The transformative work of Leonard McGurr preexists the Internet. Before a Google search or an Instagram photo led to his moniker “FUTURA2000,” his graffiti marked the exteriors of New York subway cars in the 1970s. While other artists used cans of spray-paint, FUTURA2000 created tags with markers. With this technique, he pioneered the movement of abstract street art as a self-proclaimed graffiti writer, building the foundations of graffiti and street culture as we know it today.
In the early 1990s, when creatives were searching for alternative spaces for their work, the Internet became a meeting place. FUTURA2000 took his art from the street to the World Wide Web around 1996, launching a website— then another, FUTURA2000.com, after the year 2000—as an extension of his work. A few years later, The Brilliance—a site run by Benjamin Edgar, Chuck Anderson, and Virgil Abloh—reached out to him to talk about street culture and his work. At the time, The Brilliance covered culturally relevant topics, and as FUTURA2000 put it, it “came correct.”
Since then, FUTURA2000 and Abloh have continued to connect around the world, and have collaborated on several projects. Their shared love for communicating culture has led from friends-and-family T-shirt designs to fashion shows. Early last year, FUTURA2000 was slyly seen live painting the Louis Vuitton Men’s Fall/Winter 2019 set during the show in Paris, at the invitation of the collection’s creative director, Abloh. A few months later, at the Spring/Summer 2020 show for the fashion designer’s own label, OFF-WHITE, there was FUTURA2000 again. The artist’s FL-002 sculpture (made in collaboration with Charlie Becker) anchored the show, paintings of his from 30 years ago were reimagined on garments, and a brand-new Nike Dunk shoe that was created collaboratively hit the runway.
As the pair first connected digitally, it felt fitting that Whitewall connected with the creators via Zoom to hear why now is not a time for relaxing.
WHITEWALL: What was the first project you two worked on together?
VIRGIL ABLOH: II was doing an event, and had these young kids into me, but they needed to know where the culture came from. I ran into Lenny, and I was like, “I’m doing this event and it’s very hand-to-hand. Nothing’s for sale, but are you down to do a T-shirt that commemorates it just to hand out to the DJs—like Benji B, Gilles Peterson, Zombie, and Jun Takahashi?” It was a one-night-only operation.
What Lenny and I have in common is our brain triggers a “yes” or “no” immediately. And his brain and my brain are usually on a “yes.” It was like, “No hesitation. Let’s foster this moment.” That was our very first project in the modern era of us knowing each other.
FUTURA2000: There were two T-shirts! One for the DJ ensemble and another one, Time Flies, that came later. We were moving around the planet and having shows and Virg was helpful in creating a T-shirt. It was like a Futura World Tour shirt at the time. I was establishing myself again outside of commercial projects and collaborations and doing paintings. All of that was before Virg was at Louis V, back when he was getting OFF-WHITE up and running. The whole world has shifted.
VA: As the younger generation comes into the fold, I want them to see me and my inspirations on the same level, bringing that message forward. Futura has always been melding those worlds between art and culture in a visual world.
WW: What was it like for you to create live works on the set of the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2019 show during Paris Fashion Week in January 2019?
F: That’s when the whole thing escalated on a high level. My history in Paris goes back to 1981 or ’82. I’ve had this love affair with Paris for a while. My ex-wife is from there, my kids are half-French. I’m proud of all of that. Every time I go to Paris, I’m going back home.
When you invited me, Virg, to be a part of that show, I was blown away. You were bringing back New York City in the eighties. Your concept was bonkers. And that’s why I love you, Virgil. You can not only think it, you do it.
I love you so much not just for who you are and what you’re doing, but also how you were like, “Let me get some knuckleheads together and trash this shit up.” The exterior at the Jardin, the setup, the rustic structures. It’s brilliant for you to have that idea and want to get that emotion out of people.
VA: But look at how many years of being in each other’s atmospheres before adding something to the pot tangibly. It started from hanging out vicariously in proximity.
I want to leave seminal moments in culture that inspired me and do them with great people that I know are authentic to it. That Louis Vuitton show, we authentically crashed together almost doing the impossible. Graffiti, the culture, but paying homage to it with Lenny leading the motley crew of personal friends. It was like, “Hey! New York is important.”
WW: After that, you continued working together for the OFF-WHITE Spring/Summer 2020 show—not only part of the collection, but the set design again as well. How did that come together?
VA: The garments in the collection were created outside the studio three days before we showed them, which was a bit of yin-yang. Traditionally, we can make graphic T-shirts on the computer, but those garments that are made by him—the placement of the pattern, the spray-paint on the street—showcases how my generation does couture. It’s respectful of the craft and the history of Parisian fashion, but it’s different.
F: Not only did you have my sculpture at your show in the bed of flowers, but we made some stuff right there on the spot. Virg had existing elements—access to some old imagery, specifically a couple of the more colorful pieces, paintings of mine from 30 years ago. Sure, we know about subway cars moving with art and colors, but to see my artwork taken from a static painting and put on this fabric and then have someone—i.e., Gigi [Hadid]—moving through space . . . That was incredible.
Virg, you’re so open to the process of creativity—however that exhibits itself. And we definitely caused a splash with the sneaker. There’s levels of culture that were existing.
VA: That vibe—continuing the past and not resting on the laurels of ten to twenty years ago—was a challenge.
WW: What was the process like creating the Nike Dunk shoe?
VA: In the genre of sneaker design, it’s safe to say that the work that Lenny did was crème de la crème before the era that we’re in now. There weren’t line-ups. The shoes were selling out, but the Futura Dunks are a particular important canon.
Unbeknownst to Futura and his whole crew, I was working on this personal love of bringing back the Dunk with my own model. I elbowed Nike and said, “You don’t know I’m working with Lenny, but is there a way we can make some friends and family pairs, and we can put them in the show and they’ll be for the culture?”
