Artist KAWS Reveals the Inspiration Behind His New Sculpture in Brooklyn

AD gets the first look at the new large-scale installation

By Jordi Lippe-Mcgraw

October 7, 2019

KAWS unveiled his newest sculpture in Brooklyn.

KAWS unveiled his newest sculpture in Brooklyn.

Brian Donnelly, aka the artist KAWS, is one of the most in-demand talents. Though he started as a graffiti artist and even did a stint at Disney as a background animation painter, it’s his large-scale toy figures that cemented his legendary status. The 45-year-old created a giant floating sculpture in a lake in Seoul, designed a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, and has produced pieces that have sold for over $1 million.

With so much buzz around the artist, fans are eager to know when a new piece will be revealed. Well, the answer is now. Architectural Digest learned exclusively that the latest sculpture from KAWS, titled WAITING, will debut today at The Greenpoint, new luxury apartments in Brooklyn. The piece will feature one large and one small KAWS sculpture, totaling more than 20 feet in height, and stand just outside the property, near the India Street ferry stop.

The work depicts KAWS’s famous COMPANION character and shows a large protective figure offering a compassionate or familial gesture to a smaller figure in a moment of reflection and stillness. In WAITING, these larger-than-life characters look out to the water, greet ferry commuters at the pier, and welcome residents, neighbors, and international visitors to this burgeoning destination.

An aerial rendering shows the position of KAWS's  WAITING  sculpture.  Photo: Courtesy of the Greenpoint

An aerial rendering shows the position of KAWS's WAITING sculpture.

Photo: Courtesy of the Greenpoint

Because KAWS is based in North Brooklyn, he was a compelling choice for this waterfront location, according to Mack Real Estate Group, the developers of the project. KAWS found inspiration from this proximity, as well.

“When I was invited to do this commission, I was living a few blocks from the site,” he tells AD. “My wife was often taking the ferry, and I was imagining going to wait for her to arrive. That’s where the title WAITING came from. I was inspired thinking about the many people from all walks of life getting on and off the ferry passing the sculpture.”

He adds, “I hope when people pass the sculpture, it takes them out of their routine commute and leads them to new thoughts and puts them in touch with their surroundings in a new way.”

The developers hope the unique sculpture helps to bring the community together. “Public art can become a unique focal point for a community, drawing people together through moments of shared enjoyment and thought-provoking discussion,” Richard Mack, CEO & co-founder of Mack Real Estate Group, tells AD. “WAITING has great potential to provide that for the Greenpoint and for Greenpoint more broadly, and we continue to seek opportunities for thoughtful art installations in our properties.”

Asked how this piece is different than previous works, KAWS says it's the location. “It’s the first public work that I could visit on a lunch break,” he tells us. “I love knowing it’s only a few blocks from my studio.”

Contemporary artist Kaws on success, critics, and his new Australian exhibition

Ahead of his first exhibition in Australia, Brian Donnelly (aka Kaws) opens the doors of his Brooklyn studio to show how a graffiti artist from Jersey became one of the most influential artists of his generation.

You would assume when an artist’s painting sells at auction for more than A$20 million, they’d have an ego. That they’d be demanding, precious or painful, even. What you wouldn’t expect is that they’d be quietly spoken, perfectly polite and almost shy about their success. But this is exactly who Vogue stumbles upon when visiting the Williamsburg studio of Brian Donnelly, who has worked under the pseudonym of Kaws since the early 90s. Having started out in street art, he is now regularly labelled one of the most prolific artists of the moment – just don’t expect him to tell you that himself, or name-drop one of the many celebrities who collects his work.

Dressed in what he jokes has been his uniform for the past 20 years (plain T-shirt, dark pants, grey sneakers and cap), Donnelly, 45, opens the large roller door to his studio to reveal a collision of colour and cartoons. White walls and polished concrete floors contrast with paint bottles in neat formation and bold works-in-progress destined for his first Australian exhibition, at the National Gallery of Victoria in September.

It’s a coup for the gallery, which has been courting the artist for more than three years, and Donnelly, in his own unassuming way, is excited to be showcasing paintings, sculptures, fashion collaborations plus more in Australia for the first time.

“It’s just sort of an introduction,” he offers, now sitting upstairs surrounded by Kaws plush toys and the Moonman trophy he redesigned for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. “I’m considering this [exhibition] as if I’m showing up to a place where people have never heard of me.”

