram has an influence in getting people through the door. When you go into a gallery, you can see people taking photos– in my opinion, this is nice to see because no matter how someone is consuming art, at least they are not ignoring it.

When curating the exhibition with Virgil, did you consider some of the art criticism on how he replicates classic art in his work?

I was definitely aware of that criticism as it was starting to circulate. Especially accounts like DietPrada were some of the biggest critics of Virgil’s work thinking that he was borrowing too closely from other designers and things like that. It was part of a broader, what I felt was almost racist, attack on Virgil. Saying that he does not come from a fashion background, and he has not been trained properly–all that stuff for me is just a smoke screen for gatekeepers that are trying to keep him out of the conversation.

To me, the other thing that feels and rings very hollow about those arguments is that appropriation is a long-standing part of the contemporary and modern art language. Virgil acknowledges it himself by talking about Duchamp so freely and wearing a hoodie that says R. Mutt 1917 on it. It is out in plain sight that he is operating in the tradition of appropriation, where you borrow somebody else’s work, and you do a little tweak to it of some kind to give it a fresh meaning.

At that time some people were criticising some of the bronze chairs that he was making with the Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery in Paris because they looked like Windsor chairs. And Windsor chairs are a standard format that a lot of modern artists have played with over the years. It wasn’t just owned by George Nakashima or Paul McCobb, so for Virgil to go into that territory is totally appropriate. So, to me it was disappointing that people were not recognising that.

And I think that even the fact that Virgil really crystallised his way of thinking in his 3% theory. He is openly talking about how he is doing this and yet people still think that it’s somehow disingenuous or not right. To me, it’s a half-hearted argument and I wasn’t worried at all about that overshadowing the exhibition.

I always get back to the same point of thinking yes, he did reproduce artworks, but I think the purpose was to create a platform where he could teach the arts and design. Having the platform of commerce mixed with appropriation, enabled him to sell art to people who consume streetwear.

I think you are really right. And I think one really clear example that could be interesting for you to think about is images of Jay Z wearing a Pyrex hoodie on stage with the Caravaggio on the front and 5/6 years later he and Beyonce are recording a music video in the Louvre. There is something about that which seems connected in a way. There you have in the highest forms of pop culture Virgil having an affect on people.

The other thing about Caravaggio or the Mona Lisa is those are paintings from hundreds of years ago, so there’s no copyright on them. He absolutely knows that. There is something jarring and surrealist about having a young teenage hip-hop-influenced kid wearing a Caravaggio image while wearing his Yeezy’s. He is introducing this kind of unexpected element into the conversation which again stretches the boundaries.

Virgil wanted to make the brand inclusive to kids from disprivileged backgrounds who do not have access to art. Yet, when you look at the pricing strategy of the Off-White merchandise at the MCA store it was at a high price in comparison to other artists. What was the conversation between you two? Did the museum have a curatorial input within the pricing strategy?

That was something that took me a while to wrap my head around. But Virgil absolutely understood it. When he launched Off-White, he could have easily gone to the middle market but that would have not gotten him to the Paris runway schedule where he could have this bigger voice. It was really strategic. It created more demand and created an aura of unattainability and desirability around the brand, that made it even more popular.

It is really bold if you think Versace, Gucci and Louis Vuitton were the brands that rappers aspired to and were all led by white designers. How crazy is it for a young Black designer like Virgil to say “I will do that too” and make it as desirable or more desirable than those things and actually succeed at it. And look at the doors he has opened since then for other designers of color.

The other part of the cost is that Off-White does use really good materials and the pieces are not made in China for super cheap. He was also aware of the vicious race to the bottom of fast fashion and how those t-shirts could be this cheap. He was aware of that, so Off-White naturally costs more to make. Therefore, it is more expensive even aside from brand positioning.

When we made the products for the MCA store, we had to find a way not to dilute the Off-White brand and their price point, so he almost made his own sub-brand. And he was able to negotiate a grey zone with Off-White to produce these t-shirts. They were Champion blanks he printed on or Dickies pants with a special “Abloh” label. A parallel brand to not dilute the main brand.

What was the aim of the ‘Figures of Speech’ museum catalogue, considering it does not follow the conventional layout?

You are absolutely right. I would have wanted to document everything in the show and put it in chronological order or something like that. This was the first book he had done about his artwork. He wasn’t as interested in tracing those things chronologically. He thought it was an opportunity to have this book as a how-to manual, on how to become a cultural creative in 2019. This book was a cheat code for any kid who wanted to get into this field.

The catalogue is once again a way to teach art and design to new audiences.

For sure.

The actual design of the book is based on a catalogue you would find at an industrial parts store. The way the cover pulls away allows for this thick book to be opened and the big numbers are really meant to look like almost an industrial catalogue of parts or some kind of weird manual on how to operate some kind of machine.

Do you know why he did this industrial design aesthetic?

For me, it connects back to his background in engineering and architecture and being very interested in graphic design symbols and what they do. And how they choreograph movement through a city or airport. And he, I think, was interested in how signage would do that. He was attentive to those elements in the built environment and brought them into his work. You know his famous belt, it is absolutely like that or the red security tags on the shoes.

I have come across an article by Lauren Downing, she was against the method of display at the exhibition. I quote, “The garments were hanging limply on an industrial rack and created consumer instincts”. What is your response? What are your thoughts on the exhibition creating a retail store environment?

I agree with her, but it was intentional and again if I was doing the show without Virgil’s input, I would have loved to see those garments on mannequins so you can see them in their full form and have texts talk about what they were referencing. But this was Virgil trying not to be precious about those garments and so for him it was less about commercial display, and it was more thinking about archival display. The racks had this industrial feel to them and tags that had numbers as if they were racks in some deep storage facility. I absolutely agree with her that it made the garments way more illegible, but it was Virgil trying to subvert the conventions of fashion exhibitions.

Another point of hers that is very valid is that this kind of display encouraged people instinctively to touch the garments and thought they could riffle through the racks because they recognised that kind of language as the language of commerce boutiques. So, the security guards were having to tell people not to touch things all the time. It absolutely triggered this instinctual desire to look at the garments and flick through the hangers. She was 100% right about those things. It was very intentional on Virgil’s part.

Were you satisfied with the outcome of the exhibition?

I am totally satisfied with everything we were trying to do at the time. The only sad thing is that I totally anticipated another show with Virgil in the future that would be able to go more deeply into one aspect of his work or another and now that can’t happen with his input.

In loving memory of Virgil Abloh.

Links to References:
Darling, Michael, ed. Figures of Speech.Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Munich, New York: DelMonico Books, Prestel Publishing, 2019.

Downing, Lauren. “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech”. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 24, no.3 (2020):445-454.

Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund,