kaws

$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

© 2019 ARTNEWS MEDIA, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ARTNEWS® IS REGISTERED IN THE U.S. PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE.

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.