On Wednesday, the Brooklyn Museum previewed the last stop of “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” a retrospective of the late multihyphenate’s work spanning his years studying industrial design to becoming the men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton.
Nearly 1,500 guests in fashion, design and visual arts descended on the museum to celebrate the momentous occasion, including his wife Shannon Abloh, Heron Preston, Tremaine Emory, Daniel Arsham, Spike Lee, Jeremy O. Harris, Mickalene Thomas, Tyler Mitchell, JiaJia Fei, Honor Titus, Linda Goode Bryant, Lucien Smith, Rick Lowe, Nicola Vassell, Hannah Traore, Quil Lemons, Mark Grattan, Sam Lobban and Jian DeLeon of Nordstrom, which supported the event and exhibit.
In August, Nordstrom will launch a dedicated New Concepts@Nordstrom shop, Concept 018, dedicated to Abloh’s life and legacy and will include Figures of Speech and Brooklyn Museum across 16 nationwide Nordstrom stores and the retailer’s website
Writer and editor Antwaun Sargent guest curated the exhibition, which opens to the public Friday, and artists Ian Isiah, Venus X, and Hood By Air founder Shayne Oliver performed at the event ahead of the opening.
The “Figures of Speech” exhibition has been traveling since its opening in 2019, starting in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art, running almost concurrently with Louis Vuitton’s men’s pop-up shop in Chicago’s West Loop during Abloh’s tenure as artistic director of the luxury label. After Chicago, the exhibit traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and Garage Gallery at the Fire Station in Qatar. The literary version of “Figures of Speech” won the 2019 AIGA’s 50 Books Award as well.
The Brooklyn Museum retrospective, originally organized by Michael Darling, former James W. Alsdorf chief curator, chronicles elements of Abloh’s life, career, creative ethos and pursuits, including his first fashion label, Pyrex Vision, his many sneaker collaborations with Nike and Jordan, and artwork and sculptures that encapsulate consistencies and codes prevalent through all of Abloh’s works — like the quotation marks he’d use around seemingly obvious text (like “scarf” written on a scarf) that turned the wearers into literal figures of speech. This played out most often in Abloh’s Off-White, the brand he founded in 2013.
But the Brooklyn stop varies from the previous iterations of the exhibit.
“We wanted to make this the biggest,” said Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak who was also instrumental in putting the exhibition together. “He considered all of the tables the objects are on to be sculptures. Since time had passed since the first show opened, we wanted to add a bit more of the clothing to show and because of his passing we wanted to show a bit of his archival work to show where he was coming from.”
The exhibition opens with Abloh’s notebooks when he was studying in school and turntables and speakers from one of his first hobbies as a DJ. Then, the exhibit leads to his fashion works, like silkscreen printers that read “PYREX 23” which was printed on the backs of shirts for his early Pyrex Vision brand; pieces from Off-White, including styles with the popular ‘Nebraska’ motif; and Louis Vuitton ensembles, bags, boots and mannequins all leading to the Social Sculpture house in the center of the exhibition.
“Virgil designed the house in the middle of the space,” Pasternak said. Abloh teamed with London studio Alaska Alaska to build the wooden house designed for performances and events.
“He was the opposite of an elitist,” Pasternak continued. “He built the house to use it as a classroom intended for teens in Brooklyn to have classes with great artists. He worked with very famous people like Ye and Jay-Z, but he would see the spark of brilliance from young people and would nurture them. He wanted to bring them all together.”
Pasternak admitted she didn’t understand Pyrex Vision when it first debuted and even Abloh’s many disciplines, but understood that he considered himself an artist because it gave him the freedom to work across the spectrum.
One thing Pasternak said she was sure of was Abloh’s “hunger” to lead brands that had been influenced by Black culture but didn’t have Black leadership and to “make sure other young people would have those opportunities in the future,” she said. “I didn’t understand his lexicon and it took me a while, but I understood that essential piece of who he was and that was enough to say he deserves a major show at the Brooklyn Museum.”
Pasternak and Abloh had worked together on the show for years, but the director believes Abloh was pursuing a show at the Brooklyn Museum long before the retrospective’s debut in Chicago.
“The first email my team got from me was 2017 but he and I were already speaking in 2016,” Pasternak said. “We were working on this for years and in some ways we were working on it before I knew we were working on it, because he’s so far ahead. He knew he wanted Brooklyn Museum to be the last stop.”
Abloh, according to Pasternak, had three reasons for the Brooklyn ending: to see his work in the context of excellence, because he loved the diversity and youth of the Brooklyn Museum audience, and because Brooklyn and New York City had served as substantial inspirations for the artist.
“I see the entire show, the entire body as a work,” she said. “I can tell you how much I love the Serena Williams tennis outfit or the Louis Vuitton pieces. There is a lot to love, but I see it as one work in a way. He wanted to make his mark on every creative discipline. This show is about many things but mainly about that.”
The exhibit runs from Friday, July 1 through Jan. 29, 2023.