KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Brian Donnelly, et. al., KAWS: 1993-2010, New York, 2010, p. 204 (illustrated, p. 205; dated 2005)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Painted in 2004, KAWS’s playfully irreverent UNTITLED (FATAL GROUP) is exemplary of the artist’s unique visual lexicon that deconstructs the division between popular culture and fine art. Composed on an immersive scale akin to the grand tradition of history or myth painting, this enigmatic work evinces KAWS at his most technically accomplished and conceptually resolute. Painted with such perfected clarity that there is no trace of the artist’s hand, the careful balance of block colors and monotone shadows harnesses an emotive nostalgia that supports KAWS’s longstanding project of appropriating children’s cartoon characters. The present work refigures the cast of the animated series The Fat Albert Show with their heads composed in the artist’s trademark cross-eyed skulls. Reading like a movie poster without text, this image provides an entrancing scene that challenges the artifice of familiar mass media images and a saturated contemporary visual culture.

    With UNTITLED (FATAL GROUP), KAWS alludes to the historic genre of the group portrait that was popularized in 16th and 17th century Europe, but, rather than depicting nobility, he selects a familiar image from children’s entertainment. Running from 1972 to 1985, The Fat Albert Show was a popular animated television show for children. Inspired by cartoon imagery, KAWS essentially inserts himself into a long tradition of appropriation within a fine art context: from Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “R. Mutt” signature on his 1917 rendition of Fountain, through to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans and the photographic appropriation of The Pictures Generation. Yet, rather than re-contextualizing faithful copies of an original, KAWS interprets the Fat Albert cast in his own, highly distinct visual language that echoes Michael Auping’s observation that “KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it” (Michael Auping, “America’s Cartoon Mind”, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 63).

    KAWS, who like Warhol began his career as an illustrator, takes appropriation and reworks it into a mutable or evolutionary form of art. This impulse stems from his early career as a graffiti artist when he would intervene on billboards, fashion ads and photo booth advertisements, modifying photographic images so skillfully that his brushstroke-free additions would appear as if they were part of the original imagery. This seamless intrusion of his own aesthetic continues in the present work, where the distinction between original source and the artist’s additions are completely dissolved in a unified surface. KAWS has remarked that he "…wanted to work within the language of the ad, to form a dialogue" (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 27). As in his earlier graffiti days, he has painted X’s into the eyes of these figures, giving them an empty appearance but also marking them with the moniker of his Generation X.

    KAWS’s frequent crossover to cartoons positions him as the most recent epitome within a lineage of American artists engaging with graphic art and cartoon illustrations. Cartoons served as an important platform for artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, and Philip Guston to hone their draftsmanship and compositional skills, but also served as a source of inspiration for Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to launch their careers. This decade-long development, as poet Robert Duncan has suggested, is “the evolution of the Jungian cartoon mind… The cartoon is our [Americans’] subconsciousness acted out in the public” (Rubert Duncan, quoted in Michael Auping, “America’s Cartoon Mind”, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 65).

    KAWS seems to echo this sentiment, choosing cartoons because they inherently act out human emotions, distilled and often simplified to their partly abstracted forms and tropes. As Michael Auping observed of KAWS’s paintings: “this is existentialism absorbed in a cartoon world” (Michael Auping, “America’s Cartoon Mind”, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 68). This description appears particularly apt when considering the double-entendre of the work’s parenthetical title “FATAL GROUP”, which strongly opposes the optimism and moralizing didacticism of the Fat Albert series. Here, KAWS strikes a profound discord between the jubilant poses and saccharine composition of the TV show’s characters and the dark allusions to death and danger. He offers not only a recognition of mortality within an otherwise timeless realm of fantasy, but the realization that not all is what it seems, and that the real world lying behind this cute cartoon curtain is far less utopian, far less easily redeemed by quick moral lessons. Fostering a unique sense of the uncanny, in UNTITLED (FATAL GROUP) KAWS presents the ultimate cultural hybrid and a historic addition to the canon of visual appropriation.

  • Artist Biography


    American • 1974

    To understand the work of KAWS is to understand his roots in the skateboard and graffiti crews of New York City. Brian Donnelly chose KAWS as his moniker to tag city streets beginning in the 1990s, and quickly became a celebrated standout in the scene. Having swapped spray paint for explorations in fine art spanning sculpture, painting and collage, KAWS has maintained a fascination with classic cartoons, including Garfield, SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons, and reconfigured familiar subjects into a world of fantasy. 

    Perhaps he is most known for his larger-than-life fiberglass sculptures that supplant the body of Mickey Mouse onto KAWS' own imagined creatures, often with 'x'-ed out eyes or ultra-animated features. However, KAWS also works frequently in neon and vivid paint, adding animation and depth to contemporary paintings filled with approachable imagination. There is mass appeal to KAWS, who exhibits globally and most frequently in Asia, Europe and the United States.  

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signed and dated "KAWS..04" on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
68 1/8 x 68 1/8 in. (173 x 173 cm.)
Painted in 2004.

$700,000 - 900,000 

Sold for $2,716,500

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018