KAWS, an artist whose real name is Brian Donnelly, has established a body of work that transcends the once-rigid boundary between commercial and fine art. His disregard for the strictures of both worlds has paved the way for popularity on a global stage. KAWS’ art, inspired by both the Pop art and Street art movements, is lauded across disciplines — including fine art, toys and collectibles.
Today KAWS works in a New York studio where, together with a team of assistants, he produces intricately thought-out works of art and collectible objects. From his studio, he creates every piece on a reduced scale, either with a paint-by-numbers palette, or through to-scale architectural mock ups of shows he will be curating. This diligent, exacting approach is just one of the reasons for his success. But as one of the most collectible artists on the market today, what other factors have contributed to such success?
KAWS art is driven by the rule that you can’t put a lot of weight in others’ opinions. The artist self-funds virtually every piece of work that he produces, regardless of scale, giving him uncompromising control over his output. He has maintained flexibility, grasping every promising opportunity that has come in his direction with both hands, resulting in a catalogue of work that covers an unusually wide gamut, all the while never ceding control to clients or commissioners.
Animation and Appropriation
Donnelly’s work was first embraced by the Street art and graffiti community, where he made waves by removing advertising posters from their cases and taking them home, where he would embellish them with KAWS figures and motifs that have come to represent his work: crosses over eyes and hands, Mickey Mouse-inspired gloved hands, ‘Companion,’ who has a stylized skull-and-crossbones face, and Bendy, a character resembling a tadpole who cavorts with the likes of Kate Moss in her Calvin Klein underwear in a way that is at once friendly and threatening.
Initially, the artist had spent a year working as an animator in studios, including Disney, and the exquisite draftsmanship and attention to detail required for this work carried over into his Street art, where he was considered to be one of the most talented artists among his contemporaries. He became recognized beyond his field because of his prolific work adapting advertising campaigns across New York City. His adaptations of campaign artwork were positioned on the ‘right side’ of appropriation, allowing advertisers to feel in on the joke. His work was consequently embraced by the advertising industry as a whole, in some cases even leading to appropriations of his work by brands, such as Captain Morgan who responded to KAWS’ Ad Disruption by depicting the Captain doing graffiti on billboards. Naturally, KAWS then painted over that, too.
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In later years, and as his popularity has grown, appropriation in KAWS’ art has reached new levels, and often with the subjects of his work serving as willing participants. In addition to Disney-inspired characters, Donnelly has since produced subversive responses to some of the most iconic characters in popular culture, including Peanuts, Warner Bros. characters, Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, The Smurfs, the Michelin Man, and The Simpsons. KAWS’ best-known piece is an interpretation of The Simpsons’ own appropriation of The Beatles’ album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
When the opportunity presented itself for Donnelly to produce a range of vinyl toys, despite believing that “toys are the worst word in the graf (graffiti) community,” he embraced it. Having always wanted to create sculptural work, he saw the opportunity as a means to reach a personal artistic goal. His vinyl toys were wildly popular within the Japanese market in particular, and he became a celebrated figure in Asia long before reaching acclaim in the Western art market. Many KAWS toys are now highly sought-after collectible objects that reach lofty sums at auction. In 2018, KAWS’ sculptural work titled Companion (Passing Through), part of an edition of ten, sold for 3,500,000 HKD (over $450,000).
Another key to KAWS’ success has been his brand collaborations. KAWS has made it clear from his early work that he wants his creative output to be democratic and accessible to everybody. While some of his vinyl figures are considered limited edition collectibles, he makes efforts to keep other figures available at an accessible price point for a broad range of fans and followers. Similarly, he works with a range of consumer brands — including no fewer than thirteen footwear collaborations, beginning with DC Shoes in 2002. His latest collaboration was a series of Nike Air Jordans in 2019.
2008 proved to be a significant year for KAWS in terms of reaching a mass audience and popular acclaim. He was invited by the musician Pharrell Williams (known as Pharrell) to participate in an exhibition curated by Pharrell at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Miami, Florida. The show comprised work created by KAWS alongside pieces from Pharrell’s personal collection. In the same year, KAWS was invited by musician Kanye West to produce the artwork for his album 808s & Heartbreak. In 2008 he offered consumers and fans four footwear collaborations with companies including Marc Jacobs, Nike and OriginalFake.
Thanks to his rise in popularity in the consumer market, in 2012 KAWS received an invitation from Macy’s department store to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. As the world’s largest parade, nationally televised in the United States, KAWS’ work was thrust before a mass audience in his home country. Summarizing the symbolic nature of the achievement, street artist Ron English said, “The art world hadn’t got a piece in the Macy’s Day Parade until KAWS.”
Around this time KAWS collaborated with a broad range of creators, including two prominent partnerships: one with the legendary Parisian boutique Colette, and the second for MTV, for whom he reimagined the network’s iconic annual awards trophy by substituting the Moonman figure with his Companion. But it was undoubtedly the Uniqlo KAWS collaboration in 2016 that Donnelly credits with ultimately enabling him to take his work to the mainstream. “I don’t want someone to buy my t-shirt for $200. I wanted it to be a t-shirt they could buy, and wear and throw out. I felt like I needed to do something to exist on a more candid level.” The success of the Uniqlo x KAWS collection laid the groundwork for an ongoing relationship between KAWS and Uniqlo. A new collection has returned each each year since.
New Work on Monumental Scale
Despite his success producing commercial objects, KAWS continued to operate in the realm of fine art. His first invitation to create a project in Britain provided Donnelly the opportunity to create large-scale artistic work in a new medium. In 2016, an open-air exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park opened to the public, featuring wooden and fibreglass sculptures from his character set — produced on a monumental scale. This work demonstrated his ability to appeal to an entirely new audience (an audience traditionally more accustomed to work by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore). The exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park was a resounding success, demonstrating that his figures were adaptable, complementing a bucolic setting just as well much as an upmarket boutique.
As KAWS’ star continues to shine, the reasons behind his unprecedented success are many and varied. Learning from the greatest figures in popular art movements, KAWS has deliberately taken his work into extremely public space, allowing its exposure to a diverse public. His countless collaborations have won him wider audiences and resulted in powerful advocates across industries. And his uncompromising approach and rejection of the peer pressures of any one industry means that his vision has resisted watering down by the requirements of clients and budget that affects so many creative visionaries.