Virgil Abloh’s Mona Lisa: Neo-Dadaism and Late Capitalism
Virgil Abloh is the modern-day renaissance man. Part designer, part DJ, part creative director, the wunderkind has helmed the meteoric rise of his label Off White and been appointed creative director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, all the while playing gigs at techno festivals, releasing EP’s with Boyz Noise and conjuring furniture collaborations with Ikea. The designer is in fact so prolific that he’s been ordered by doctors to suspend all travel and public appearances for the next three months.
The designer cum DJ’s astronomical creative output has, however, not been without criticism. Whether his highly-anticipated collection for Ikea or his Fall 2019 collection for Off-White, critics have noted similarities between Abloh’s work and that of other artists who have come before him. The designer was criticized for his (re)-interpretation of an iconic mid-century chair design by Paul McCobb for his Planner Group series. Manufactured by Winchendon Furniture Company, it was among the best selling contemporary furniture lines of the 1950s and in production up until 1964, until Virgil replicated the design almost exactly for his Ikea collection “Markerad”, save for a doorstopper fitted under one of the chair legs.
Rewind to Abloh’s Fall/Winter 2019 shows for Off-White, and similar criticisms were made against the designer. The collection, and in particular the yellow graffiti-splattered graphic-printed rainwear he debuted was panned by some as directly borrowing key design elements from previous collections by Punk Zec and Colrs Baby. Garage Magazine dubbed him the designer of “endless appropriation” and a backlash toward his design ethos ensued.
The controversy calls to mind a common question in contemporary art. Where does the line between re-appropriation and intellectual theft exist? Tim Blanks writes for Business of Fashion that Abloh’s tendency to re-appropriate is the basis of his artistic ethos. “Virgil Abloh is a cultural aggregator, not a fashion designer. He assembles masses of input and then decides which vehicle is best suited to his aggregation. Might be furniture. Or art. Might be planestrainsautomobiles. Sometimes, it’s fashion.”
This tension between assemblage and formalism is, albeit, nothing new. It’s one that has existed at the heart of the post-modern condition since the turn of the 20th century, and one that fundamentally changed the popular conception of what constitutes art. The Dadaists, and most famously Marcel Duchamp used it to their advantage, provoking the art world and the masses at large in presenting banal objects, slightly re-interpreted and plucked from their utilitarian contexts, as art objects in and of themselves. Duchamp famously flipped a urinal on its side dubbing it “fountain”, and the rest, as they say, was history. The artist would go on to create an oeuvre of these “readymades” including a postcard reproduction of Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa vandalized with a moustache and goatee, titled L.H.O.O.Q.
Abloh, not surprisingly, cites Duchamp as an inspiration for much of his artistic and intellectual ideology. He describes his process as being rooted in certain “cheat codes” including what he calls the “three-per-cent approach”—the idea that one might create a new design by changing an original by a mere three percent. But the designer sees this concept largely as the condition of the contemporary world and cites it as the foundation of his approach to streetwear. “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp,” he told the New Yorker earlier this year. “It’s this idea of the readymade. I’m talking Lower East Side, New York. It’s like hip-hop. It’s sampling. I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song. … . It’s streetwear 10.0—the logic that you can reference an object or reference a brand or reference something. It’s Warhol—Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup cans.”
The referentiality comes full circle in Abloh’s latest collaboration with Ikea, where the designer reinterprets the Mona Lisa as a lightbox, blown up to twice its original size and outfitted out with a USB port. The piece immediately recalls L.H.O.O.Q and Abloh’s reinterpretation of one of Duchamp’s most famous works is in many ways the contemporary late-capitalist iteration of the readymade, plucked from the art-world and re-contextualized as a commodity. The piece is emblematic of a sort of meta-modernity; a reference of a reference and a tongue in cheek post-Warholian take on the concept of Pop Art.
In an almost obverse relation with Warhol’s Soup Cans which were wrenched from the supermarket aisles and thrust onto the pristine bourgeois walls of the gallery, Mona Lisa has been recontextualized and satirized, plucked from the art world, rendered banal and filtered through the mass production and commodity fetishism of capitalism only to be placed in your living room. The piece is at once a commodity and an art object, blurring the lines between the gallery and the home and ultimately questioning the place of arbitrary binaries in the age of late capitalism.
Pablo Picasso is oft-quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists, steal,” and certainly the sentiment could be applied to Abloh’s perspectives on art and design in the present day. Tim Blanks writes “the challenge that Abloh perpetually faces in his high fashion outings” is that of the “the endless echoes of other people’s work.” He ultimately concludes that perhaps all this really reveals is the process through which “fashion spins on (in) an endless cycle of appropriation.” Call him a thief or a visionary, but perhaps, that is precisely what the designer is most interested in calling to attention – the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, masters candidate, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.