It’s also a chance, Donnelly says, to explain how a graffiti artist with a love of skateboarding infiltrated the art world and came to achieve both elite and mass appeal. “When I was coming up there was only Keith [Haring] and to me he was the most accessible person working in the contemporary art world. But I feel like that has since expanded.”

Donnelly grew up in Jersey City, across the river from Manhattan, and says he fell into street art like a regular hobby. “It’s just something I gravitated towards and usually did in my own time. You’re young, you’re skating, other kids are doing graffiti and it’s all around you. Then as I got more into it, I realised how it was this ‘thing’ happening everywhere.”

When he hit his teens, Donnelly started working under the Kaws name (choosing the letters because they looked good together) and made friends with other ‘graf’ fans via a magazine called Undercover. They’d photograph graffiti from their respective cities then trade the hard copies with others. Donnelly shares a post from his Instagram of a “rusted out” freight train carriage he tagged back in 1994 that was spotted again a year ago.

Untitled (collaboration with David Sims) (2001). Image credit: courtesy of the artist and NGV.

Untitled (collaboration with David Sims) (2001). Image credit: courtesy of the artist and NGV.

Eventually he went to art school in New York to study illustration before working on backgrounds for Disney on 101 Dalmatians and other shows like Daria and Doug.

After dabbling with animation paint, a medium he still uses today, Donnelly gained prominence for his take on ‘subvertising’ in New York City. At night he would remove brand ads from the likes of Calvin Klein and Guess from bus shelters, telephone boxes and even billboards, take them back to his family home, then customise them with his own illustrations before posting them in areas of his choosing.

“I started to realise the parallels between graffiti and advertising and just communication in general – how to reach people,” Donnelly remembers. “I thought the ads were a great vehicle to get work out there. A lot of people thought it was anti-advertising, anti-establishment. For me it was more about just existing in my environment and taking these larger things and making them my own.”

His reworked ads became so popular that people started stealing them. Even now, an original will emerge at auction and Donnelly does his best to buy those back.

By the late 90s, he’d moved into 3D, creating his first Kaws’s toy, called Companion – now a regular fixture of his work – with Tokyo-based company Bounty Hunter, after a trip to Japan. With its oversized head, crosses for eyes and Mickey Mouse-style body, Companion has appeared in painting, sculpture and even caused New York’s Museum of Modern Art website to crash after a limited-edition figurine went on sale in 2017.

“When you’re young, it’s not like people are telling you how to do things. It’s not like you even know who to ask or what to ask,” Donnelly says of his unconventional career path. “So when you find yourself in this situation where you can make something you’ve never made before … it blows your mind. What else can you make? What if you could do it this big? Or what if it’s real?”

Jumping from medium to medium and fusing art with commerce has become a common thread. Since the early 2000s the Kaws name has been lent to Nike and Marc Jacobs for footwear, Comme des Garçons, Kiehl’s for beauty, and album cover art for Kanye West. As an artist Donnelly has worked with giant inflatables (after creating a four-metre tall Companion for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2012), become proficient in sculpture and enjoyed a stint mashing up cartoon characters from The SmurfsSpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons (which he calls The Kimpsons).

It was a painting of the latter (titled The Kaws Album) that was responsible for the record-breaking auction earlier this year. Riffing off the cover art from the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album but using the cast from The Simpsons, it was sold by its owner for more than 15 times what Sotheby’s had expected. While Donnelly won’t be drawn on who dropped more than A$20 million for the piece (“It was just a collector and they texted me straight after”), speculation was rife that the buyer was Justin Beiber, because the singer posted a shot of the painting soon after.

“I think anybody who tells you they weren’t surprised is lying,” Donnelly says of the sale. “But it’s not as though I feel I have any part in it. I feel like I’m looking at it like everyone else, and being like: ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’” While many artists would have been happy with the windfall, Donnelly says he “wasn’t so thrilled” – because the sale happened straight after he sent a 37-metre-long inflatable Companion figure down Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong as part of a new exhibition. “I had just done that piece in the water and everything went well on that project and we got everyone covering it – news stations and CNN; it was on the front page of newspapers. So I was on a high and then the auction happened and I was just like: ‘Blergh.’

It just sort of took everything and made it a number … about money. I made [that painting] over 10 years ago. It just existed. But now there’s this number attached to it. It’s becomes a thing.”

