Animated skulls with x-eyes. Cartoonish figures dressed in strange button-up britches. Acid-trip versions of characters from Spongebob Squarepants and The Simpsons. Jagged planes of color like a neon sign being smashed into a plate-glass window. The work of the artist KAWS, who has stealthily moved from mass-producing commercial objects to creating unique sculptures, paintings, and installations for some of the most prestigious museums in the world, is like a virus. Once you’ve noticed his work, you see it everywhere.
You’re as likely to encounter a fragment of KAWS’ universe in a Tokyo mall as you are on the streets of New York or in the aisles of the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. The artist puts his mark on vinyl toys, skateboard decks, magazine fashion spreads, and album covers with collaborators like Kanye West and Clipse.
This cultural omnipresence makes the artist a worthy millennial successor to Pop art juggernauts like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.
This cultural omnipresence makes the artist a worthy millennial successor to Pop art juggernauts like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. In many ways, KAWS is already at home in the museums and galleries at the heart of the art world.
On October 11, the artist opened a series of projects at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts for a show curated by director Harry Philbrick called "KAWS @ PAFA," featuring a sculpture mounted on the facade of the institution’s historic building and 60 paintings and sculptures within the museum, some intermingled with historic work, showing KAWS reacting to other eras of art history. On October 25, he opened the exhibition "UPS AND DOWNS" at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Tomorrow, November 2, the artist will have one of the debut shows at Parisian powerhouse Emmanuel Perrotin’s new New York City gallery, which runs at the same time as an exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea.
But KAWS’ path is altogether different than his artistic progenitors. He got his start outside the art world, or parallel to it, and has moved into its center as few "outsiders" have succeeded in doing during the advent of graffiti and street art from the 1980s onward. While artists who began on the street like Shepard Fairey and Banksy have achieved high prices at galleries and auctions, and routinely make headlines for their latest projects, they haven’t been adopted as KAWS has been into an art world that’s notoriously elitist and distrustful of populism.
So what did KAWS do right?
Born Brian Donnelly in 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Donnelly broke into the graffiti scene in the early ‘90s and started tagging billboards with his nom de guerre, which he says has no particular meaning—“It’s just letters that I liked…I felt like they always work and function nicely with each other,” he told Interview Magazine. Donnelly then started painting on advertisements, both as a way to set himself apart from other graffiti writers and to comment on the ads, creating a forced collaboration with the ads’ photographers and using them as a parasite—another way to communicate his name to an audience wider than walls or galleries.
KAWS attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1993 to ’96. But that didn’t stop him from tagging—his network of imagery spread over New York and around the globe, catching the notice of commercial creatives. One of those was photographer David Sims, who had created some of the very ads KAWS painted over. Sims invited the artist to London, made prints of his work, and helped him begin to paint over actual photographs rather than reproductions. The experiments led him to commissions for magazines like Complex, Vogue, and Warhol’s own Interview.
In the late 1990s, KAWS began traveling to Japan, where he quickly fell in with a new set of creative peers. “I met these guys around my age who were just killing it…To me that was where it was happening,” he has said. In 1999, the artist collaborated with the Japanese company Bounty Hunter to produce his first toy in 1999, a vinyl Mickey Mouse with x-eyes. Donnelly went on to work with the iconic streetwear brand A Bathing Ape to design clothing.
'Brian has a serious connection to the history of art in the past 40 years,' says curator Michael Rooks.
What may surprise those viewers who have only had a glancing brush with KAWS’ work or seen his products is that he possesses a sensitive understanding of visual culture. “Brian has a serious connection to the history of art in the past 40 years,” says curator Michael Rooks, who organized an exhibition of the artist at the High Museum (“KAWS: DOWN TIME,” February 18 to July 29, 2012) in Georgia. “He’s voracious.”
KAWS cites the Swedish-American sculptor Claes Oldenburg as one of his favorite artists. Oldenburg, an early participant in Pop art, made his name by creating “soft” sculptures of everyday objects like telephones, hamburgers, and cake slices blown up to a giant scale. Donnelly had those in mind when he created his toys: “Instead of making one monumental piece I made a thousand eight-inch pieces,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. The artist considers the toys to be miniature sculptures.
KAWS has been compared to Warhol for his factory-like output, but in fact he’s more like Keith Haring, who also made his name by being a vandal, doodling in the black rectangles left behind by torn-down subway ads. As Haring became more successful, he began creating legal murals and moved from the streets into gallery and museum spaces, launching his own store, the Pop Shop, in the process. Donnelly has said that he gave up tagging a decade ago, and he launched Original Fake as a retail outlet, and eventually an original clothing brand (which he shut down in January of this year), in Tokyo in 2006. Like Haring, Donnelly now makes his primary residence indoors.
