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