No one knew that I had a Dunk coming out, and I was honored to be able to showcase my new Dunk in this context before it was even released. The OFF-WHITE pair came after, but the very first preview was a collab on a new version of a shoe. I think that’s one of the first times in Nike waves that we introduced a collab on a new version of a shoe that hadn’t been out yet.
F: My intro to Nike was meeting Mark Parker in 2002, and I started working with Nike in 2003. One of the first shoes I got to work on was a Nike SB, and it went out as an uncredited shoe. The only thing I did was put the colorways together.
I did it as not being Futura; I did it anonymously. People caught on later. And that’s kind of fun in a way, because people assume what they assume. Then I did a Blazer, another Dunk, and a FLOM. Then I wound up doing about eight to ten shoes with Nike over about eighteen years since.
But when Virgil came with the reinvent of the Dunk, we of course had
the North Carolina colorway, but we had the “FL”—like my 2003 FLOM shoe
“For Love or Money,” which is a real grail shoe in the industry.
VA: That’s why the context of these short stories we’re telling is important. That’s how our culture is built. When you talk about formalized art or formalized movements, what I love is all these things happened in an era just before the Internet. There’s wasn’t much documented. More hand-to-hand things were happening. Colorways on a shoe . . . why is that important? Because in ten to twenty years, it leads to a Louis Vuitton merger.
We’re laying down certain foundational blocks about the context and the granular pieces of our art community; understanding how these cultural references come into our atmosphere. And then, we output. That could be a painting, a sculpture, a fashion show, or a sneaker. In my mind, those are just extensions of art objects that we’ve adopted, and we’ve put back into the world to communicate to a community that might have been outside it in white cube galleries. That’s where our work gets profound and interesting.
Along the way, we’re leaving objects in our wake. We’re practicing our art form, but we’re also speaking for a generation that is finding itself within art as the overarching umbrella.
WW: Recently, Lenny, you said that you were thinking about legacy more. How so?
F: I’m in my third act. You have to start thinking about that, too. I have financial people that want to start talking about my will! I’m not comfortable. But, like COVID, I can’t act like it’s not happening. I’m trying to deal with this all responsibly. I want to take care of my family, of course. I have two children, my loved ones, and they have to be covered. That’s the legacy as I see it in a structural form. As far as the art and the perception of what happens subsequent to my departure, I could care less.
Legacy isn’t for me to determine, in terms of what people perceive. That’s been the issue all of life. I’m encouraged that people like what I’ve been doing, and they support me. But so many times along the journey, I could have taken a left rather than a right, and yet I took a right and it got me to that moment.
Many times in my multi-decade moments I’ve wanted to check out and do 180s. I’ve never been satisfied with where I’ve been and got frustrated and wanted to change something. Either I did or I didn’t, but by virtue of those choices, here I am. It makes me think a lot of things are out of my hands in terms of what’s determined to be my legacy.
WW: How has COVID-19 impacted you?
F: In the daytime, I’m trying to do work here and in my studio, which isn’t far from my home. In the evening, I’m inundated with what’s going on. Fortunately, the daily protesting has come down. It’s been very hard, but I can separate the two.
In this COVID period, my son and I have been also getting into 3-D printing. And not just, “Let me steal a file, open source, and print this vase.” Since March, we’ve got multiple machines that we’re taking apart and putting together. We’re learning a new language. This moment has created such an unfortunate yet unique opportunity in various ways. This is another accessory to my creativity. And none of the guys from my “scene” are into that.
VA: For me, it’s been a tidal wave. It started off very contemplative in quarantine.
And then, obviously, your proximity to how much pain people are in. That atmosphere took months to grapple with. And just as soon as we were coming out of that, we have injustices due to police and Black people right on our front doorstep. That’s been turbulent, just in terms of humanity’s sake. And we’re artists, so we’re outputting or trying to translate what we’re seeing or feeling into new work. This is like reporting live from the middle of the war. It’s not near the end, and we don’t know how far from the beginning we are.
One rule of thumb that I’ve always put forth since the very beginning is trying not to predict the future or an obsolete. I think that’s where man takes his first misstep. Expecting something to be one hundred percent. I’ve been trying to stay loose. Stay open and optimistic. Optimism is what brought me here. It’s what’s going to take me out. As soon as the sun rises again and shit starts to settle, we as a society and as individuals learn something valuable.
WW: What comes next?
F: My monograph with Rizzoli is coming out in November. I’ve been working on it for more than five years.
[Any other] project I’m doing just doesn’t seem to rise to any level of promotion or discussion. If people should hear from me and Virg, it should be on what’s really happening today.
I feel slightly guilty that my generation was raised with a kind of ignorance. Not that we’ve turned a blind eye, but we didn’t understand enough that these things were wrong. We’re in a moment now that I’m enlightened by. The outpouring of the people at large . . . I hope that translates to something in November.
VA: Now that the world is open to having a conversation about race loud and clear—and of course I’m going to be called to task because I exist in industries that I had to fight to get into, and frankly aren’t usually into putting these topics out in the open air—and systematic change can and will be done, I’ve added this whole new layer on top of my practice that explicitly advances the idea to put more Black people and people of color inside these institutions that are built off of the influence and proximity of Black people.
I’m an optimist. Optimism is what brought me here. I’m doing initiatives, creative projects. The way that my advocacy looks might not be what other people want it to be, but it’s going to be as creative as the other extensions of my career.
I wake up not to doom and gloom. This stuff only changes if people start putting stuff into the ecosystem to change the whole environment. I’m motivated. It’s a busy time. It’s not a time for relaxing. But when was that ever for guys like Lenny and I?