By now you must have heard of him even if you are not that into contemporary art. If you haven’t heard the name, you must have at least seen his classic X-eyed figures (and if — surprisingly — you haven’t yet, you will soon. As Christie’s Noah Davis said: “no cartoon is safe from being consumed and turned into KAWS”).
For the last years, he has been taking the contemporary art scene by a storm. His artworks sell for millions at auctions, but he is literally omnipresent in all price tiers from as low as $15 to as high as… the future will tell (but even the present already shows a figure in excess of $2 million). So, who is this guy anyway and what is so peculiar about the way he appeared on the international art scene.
To begin with, the word (or better — the name) KAWS doesn’t have a meaning behind it. It is just a combination of letters, which was found to be “nicely fitting together” by its creator — Brian Donnelly. Starting off in Jersey City and moving on to New York, Brian step by step acquired the fame of a graffiti artist. His “thing” was a practice of “subvertising” or parodying corporate ads on billboards in various places, like e.g. bus stops. He would open up the public billboard, add his cartoon-like creation with X-eyes and then return the ad back to its place. In fact, X-eyed creatures became Donnelly’s notorious signature. Later, KAWS moved to limited-edition prints, toys, and sculptures, keeping his unique and highly recognizable imagery.
Donnelly received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration from the Manhattan School of Visual Arts and in parallel with his street art career, had a usual (I am tempted to say — normal) daily job with Disney. Thus, works by Donnelly-animator appeared in such series as 101 Dalmatians, Daria, and Doug. However, eventually graffiti got a stronger hold of him and he decided to follow his own creative urge. In addition to subvertising, KAWS from the outset remained open to different other formats and cooperations. In 1999 he partnered with Japanese company Bounty Hunter and created his very first vinyl toy — Companion — produced in an edition of 500 (note: he immediately went for an editioned item, not just an unlimited mass-production). This trade-markedly X-eyed “Mickey Mouse merged with a skull” sold out almost immediately, and ever since KAWS Companion became a recurring figure in his work. Following that cooperation, KAWS engaged in many (many) others, in the beginning mainly with Asian companies.
KAWS’ cooperation with Medicom Toy resulted in the creation of OriginalFake — a brand and a store in Aoyama (operational between 2006 and 2013). Moreover, at various stages, he worked together with Nigo, Santastic!, Supreme, UNIQLO, designed a cover for “808’s and Heartbreak” album by Kanye West, snickers for Adidas and even a cognac bottle for Hennessy.
Speaking about cooperation with UNIQLO, the allegedly final one (he cooperated with the brand on several occasions before) resulted in a literal battle this year in the shops all over China. In the words of Tim Schneider and Caroline Goldstein: “We’re talking about dozens of grown men and women—yes, the videos show a gender-balanced menagerie of hypebeasts — wrestling each other to the ground at shop entrances and ripping t-shirts from one another’s hands as if they were the last jugs of potable water after total societal collapse.” You got the picture.
In 2018 KAWS’ works generated a total of $33.8 million at auction. Pretty nice number for a living artist of a street art background. Then again, Keith Haring likewise started off as a graffiti artist, but further earned his place in the art history and his works nowadays sell for several million (Untitled, 1982 was sold at Sotheby’s for $6,537,500 in 2017). Even more so, another street art prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat went even further, fetching in excess of $110 million in 2017. Both Haring and Basquiat are undeniably important contemporary artists. Yet both of them were sadly dead before their works reached those outstanding auction results and art historians unequivocally entered their names in the art history books. But is KAWS-phenomenon comparable to that of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat? Does he have the same potential? Or is he just a craze of the moment? Be it as it may, but at the VIP preview at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2018 people were queueing to sign up for a lottery (!) for the chance to part with $65,000 (!) for an edition of a new print by KAWS. Insane as it might sound (given the price tag, this case is even more insane than the KAWS x UNIQLO story), but this is how on-demand Donnelly currently is. The question remains, however, how long will this last?
Josh Baer, an art advisor, curator and a famous art market journalist, is very pessimistic about the future for KAWS. Baer is known to compare his success to that of Kim Kardashian (somewhat haughty implying the shallow, inflated and temporary character of his phenomenon). Baer predicts that collectors of KAWS’ artworks, wishing to sell, have to be prepared “to take one or two zeroes off in 20 years”.
But let’s step back for a moment and look at how KAWS’hacked the art market. Unlike it is casually done, the artist KAWS did not start with an art gallery. Now he is of course represented by several galleries (notably, Skarstedt), but at the outset of his career, he went just to one special “gallery” — Instagram. This seems to have been a perfect move since, at the time of writing this article, the hashtag #KAWS on Instagram indicates 1 million hits… To put things in perspective the hashtag #koons has only 78,5K hits, #hirst — 25,8K, #basquait — only 8K, #anishkapoor — 174K; #banksy — 1,5M; and the general hashtag #contemporaryart has 28,1M. In other words, KAWS is certainly big online and basically, that’s where, in addition to being on the street and engaging in all these cooperations with Asian (and not only) companies, Donnelly has started.
Through growing a strong follower base, KAWS secured his recognition and appreciation, mostly among the younger generation. Artnet quotes world-famous mega-collector Alberto Mugrabi saying, that collectors visiting his office would especially ask for seeing KAWS exactly because their kids were insisting they do. Thus, Instagram helped. Now, of course, it helps that Mugrabi owns a substantive collection of KAWS and promotes his work. However, his strong social follower base secures that not only the classic art world moguls see the value and potential in the artist, but also the general public gets emotionally engaged with his art. Doesn’t that mean that Josh Baer is wrong and KAWS, in fact, is the Haring (or Basquait or Warhol, you name it) of his generation, who will be in the classic art history books one day? I believe that it’s highly likely. The hype and social engagement aside, the particular art tends to stick around if there is a strong dialogue, and in the case of KAWS, there is. In other words, KAWS art is not hanging in the vacuum. His art has clear art-historical influences, it fits into the contemporary art setting and more than likely, it will influence the new generation of artists. Above all, KAWS is talented, prolific, voguish and…unmissable even when he is on holiday (yes, that’s a nod to the immenseKAWS: Holidayfloating in Hong-Kong. “Google” that one — as I say: unmissable). Thus, I seriously believe that KAWS has a strong potential to reach Basquait sales figures still during his lifetime.