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Two landmark buildings by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe provide the setting for the Chicago-native designer Virgil Abloh to state his manifesto for streetwear as the next global art movement—a sentiment among young people, a way of making across disciplines, and ultimately a new Renaissance foregrounding collaboration and breaking the barrier between high culture and real life.
Featured in KALEIDOSCOPE Issue 33 Fall/Winter 2018/19, the interview stars the magazine’s publisher and creative director Alessio Ascari and designer Virgil Abloh. You can get the chance to purchase the magazine issue 33 by subscribing to our raffle and, the customers of the limited-edition pack will also be granted access to an exclusive talk and signing event held on 30 November at Spazio Maiocchi in Milan.
Let’s start from the cover. We did a photo story divided between two buildings by Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, your hometown. One is the iconic S. R. Crown Hall, home to the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where you studied. The other is the Farnsworth House, one of the architect’s signature steel and glass houses, which was built as a weekend retreat in a rural setting southwest of Chicago. I’m interested in what Mies and these particular locations mean to you, and also how your architecture training has influenced your work method stepping into a much larger definition of design, encompassing fashion and art.
My education was the first file written on my empty hard drive, as a young and impressionable person trying to understand the world and understand what design was, what art was. The moment that I stepped inside Crown Hall, I lost my breath and I didn’t know why. I wasn’t fluent in architecture; I hadn’t studied it up until that point. I had been studying engineering, and that building was like a merging of engineering and architecture in a poetic way—very minimal. I figured out afterwards that me losing my breath was linked to what Mies van der Rohe had infused into this designed, very physical thing. From that point on, my career has been about learning, and communicating emotion through design. That’s why that building is important to me. It unlocked my brain about the transcending quality of art, and it’s very much a principle that I still use today.
Do you believe in Mies’ motto, “Less is more”?
Not necessarily. I think the right amount is intriguing. But that motto applied to the time in which Mies derived his ideas. His thinking is inseparable from the context of modernism. I feel like right now we’re in a different state, so I take inspiration from that minimalistic philosophy and expand on it. To me, if you look at the different art movements of our time, it’s more akin to the Renaissance.
Speaking of art movements, while in Chicago I got my hands on a copy of Insert Complicated Title Here (Sternberg Press), which is the print version of your 2017 lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. I read it on my flight back, and the concept that especially draw my attention is this “what if” scenario you propose, looking at the current time from a distance and realizing that streetwear is actually an art movement. Can you elaborate on this idea?
Yeah. Streetwear is a sentiment. It’s an extension of a way of thinking about the physical world, and it’s a way of making. It started from skateboarding, graffiti, street culture—but over time, it has risen into a global movement within young people. To me, that can be applied to clothing, but it can also be applied to objects. It can be applied to architecture. It can be applied to art. My position as an artist is to exemplify that philosophy, that cross-disciplinary way of working, within fields that largely aren’t seen as streetwear—within high fashion, within art. That’s the whole scope of my practice.
After all, if you zoom out a little bit, the generation in New York City just before mine was one where the ideology of Pop art was crashing together with Conceptual art right at the same time—and they were in turn building on the legacy of the previous generation, the legacy of someone like Duchamp. My generation was able to feed off all this, stir the pot and mix in the sociological ramifications of what art is and how it can break the barrier of high culture and relate to real life, regular people. That’s what I mean when I say that streetwear is the next movement of art. I’m using those movements that came before us as cinder blocks to build a new body of work.
In looking at this thing as an art movement, one of the strategies you’ve adopted is bringing the streetwear culture and attitude into the gallery context. Your recent shows with Takashi Murakami at Gagosian Gallery were basically a translation of the “collab” mentality, which is at the heart of streetwear culture, into the artistic frame of painting. They were also very much indebted to Pop art, as you say, in that you literally merged your logos, your brands together, onto the canvas. Tell me about these projects with Takashi.
Well, for one thing, the way I look at art, you can’t hide from artists being brands, too. Of course, there’s instances where they shy away from it, but if you squint your eyes, essentially an artist’s signature is like a brand.
Above all, I use collaboration as a medium to experiment. I can collaborate with an artist. I can collaborate with a furniture brand. I can collaborate with a 150-year-old luggage brand. Life is collaboration. Where I think art can be sort of misguided is that it propagates this idea of itself as a solo love affair—one person, one idea, no one else involved. When I was young, I used to naïvely believe that. But even that’s been disproved, as a lot of artists rely on outside skills, outsource production to give shape to their idea. So my career has been about this investigative process and understanding and playing with that, sharing my seat. So the work with Murakami is a study of collaboration, but it’s a sort of co-branding as well. It’s an experiment. It’s very different from my own body of work.