Ironically, the less Donnelly seems to care about money the more he makes. In 2018 his works sold for a combined A$48 million at auction (an increase of 113 per cent from the previous year). His global influence is growing exponentially too, thanks to Instagram (he has 2.2 million followers and the Kaws hashtag has been used more than one million times), as well as ranges with Japanese high-street retailer Uniqlo, one of which was responsible for a riot in China recently. “Uniqlo has an omnipresence,” Donnelly agrees. “I have two kids and I’ll be at the playground and there will be other kids we don’t know [wearing the pieces]. It’s strange. Uniqlo has that sort of [reach] and that’s why I loved working with them. They have all these stores in different countries and that lets you have a synchronised global release.”

Donnelly’s high-low approach to contemporary art has won him many fans around the world, but he has had his critics, too. He’s been called out by curators who prefer fine art ‘purity’, and a piece in The Art Newspaper earlier this year accused him of “conceptual bankruptcy”. But Donnelly is unfazed. “I always felt like what Keith Haring and his Pop Shop did for inclusivity was really important. I think about how that stuff got to me in my house in Jersey City. What did I get to see? And how can I make work that disseminates in that same way?” He’s equally ambivalent about the New York art scene, explaining that “there are really great things about it, there are really negative things about it – it’s like any scene”.

“I get what I need out of it,” Donnelly continues. “There are a lot of artists I really enjoy meeting and talking with and reflecting on their work, so there are lots of positives, but then there’s a lot of BS that you have to wade through.”

Not that Donnelly needs more allies, anyway. He’s good friends with Pharrell Williams (“We’re close,” is all he’ll say) and pals with Dior Homme creative director Kim Jones, which explains why the designer tapped Donnelly to work on revamping the label’s logo, as well as asking him to create a giant sculpture made of flowers for the spring/summer ’19 show.

His wife, Julia Chiang, is also an artist, and Donnelly plans on bringing her as well as their two girls, Sunny, five and Lee, almost three, out to Australia later this year. His exhibition, titled Kaws: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness, is being billed as the most comprehensive survey of Donnelly’s work to date and includes a selection of sculptures, murals, products designs and paintings – including the record-breaking Kimpsons piece on loan from its owner. Also on display will be a special commission of an 8.5 metre-tall bronze Companion sculpture titled Gone, which will become part of the gallery’s permanent collection.

When showing Vogue through a model of the exhibition, Donnelly makes the joke “the NGV show kicked me into cataloguing stuff” and says he never would’ve imagined he’d end up here. Yet in a story he did with Interview magazine a decade ago, Donnelly said he “woke up wanting to do [graffiti] and fell asleep thinking about it” when he was younger. He says it’s still the same, but probably due more to being so busy. “At this point there are a lot of balls in the air and a lot of things to think about – how to orchestrate these projects and get things made. It’s not just me alone. It’s working with all different foundries and people in different countries and trying to keep things on track.”

As for his hopes for the NGV show? “There is no hope!” he mocks. “It’s just for people to come and see the work. Hopefully it makes them curious to know more.”

Kaws: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness opens at the National Gallery of Victoria on September 20. NGV design store and Kaws have also collaborated on a limited-edition collection that will be available from September 20 online and at the NGV design store, located at NGV International.

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia's September 2019 issue.

20th Sep 2019


KAWS Announces Retail Collection for Upcoming Exhibition, Previews Pink 'GONE' Companion Figure

The collection will coincide with the artist’s show at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.


KAWS has just shared an image of a pink and grey version of his new ‘GONE’ companion vinyl figure, closely following the artist’s initial preview of a black version last month.

Both new figures will release on the occasion of KAWS’ upcoming exhibition “COMPANIONSHIP IN THE AGE OF LONELINESS” at National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Along with the preview, KAWS also announced that he has collaborated with the gallery’s accompanying design store, NGV Design Store, to create a full retail collection that will drop on the exhibition’s opening day.

According to both KAWS and NGV Design Store, the collection will go live both online and in-store September 20 at 10 am Australian Eastern Standard Time. Besides the two new ‘GONE’ companion figures, the rest of the collection is still under wraps. Keep it locked here for more details as they arise.

KAWS also announced his upcoming “BLACKOUT” exhibition, which will happen in London this October.