Artists make the transition from rebels into participants in the art world through a network of gatekeepers—curators, gallery directors, and institutions. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Pop was absorbed into the canon of art history. Today, through a generation of curators who have grown up with Pop art, street art is making this same transition. It is increasingly being seen not as an outsider strain but as a movement worth incorporating into the art historical narrative, though that may run counter to some of its ideals.
In 2010, KAWS had his first show at Emmanuel Perrotin’s Galerie Perrotin (which still represents the artist) in Paris, followed by a large exhibition in 2011 at the Aldrich Museum of Fine Art in Connecticut, an important supporter of emerging artists. “DOWN TIME” followed at the High Museum in 2012.
Harry Philbrick, the curator of KAWS’ current exhibition in Philadelphia, brings up Warhol as a reference point during a conversation about KAWS, but draws a sharp line between the two artists. “Warhol was a little bit more distanced from the popular culture he was appropriating in his work; Brian is more of it and with it,” he says. This distinction allows KAWS to have a different relationship with his viewers, as well—a more mutually respectful, two-way exchange than Warhol’s flashbulb-illuminated pose as a bohemian celebrity allowed.
Where Warhol used his screen-printed portraits, Polaroids, and wry reproductions of electric chairs and car crashes to speak to others on his own cultural strata—movie stars, collectors, proteges—letting them in on the joke of the shallow mass media, KAWS is a Robin Hood who takes the side of his audience, freeing fragments of popular icons from their commercial contexts and letting them float freely. The world has so much more imagery now than it did during Warhol’s day, with whole new universes of digital media and the 24-hour deluge of news cycles and social networks, where we’re all micro-famous for far more than 15 minutes. Brian Donnelly gives us a way to react to that flood.
“For a lot of people [Donnelly’s] work is important because it helps give them ownership over the contemporary visual lexicon,” Philbrick said. “So much imagery that we see every day is controlled by corporations. KAWS takes that and makes it his own. In so doing, it’s powerful and even in a way liberating for people to see that happen.” By working through mass media, pirating it as he did advertisements earlier in his career, KAWS creates a movement on a scale unavailable to artists in the past. “I love how he subverts everyday brands to an extent where every brand would love to get pregnant by his art!” says Lee Lodge, who asked KAWS to take on MTV’s iconic Moonman and make it his own for the 2013 Video Music Awards. “Art for me is about connection, provocation, seduction. He hits every button.”
What may set KAWS apart from artists like REAS (Todd James) and Barry McGee, who both came up through street art and have since entered the art world, is his accessibility. “I think he’s very sincere, very much connected to being human,” curator Michael Rooks explained. Where McGee is insular, or Banksy cynical and satirical (choosing to remain anonymous and limit his interventions to rare occasions), KAWS makes work that is ecstatic, open, and extroverted, even if the artist himself doesn’t have such a public persona. “There’s an emotional layer to Brian’s work that emerges when you spend time with it,” Rooks said.
Though he had previously told Interview, “no matter how things go in the gallery world, I’m still going to want to make product,” KAWS has tapered off creating mass-market commercial products and closed OriginalFake earlier this year, perhaps to put more focus on his studio, rather than factory work. That quote betrays two impulses: one, to keep gaining art world credibility, and two, to appeal to as many fans as possible, spreading the viral KAWS aesthetic across the world. Such is Donnelly’s problem: he’s already succeeding in the art world, but he will have to decide if he wants to pursue that success to the utmost degree, possibly alienating some of his earlier fans in the process.
KAWS has created a successful career for himself by leveraging his street work into lucrative gallery shows that trade on the same imagery, but by doing so, he has forsaken some of the outsider status that Banksy still possesses.
“When graffiti isn't criminal, it loses most of its innocence,” Banksy recently told the Village Voice, remarking on his month-long project to blanket New York with new work. “As soon as you profit from an image you've put on the street, it magically transforms that piece into advertising.” KAWS has created a successful career for himself by leveraging his street work into lucrative gallery shows that trade on the same imagery, but by doing so, he has forsaken some of the outsider status that Banksy still possesses. The anonymous artist has avoided some of the stigma of commodification by remaining rebellious. “Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist,” Banksy said.
“Artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jenny Holzer were able to speak to a bigger public, and go beyond the visual tricks and aesthetics of the street to create bodies of work that worked best in a gallery,” street art critic and founder of the art blogazine Hyperallergic, Hrag Vartanian, wrote to Complex in an email. “The question is whether KAWS will be able to make the leap.” Though KAWS’ imagery is undeniable, there remains the possibility that his art world success is ephemeral. If Donnelly continues to evolve as he has, there is no doubt that his success will continue.