About that—you recently had your very first solo exhibition as an artist, “PAY PER VIEW” at Kaikai Kiki in Tokyo. Let’s talk about how you’ve appropriated the billboard as a painting format.
It started with a consideration and conversation about the immense power that advertising has in the world today—whether a TV screen, a gas station sign or a billboard. How the things that are projected up there make up our reality, and how powerful that is. I identified advertising as a metaphor for how ideas are shared. The most classical medium of art is a painted canvas, so I adopted that rationale and painted them myself using black oil paint—evoking Malevich’s Black Square. The paintings are all black, devoid of color and anti-decorative, but at the same time, they contain these triggers of pop culture—small adjacent logos which replicate the brands of outdoor advertising outlets like Outfront and JCDecaux. To me, it’s a way of showing that space is branded. That’s what humans have made of the physical world: occupying spaces and signifying them. In a way, that was the case for me, too—what people in large part have seen up to this day has been me working with many brands to create my signature. But that exhibition was the first time where the signature was on display, not the brand.
To me, somehow these black paintings in “PAY PER VIEW” are a counterpart, or a negative, of the mega painting you did for your debut Louis Vuitton show in Paris. The runway for the show was essentially a hand-painted rainbow canvas for the models to walk on. It wasn’t really noticed and discussed as such by mainstream media, because the focus was on the collection, but I thought it was a fascinating artistic gesture.
That’s the liberating part about having an art practice underneath everything that people may have seen from my body of work. It’s devoid of commercialism. Once my work goes into different spaces, I’m able to take different forms. But in my solo work, the only thing I’m trying to display is the ideas, my artistic philosophy and the generation I’m part of. When it came to illustrating that for Louis Vuitton, I started thinking of the scientific process of the prism—light hitting crystal and making the full spectrum of colors visible. More than anything, it was a way of critiquing the fashion industry that existed, how monotone it was. Having been given the ability to communicate through these big brands, I wanted to preach the full scope of the real world, made up of many colors.
This links to the Tokyo exhibition in the way that media projects one idea. In Tokyo, I was doing that by putting all emphasis on the logo rather than the image on the billboard, asking: “Who owns that space?” Now that I’m in a brand like Louis Vuitton, I’m able to have an influence on what gets projected on that big stage, on that big space. And the full story arch of that is what? It’s streetwear.
You mentioned to me that you have this massive public art project in the making, which you will reveal in Chicago next summer as part of your upcoming show at the MCA.
Yeah, I’m working with billboards again in the public setting. A large part of my work is this narrative of the tourist and the purist—which basically means my ethos is to communicate ideas not only to those that are well-versed within art, but also to the outside public, those that may be coming across art for the very first time. The Chicago exhibition will have elements inside and outside the actual museum space that continue that narrative and speak to the local setting. Once again, I’m using the key that the museum is giving me to sort of turn the channel onto another piece of content that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I love that interface.
You talked about the Renaissance before. What’s interesting to me is that you really are kind of a Renaissance man in how you embrace the idea of a cross-disciplinary practice, breaking boundaries between different fields and formats without hierarchies. The practice of someone like Leonardo Da Vinci encompassed architecture, engineering, painting, sculpture, etc. Such attitudes are not so common in the art world, which is largely still based on this old-school idea of the Academy, where everything is divided into disciplines: a painter is a painter, a sculptor is a sculptor. You’re taking a different approach to things, which I think also defines our generation, where a creative head can apply their vision and craft to every kind of medium. You mentioned to me in Chicago your dream of possibly doing a full circle and going back to architecture, like properly designing a building. Back to Crown Hall, where it all started.
As a student, I first did five years of education for structural engineering. Then, when I began studying architecture, I started learning about the Italian Renaissance, with this idea of an architect as a total artist across all disciplines, knowledgeable of all things and able to create all things. Later, when I learned an architect usually just does CAD drawings for buildings, I was just like, “Nah, that’s not the architecture I believe in.” I was also completely into the Bauhaus, this idea of the school where you would learn these multidisciplinary things that apply to an overall aesthetic that was informed by the culture of the times.
And yeah, I think that cross-disciplinary mentality also came from being an outsider, shying away from pure academia. I was a kid that was buying streetwear t-shirts. I was DJing. I was learning graffiti from this book called Subway Art. These things are what made my aesthetic. So, I decided not to forgo those things as I got into my career. I decided to make a career that celebrated those exact things. That’s why I started getting into the philosophy that the present—our generation grown up before and after the Internet—may be a new Renaissance. You’re able to make a publication that’s recording the art of the time. You’ve made that through your experiences in your life. Now, you’re a magazine owner. Now, I’m an artist. That has an enormous impact. So I’m an optimist. I choose to make the reality that I see in my head, and there’s a number of young creatives that are thinking along the same wavelengths that we are.
Interview by Alessio Ascari
Photography by Richard Anderson