By Emily Engle via HYPEBEAST

6 Reasons to Take KAWS Seriously

Installation view of KAWS,  ALONG THE WAY , 2013, in "KAWS: ALONG THE WAY," at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2019. Photo by Jonty Wilde (@jontywilde on social). Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Installation view of KAWS, ALONG THE WAY, 2013, in "KAWS: ALONG THE WAY," at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2019. Photo by Jonty Wilde (@jontywilde on social). Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

The art world always seems to need a punching bag. Often, it’s an artist who is both a popular favorite and a market darling; someone whose work is so rabidly beloved by the masses that they can’t possibly be serious. Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, might be the most prominent recent example of this phenomena.

KAWS is a global star—2.3 million Instagram followers and counting—who so many establishment critics talk of with disdain, if they talk about him at all. Witness The Art Newspaper, for instance, which sets the tone by lamenting the “sheer conceptual bankruptcy” of KAWS. “Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Sherrie Levine, Sarah Lucas. These are the artists who waged war on elitist, bourgeois models of aesthetic and conceptual value,” the author writes, before adding that KAWS “does not belong to this lineage”—as if that were ever his chief ambition.

Installation view of KAWS,  BORN TO BLEND,  2013, and  BLUSH,  2012, at the Modern Museum of Fort Worth, 2016. Photo by Matt Hawthorne. Courtesy of the artist.

Installation view of KAWS, BORN TO BLEND, 2013, and BLUSH, 2012, at the Modern Museum of Fort Worth, 2016. Photo by Matt Hawthorne. Courtesy of the artist.

KAWS has had a long and winding career—one that began as a street artist, throwing up tags and culture-jamming phone booth advertisements in New York with his own cartoonish iconography. His first solo show was at the Parisian boutique, Colette; he’s now represented by Skarstedt Gallery in New York, a tony Upper East Side establishment that works with artists like David Salle and Christopher Wool. KAWS has always straddled all worlds—producing collectible toys; collaborating with Uniqlo on clothes that set off mass hysteria; making auction news; and stealing the show at Frieze London.

It’s possible that, 50 years from now, art history will look back on KAWS as someone who further troubled the line between art and commerce in intriguing ways. At the same time, this isn’t what makes him truly interesting, and to discard his entire output as frivolous—so many silly cartoons with X’ed out eyes, signifying nothing—is just lazy. Below, a few reasons to take KAWS seriously—not as a savvy entrepreneur or an icon of hypebeast culture, but as an artist, plain and simple.

His largest-scale sculptures are a new kind of Land Art

His largest-scale sculptures are a new kind of Land Art

Eugenie Tsai, a curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, oversaw “KAWS: ‘Along the Way,’” a KAWS survey that opened at the institution in 2015. More recently, she was thrilled by KAWS’s “KAWS: Holiday” project, for which the artist installed a 37-meter sculpture of one of his “Companion” figures in spots around the world.

“Social media enabled me to observe the gigantic sculpture, slumbering at the foot of Mt. Fuji through rain and shine, through day and night. Throughout it all, the mountain seemed to shrink,” Tsai said. “KAWS uses scale to shift and rearrange our perception of our immediate, outdoor surroundings, in a way that’s comparable to what some of the artists making Earthworks in the 1960s were doing.” Whereas Land artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson relied on documentation in magazines to publicize their remote projects, Tsai said, KAWS is able to use platforms like Instagram, ensuring that millions of strangers can virtually experience his ambitious interventions.

The sculptures also have an unexpected emotional range. “KAWS: Alone Again,” a recent KAWS exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), included five sculptural figures posed around the semi-darkened exhibition space. The works “are rooted in art history, aware of the past,” said MOCAD executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, who curated the show. “There’s a lot of melancholy in the figures. You do feel the sense of loss, of being alone, when you look at them.”

Read Full Article Here

Generation XX: How Kaws Short-Circuited the Art World


Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, short-circuited the fine-art galleries and auction houses when his playful paintings and cartoon-inspired cast of recurring characters (known by their signature ‘XX’ eyes) led to record-breaking sales. Now his outsize success may forever alter the perceived legitimacy of artists who came up honing their skills on the streets.



August 5, 2019


I'm slaloming a mess of titans. To be more precise, I'm standing inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in the final moments before Alone Again, a new exhibition by the artist KAWS, opens for a crowd of VIPs.

Every which way I turn, I find myself unwittingly confronted by a tweaked-out member of KAWS's odd mob of massive carved wooden sculptures. The most common presence is the artist's iconic character Companion. (Imagine a Mickey Mouse-adjacent creature with a skull-like face, cauliflower-esque four-chambered ears, and KAWS's signature “XX” eyes.) And yet, despite their alien nature, the sculptures each exude familiar emotions.

