Bauhaus, Baroque and Marcel Duchamp: Virgil Abloh's life in art

The fashion designer, who died on Sunday at the age of 41, had exhibitions at some of the world's leading art institutions and collaborated with major contemporary artists

Virgil Abloh at Murakami x Abloh—Technocolor 2 at Gagosian during Paris Fashion Week in 2018 Photo by: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

Virgil Abloh at Murakami x Abloh—Technocolor 2 at Gagosian during Paris Fashion Week in 2018 Photo by: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

Virgil Abloh, the renowned designer and entrepreneur who helmed the menswear collection of Louis Vuitton and is credited with changing the face of the luxury industry, died on Sunday in Chicago from a rare form of cancer at the age of 41. Abloh’s enormous influence spanned not only fashion, but also art. Through collaborations, solo shows and projects, Abloh helped usher in a genre-defying style that borrowed heavily from both art history and the streets.

Abloh's first solo museum art exhibition took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2019. Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech, then traveled to the High Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and will open at the Brooklyn Museum in 2022. Here we look back at some of his best-known artistic collaborations.

A streetwear designer who borrowed heavily from art history

In his 2020 solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta,Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech, numerous references to Abloh’s interest in art history and creative innovation can be found throughout. The first piece visitors encountered in the exhibition was a portrait of Abloh taken by the German photographer Juergen Teller. Printed on Abloh’s sweatshirt is the text “R.Mutt”, an homage to the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.

Ensemble by Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh (Fall/winter 2020−21) © The Met

Off-White at the MET

In celebration of The MET and The Costume Institute’s 2021 exhibit, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, Abloh dropped an exclusive collaborative merchandise collection for the museum. The statement pieces by Abloh applied his now infamous use of quotation marks to some of the most famous pieces of modern fashion and design. The quotations were said to be based on René Magritte's statement about the treachery of images ("this is not a pipe," 1929).

Caravaggio,The Entombment of Christ (1603004)

An obsession with Italian Old Masters

Many of Abloh’s designs for the streetwear label he founded in 2013, Off-White, included references to Baroque painting and the Italian master Caravaggio. The Entombment of Christ can be seen on silkscreens and clothing designed by Abloh, in addition to other influential Italian paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Giorgio de Chirico’s Piazza d’Italia.

Virgil Abloh's limited collection for IKEA was called Markerad © IKEA

Abloh’s Bauhaus turn

Abloh said in numerous interviews that his first Off-White collection was inspired by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's floating glass home, Farnsworth House, and in 2019, Abloh, a trained architect, released a collaboration with the Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA, with items inspired by the Modernist design aesthetic of architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Murakami & Abloh: America Too took place at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills in 2018 © Gagosian Gallery

Collaboration with contemporary artists

Abloh kept artists close to his orbit. He had a well publicised friendship with Takashi Murakami, with whom Abloh had a solo art show in Murakami's Kaikai Kiki art gallery in Tokyo, Japan, and in 2018, the two collaborated on a series of exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery's outposts in London, Paris, and Beverly Hills.

During waves of xenophobic nationalism that followed the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, Abloh embarked on a creative partnership with the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, creating a line that underscored immigration and cultural exchange in a positive, reaffirming light.

The designer as curator

“For me, there’s very little difference if I’m doing one project or ten,” Abloh said in an interview with the Financial Times in 2019, on the eve of a design show he curated at the Vitra Museum in Basel. Sotheby’s, which worked with Abloh as co-curator of the Contemporary Curator auction in 2020, was among the many art organisations to mourn his passing on social media.

Virgil Abloh designed Kanye West's Yeezus album Courtesy of Virgil Abloh. AP Photo/Def Jam

Meteoric rise to cross-cultural fame

Abloh began his career as an intern at Fendi’s Rome office in 2009, where he met the US rapper Kanye West (who was an intern there too). This led to his appointment as the creative director of West’s creative agency, Donda.

After his death on Sunday, West dedicated a live-stream of his Sunday Service to his long time collaborator and friend.

Following his untimely passing, scores of others took to social media to mourn the cultural icon’s death. The curator Hans Ulrich Obrist posted a note to Instagram Abloh penned in 2017, which said: “Virgil Was Here c. 2017.”