NEW YORK – Legend has it that Brian Donnelly (b. 1974-) first scrawled “K A W S” on Jersey City, N.J., rooftops, in the line of vision of his high school classroom. He not only liked its look—how the letters linked together—but eventually adopted this as his personal moniker.
While living in New York City, KAWS surreptitiously “improved” billboard, phone booth and bus stop advertisements by XX-ing out models’ eyes and adding cartoonish skull-and-bone motifs.
After graduating from the New York School of Visual Arts, he worked briefly as a Disney animator by day and street artist by night. Tiring of graffiti, he began experimenting with three-dimensional sculptures of his linear creations. Thus in 1999, in collaboration with the Japanese brand Bounty Hunter, KAWS Companion — an irreverent riff on Mickey Mouse — was born.
Though Japanese are avid fans of anime graphics and characters, few found Companion appealing. Undaunted, the budding artist consigned his remaining stock to the New Museum store in New York City. There, they caused a sensation.
Because Companion is blank-faced, enthusiasts interpret him any way they feel. To some, his pudgy body, oversize shoes and cauliflower ears are cute, companionable or comforting. To some, he embodies despair or loneliness. To others, his XXed-out features and skull-like head are grim reminders of mortality. Richard Wright, president at Wright Auction, however, finds “dissected” Companions – ones which reveal private, exposed human interiors opposite public, protected personas, the most unsettling of all.
After his New York success, KAWS, together with Japanese Medicom, created Companions ranging from hand-size to highly collectible “life-size” models standing nearly 50 inches tall. He also issued KAWS-ified versions of chubby Chum, toothy Be@rbrick Chomper, SpongeBob SquarePants, Pinocchio & Jiminy Cricket; and Snoopy, a longtime favorite.
In collaboration with OriginalFake, an exclusive Japanese streetwear brand, KAWS produced art-toys, figurines and homewares. He also translated his pop-art imagery into trendy, urban fashion statements. It was the ultimate marketing symbiosis. KAWS collectibles boosted KAWS streetwear sales; KAWS T-shirts, windbreakers, sweaters, jackets and hoodies boosted KAWS collectibles. As his work became increasingly well known, prices rose.
KAWS Companions — grayscale, candy-colored, plush, or plastic — continued to charm. And due to heightened demand, those reaching the secondary market started to command extraordinarily high prices. “Since this situation may correct itself over time, I encourage collectors and buyers to be patient,” said Wright.”If they want to pay a little bit extra and get a KAWS today, that’s OK. But don’t push too hard. KAWS is very prolific. There will be more.”
KAWS Companions have also continued to grow. Monumental versions have “visited” museums, art galleries and exhibitions across Asia, Europe and America. A hand-stitched, helium-filled model measuring 30 feet tall, 40 feet long, and 34 feet wide graced Macy’s 2012 Thanksgiving Day Parade. Not long after, KAWS set a 115-foot-long inflated Companion afloat in a Hong Kong harbor. As he explained to CNN, “I wanted to create a work that was really about just relaxing—taking time for yourself and just laying down and looking up.”
Over time, KAWS also designed scores of related products, including cosmetic packaging, liquor bottles, guitar picks, NIKE sneakers and a trophy for the MTV Video Music Award. In addition, he illustrated covers for popular music albums and prestigious magazines, like The New Yorker.
From 2016, KAWS, with Uniqlo, an affordable, international casual “lifewear” company, issued limited-edition Companions, collectible plushies, T-shirts and accessories, all bearing his profitable images. By merging art with commercial art-wear, KAWS blurred the lines between high art and popular street culture. Devotees raised on Looney Tunes or Sesame Street, upon buying one of his inexpensive T-shirts, for example, join the elite world of art.
In addition to art-toys, homewares and fashion, the artist also produced desirable acrylics, graphics, posters and prints. Some, like Companion – Bus Stop (2001), depict instantly recognizable, blown-up, tried-and-true graffiti images. Others, like Presenting the Past (2014), are whimsical interplays of distorted, brightly colored graffiti fragments.
At first, “Man’s Best Friend,” an exclusive KAWS portfolio of 10 black-and-white screen prints seems like a giant jigsaw puzzle gone awry. Yet on closer look, familiar XXs and images, including snippets of Snoopy, peek through its tangled web. As KAWS explained in a 2017 Vogue interview, “I’m into [Charles] Schulz as an artist, a company, and an icon; I got into his stuff just because I liked the looseness of the line work, and I thought that it was just sort of a nice thing to bring into my paintings, even if it’s abstract and unidentifiable.”
“Because demand outweighs supply,” Wright revealed, “KAWS paintings are incredibly expensive. Yet if I were buying for investment, I would choose the highest quality I could afford. Alternatively, I’d consider a large, unique Companion or one of the artist’s limited-edition prints. Investment or not, all his pieces offer mystery, pleasure and joy.”
“KAWS speaks to something that’s in the air right now—a 21st-century visual interpretation of nostalgic pop culture,” Wright said. “He’s not only timely. He’s incredibly hot.”
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