Take SMALL LIE, for example: The eight-foot figure stands slump-shouldered, knees knocked, eyes glued to the ground. There's incredible pathos. Or AT THIS TIME, wherein Companion stands almost nine feet tall, back arched with hands cupped over eyes, conveying a kind of muted shock and disbelief. Not far away is FINAL DAYS, in which Companion is on the move, stepping one foot in front of the other, arms outstretched, doing a low-key Frankenstein strut. Given the fact that all the pieces are taller than me, the overall effect of standing amid the bizarre cluster is that of being fully submerged within a twisted Venn diagram of awkward human feelings.

Running along the back of the room is a 62-foot-long, 12-foot-high site-specific wall painting that fills the cavernous space with brightly vibrating energy. It is adorned with a trio of 6-foot-high-by-10-foot-long canvases. Each one is a teeming tangle of abstracted tentacle-like shapes over a background more reminiscent of the artist's earlier cartoon-inspired geometric planes. The synergy of all three elements comes together to elicit a sensation of being both transported and slightly held against my will in a kind of psychedelic Land of the Lost.

“Clearly there are elements of color field. There's amazing line work. And, of course, abstraction,” says MOCAD executive director and chief curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder, walking alongside me. “These paintings are really monumental.”

And this is a monumental show for MOCAD as well, at a moment when the appetite for KAWS worldwide is nothing short of rabid. To list just a few notable recent KAWS headlines: There was his 121-foot-long inflatable sculpture that floated in Victoria Harbour during Art Basel Hong Kong in March; a 33-foot-tall version of his newest character, BFF, made out of pink flowers, as the centerpiece of Dior's show at Paris Fashion Week; a line of clothing for Uniqlo that sparked Black Friday-style chaos and actual violence; and a record-setting $14.7 million auction of THE KAWS ALBUM—a 40-inch-by-40-inch painting, and homage within an homage, that uses the artist's “Kimpsons” motif to reimagine a Simpsons version of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Any of these might have been a crowning achievement to an artist's career. For KAWS, it just amounts to what he did this past year.

And yet, sitting with KAWS—a.k.a. Brian Donnelly—the next day in Detroit, I was hard-pressed to glean, based on his understated demeanor, the staggering amounts of high-profile work he is producing and the roster of side projects he is currently involved in. This commitment to spreading oneself around is a sea change in the contemporary-art world. Projects of the sort KAWS takes on—a line of clothing, a product redesign—that were once considered taboo, or even career killers, for an artist on the hunt for a serious career are now understood to be part of the contemporary artist's purview. They are not just “acceptable” side hustles, but downright sexy additions to the portfolio. To someone like Borowy-Reeder, whose extensive and varied museum career threading through Raleigh, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and now Detroit has afforded her the POV of a kind of enriched outsider, the prospects of what a KAWS brings to the landscape of contemporary art is a welcome sign of the changing times. “The palace gates might still be somewhat closed—and there's a moat,” she says. “But I think it was Virgil Abloh who said, ‘How many collaborations is too many?’ He's mixing street and ready-to-wear fashion and killing it. And I hope more people get inspired by that model or lens of freedom, working on the outside, pushing in. With people like KAWS and Abloh, things could get really exciting.”

When KAWS was coming up in the late '90s, he was met with resistance by galleries and managed to book scant few shows. Despite the demonstrated success of “street artist” forebears like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, KAWS—who'd made a name for himself initially with graffiti-style tags and urban installations—struggled to get past labels like “too street” or “too illustrative” or “too commercial.” He was, for better or worse, relegated to success outside the gallery. But in the past decade, as the line between high and low in art has blended considerably and the sorts of side endeavors that KAWS has readily embraced since jump have become par for the course, KAWS's approach to being a contemporary artist has dovetailed seamlessly with what the moment craves most.

In Detroit, I ask KAWS if he approaches any of his paintings, installations, or collaborations differently, if maybe there is an inherent hierarchy based upon scale or degree of cultural significance.

“For me,” he says, looking at me like I'm speaking Sanskrit, “it's all the same thing—there's no difference between any of the projects I do.”

And that right there is probably what has made him, gradually and then suddenly, one of the best-known artists of his generation.

KAWS creates original paints with Golden, unique to only his work, on display here at his studio in Brooklyn.

It wasn't always this way. Back in 2003, when I first met KAWS—I was meant to write a catalog essay for a gallery show in Los Angeles that never happened—he was a working artist, arguably successful by most metrics but somewhat derisively labeled a “street artist” while, ironically, finding his interest in doing street works on the wane.

“The vibe in New York got weird post-9/11,” he tells me now. “In 2002 you weren't trying to break into bus shelters. Everybody was on edge and alert. ‘Who is this guy with a wrench taking apart this phone booth?’ ”

Leaving behind street work was a significant departure. KAWS had elicited attention in the early '90s throwing up traditional graffiti-style “KAWS” tags—a name that simply struck Donnelly as visually appealing; it has no hidden meaning—on billboards around Jersey City. “You're totally thinking how to have a visual impact,” he says. “And making stuff that's a quick read. You're competing against thousands of kids, and you learn from people who have done it before you.” There were inherently elevated stakes developing one's practice in the streets: You had to stand out against everything else in the cityscape.

After barely graduating high school, Donnelly cobbled together a portfolio and eventually gained entrance to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and, upon graduation, secured entry-level work doing illustrations for an animation company. It was at this point, in response to the change in his everyday terrain, that Donnelly's interests shifted. He had a new canvas, so to speak. “In Jersey City there were billboards everywhere, so that's what I painted on,” he says. “But once I got to the city, it became more about bus shelters and phone booths.”

More specifically, it became about the artist's “interruptions”—sly subversions of ads for hot brands like Calvin Klein or Guess, to which the artist festooned his Bendy character, a mischievous serpentine being he'd entwine around a Kate Moss or Christy Turlington. Because of their placement in downtown NYC and SoHo, the works were clocked by his growing number of fans—and were often stolen for resale. Eventually, KAWS began to sour on the operation: “When I first started doing the interruptions, they'd last like two months. At the time, I was working as an illustrator for Jumbo Pictures, and I'd mostly install them along my trail to work. But it got to the point where the pieces would last for like a half day. I'd go back to document them, and there would just be a pile of glass on the ground where I'd just installed the piece. I was like, ‘What's the point? They're just ending up on eBay or whatever.’ ”


The upside to the eBay heat was that the works traveled far and wide. Among the particularly fervent early admirers was an influential cadre of designers and tastemakers in Japan, including Nigo of A Bathing Ape, Hikaru Iwanaga of Bounty Hunter, Jun Takahashi of Undercover, and Medicom's Akashi “Ryu” Tatsuhiko. Donnelly, in turn, made frequent sojourns to their shores, where he developed an unlikely creative outlet. In collaboration with Bounty Hunter and Hectic, KAWS designed his first-edition “toy” in 1999. The first release, an eight-inch-tall version of the aforementioned Companion, which originally sold for $99, was followed by the release of the artist's next character, Accomplice, a slightly out-of-shape-looking Pink Panther doppelgänger with a Companion skull-head and a set of pert bunny ears. As the figures began reselling for thousands, their massive popularity began to lay the groundwork for the artist's zealous fan base.

Meanwhile, KAWS was making his earliest inroads into the gallery world. First, in 1999, with tastemaker extraordinaire Sarah Andelman at her seminal Paris boutique, Colette, and then at Parco Gallery in Tokyo. The 2001 Parco Gallery show featured two bodies of work. The first included black-and-white panels derived by abstracting imagery sampled from Chum, another character. The second was a series of colorful “landscape paintings,” which looked like tripped-out Ellsworth Kellys made from vast swaths of electric color and shards of Simpsons characters' heads. At the time, KAWS's decision to work in Japan was a pragmatic one, based on demand and the openness to his art there. But he recalls coming up against some wariness back home: “People were like, ‘Why are you doing all this stuff in Japan that nobody sees?’ I was going where the work and opportunity was. And when the energy started moving over that way [Asia], I was like 10 years in already.”

But the gallery success remained somewhat muted—there just wasn't the same sort of interest and energy as KAWS found in his other pursuits. In 2006, KAWS's established relationship with Medicom proved fortuitous once again when he partnered with the brand on his very own retail space in Tokyo, OriginalFake, which showcased his toys and OriginalFake streetwear. “Instead of playing the gallery game,” says Damon Way, who cofounded DC Shoes and approached KAWS about designing a sneaker at a time when artist-sneaker collabs were pretty much nonexistent, “he had all these sorts of proxies of influencers of culture in Japan that gave him so much lift and allowed him to avoid it.”

Having a brick-and-mortar operation gave KAWS his very own laboratory to beta-test ideas that struck his fancy. “I started OriginalFake because, in 2006, I decided not to care about galleries at all, not to give a shit, let the chips fall where they may,” he says, thinking back on his off-road adventure into the unconventional. “I was doing a completely commercial venture, a brand, a store. I designed everything, which was a lot of work, but when you work in all these different ways, you meet people, and that's ultimately what creates other opportunities, and so, ironically, that's when things started opening up.”

KAWS often leaves dots of color in working designs so that he can move between dozens of works at once without losing his place—a sort of paint-by-numbers.

KAWS often leaves dots of color in working designs so that he can move between dozens of works at once without losing his place—a sort of paint-by-numbers.

$14.7 M. KAWS Painting Smashes Auction Record in Hong Kong

The auction world’s exclusive eight-figure club has a new member.

On Monday night at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, a painting by the artist KAWS (aka the New Jersey–born Brian Donnelly) sold for a staggering 115.9 million HKD, or about $14.7 million in U.S. dollars, a new auction record for the artist. The result came at Sotheby’s “NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1” sale, with The Kaws Album (2005) soaring past its estimate of 6,000,000—8,000,000 HKD ($760,000–$1 million) to that lofty finish.

The record-shattering piece, which is a riff on the cover art for the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club (1967), easily eclipsed KAWS’s previous record of $2.7 million, which was set last November in New York at Phillips in its 20th-century evening sale by Untitled (Fatal Group), 2004, a work that presents the artist’s take on the classic Fat Albert cartoon.

In this sale, Sotheby’s was offering pieces from the collection of the streetwear impresario Nigo, who styles his name with the registered trademark (as seen in the name of the auction). It grossed a total of nearly $220 million HKD, or $28 million, across 33 lots, meaning that record-setting painting accounted for about half of the haul.

Aside from collecting, Nigo is the creator of the streetwear line A Bathing Ape and co-founder of the clothing label Billionaire Boys Club with the musician Pharrell, and the pieces he was selling displayed a vigorous cross-pollination between art and streetwear: five of the lots were sneakers, four of which were BAPE in collaboration with KAWS. Two lots of two pairs of shoes went for 125,000 HKD, or $15,900, which comes out to about $7,950 a pair (or $3,975 per shoe).

The sale was almost entirely comprised of work by KAWS. Other top lots from the auction were three riffs on The Simpsons by the artist, all from 2003: Untitled (Kimpsons), which sold for 21.2 million HKD, or $2.7 million; Untitled (Kimpsons #3), for $20.5 million HKD ($2.6 million), and Kimpsons Series, for $7.4 million HKD ($940,000).

KAWS has had quite a time in Hong Kong over the past week, as the Art Basel fair ran in the city. On March 25, the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation opened a survey exhibition, “Along The Way,” organized by the storied Italian curator Germano Celant, and for a short time, a giant inflatable of his character “Companion” was floating in Victoria Harbor before it was taken down two days early due to weather conditions.

BY Annie Armstrong


10 things to know about KAWS

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The artist is taking the art world by storm — his giant inflatables have graced a lake in Seoul and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, his characters feature on T-shirts, and his paintings sell for seven-figure sums at auction

1 KAWS is not his real name

Brian Donnelly (b. 1974) studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Before he achieved success as an artist he worked as a background painter on animated series such as Disney’s 101 Dalmations, and cult shows Daria  and Doug

2 He started out as a graffiti artist

From an early age Donnelly was known for marking buildings in New Jersey and Manhattan with ‘KAWS’, a tag he chose because he liked the way the letters looked together. He soon moved on from this simple tag, however, and developed a unique style that involved adding cartoon-like figures to bus-shelter advertisements.

Later, he would replicate these early works of ‘subvertising’ in a series of screenprint lithographs. These included a mock Calvin Klein ad, featuring supermodel Christy Turlington being embraced by a green figure.

From an early age Donnelly was known for marking buildings in New Jersey and Manhattan with ‘KAWS’, a tag he chose because he liked the way the letters looked together. He soon moved on from this simple tag, however, and developed a unique style that involved adding cartoon-like figures to bus-shelter advertisements.

Later, he would replicate these early works of ‘subvertising’ in a series of screenprint lithographs. These included a mock Calvin Klein ad, featuring supermodel Christy Turlington being embraced by a green figure.

His origins in graffiti brought his work to a diverse audience, many of whom had nothing to do with the art world. Unlike most artists, KAWS did not start out with a gallery; he was fully aware of the benefits of showing his work in the street and mass-producing pieces in order to build a following. This following became so big that it attracted the attention of collectors and critics.

Speaking of his early days as a graffiti artist, Donnelly said, ‘When I was doing graffiti, my whole thought was, “I just want to exist.” I want to exist with this visual language in the world… It meant nothing to me to make paintings if I wasn’t reaching people.’

3 KAWS made his name with toys

In 1999 KAWS visited Japan after being approached by Bounty Hunter, the cult toy and streetwear brand. He would go on to create his first toy, ‘COMPANION’.

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Produced in an edition of 500, the toys sold out almost immediately, and COMPANION became a recurring figure in KAWS’ work.

4 He’s having a moment

In March 2019, a 121-foot-long inflatable version of KAWS’ COMPANION  is set to be installed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour during Art Basel. Anchored by a 40-ton weight, versions of the piece — dubbed KAWS: HOLIDAY — were previously on view in Seoul and Taipei, and mark the latest step in the artist’s rise to fame over recent years.

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Although KAWS was successful in the 2000s, the 2019 Artnet Intelligence Report reports that in 2017 his average sale price almost doubled, from $42,272 to $82,063. In November 2018, five KAWS pieces sold for more than $1 million, and across the year his work realised over $33.8 million at auction.

5 He’s big on Instagram

KAWS’ success on social media has been a big factor in his surge to the forefront of the contemporary art world. At the time of writing, more than 900,000 posts bearing the hashtag #kaws had been posted on Instagram, compared to 300,000 for Jeff Koons and 192,000 for Damien Hirst. Specialists have speculated that this could partly be down to the fact that his bright, Pop-art style reproduces faithfully online, but this popularity can also be attributed to KAWS’ origins as a street artist.

6 KAWS and the comparisons to Basquiat and Haring

Described by curator and art historian Michael Auping as ‘[Clement] Greenberg’s worst nightmare’, KAWS is seen as the enfant terrible of the New York art world. Many have compared him to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, whose own inimitable styles started out on the street, as well as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, who both had an instinctive understanding of the possibilities of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

KAWS has name-checked his influences, which vary from Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselman to Takashi Murakami, the latter in terms of what the artist describes as ‘acceptance and crossover projects’.

7 He’s known for appropriating beloved characters

‘No cartoon is safe from being consumed and turned into KAWS,’ says Christie’s associate specialist Noah Davis. The artist is known for subverting iconic cartoon heroes and in doing so he demonstrates his interest in the characters’ universal cultural value, reinforcing the idea that he makes no distinction between concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

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8 He once designed a float for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

In 2012 a KAWS COMPANION  balloon was seen floating down the streets of Manhattan as part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, its XX eyes covered by large gloved hands. Its appearance alongside characters as Mickey Mouse and Sonic the Hedgehog provided further proof of KAWS’ ability to transform art into a spectacle for mass consumption.

9 KAWS and collaboration

After successfully launching his own fashion label, Original Fake, in the early 2000s, KAWS began working with a number of cult streetwear labels, including Bathing Ape and Supreme. In 2008 he designed the cover for Kanye West’s much feted album 808s & Heartbreak, and more recently he has developed his own pair of Nike Air Jordans.

In 2019, Paris Fashion Week saw Dior designer Kim Jones debut his Spring/Summer 2019 collection with a KAWS interpretation of the fashion house’s iconic bee design, set against the backdrop of a 33-ft tall pink flower sculpture of KAWS’s ‘BFF’ character, reproduced as an editioned toy in a mini Dior suit.

KAWS has also collaborated with the Campana brothers on a range of furniture covered in plush toys, which debuted at Art Basel Miami and was immediately snapped up by Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner.

10 His work sells for as little as $15 and as much as $2.4 million

KAWS has teamed up with NIGO, originally of Bathing Ape fame and now creative director of Uniqlo’s LifeWear UT line. His current collection with the Japanese brand sees him redrawing beloved Sesame Street characters on a collection of T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies and toys. All priced under $50, the pieces feature the tagline, ‘You’re never too old for the street’.

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In contrast, last November’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s in New York saw KAWS’ 2012 painting, CHUM (KCB7), sell for $2,412,500, almost five times its high estimate.