KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, May 25, 2019 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    “What’s abstraction to somebody that knows something? If you look at something but then you know what it is, is it still abstraction? You just start looking at the gestures and how they work and thinking about the history of painting and how it can relate to that.” (KAWS quoted in Senay Kenfe, ‘Exclusive: KAWS on “MAN’S BEST FRIEND” at Honor Fraser’, The Hundreds, 16 September 2014, online)

    Cartoons have had a long history in American popular culture— their short narratives simple, direct and persuasive under the unsuspecting veil of humour and cuteness. A genre no longer confined to the realm of children’s entertainment, its ability to relate to all ages and remain timeless throughout history and contemporary culture is often overlooked. American artist Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, taps into this medium by parodying characters from popular cartoons with his distinct artistic aesthetic. These characters, with crossed-out eyes, skull-like faces and crossbones for ears have become the most iconic features of his oeuvre. KAWS draws from the comforting familiarity associated with popular cartoon characters, but also abstracts and reworks them with warped perspectives and frenzied outlines to elicit more complex emotional responses from his viewers.

    In 2014, Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles held a solo exhibition for the artist featuring his then-latest body of works. The exhibition MAN’S BEST FRIEND highlighted how various cartoons influenced KAWS, with hints of iconic characters coming through abstract compositions of colours and crossed eyes. The present lot continues this exploration in the form of a large-scale tondo work. With ‘X’s for eyes that conventionally represent death in cartoon culture, KAWS uses his signature motif as main anchors of the composition as differently-sized fragments of the familiar comic strip beagle emerge into view. Well-known for his clean visual imagery, KAWS’s lack of visible brushstrokes and use of a minimalist monochrome palette maintain a graphic quality to the work— stripping the figurative into an abstract surface that directly confronts its viewers. The viewer recognises the lovable beagle character, but its crossed-out eyes and agitated lines assign an entirely new personality to the original cartoon. The repetitive effect from the multiplication of the figure conveys a sense of insecurity— as if the character is attempting to assert its presence by echoing itself. Accompanied by its outstretched limbs and unnatural smile, undercurrents of angst, unease and even empathy, are elicited in the viewer.

    As with the present lot, the MAN’S BEST FRIEND series applies a highly zoomed-in perspective towards his paintings. His figures are only seen in parts, as the rest of them disappear along the edges of the canvas. Almost as if to mimic the familiarity of taking snapshots of a friend on a mobile phone (most evident in the work MAN’S BEST FRIEND, 2014), works from this series convey a sense of the nostalgia experienced by a generation of youths and millennials who grew up watching and reading these cartoons. Through UNTITLED (MBFL6), KAWS brings to light the abstract nature of animation, but also shows how personal an image can be in evoking inherently human expressions. As pointed out by curator and scholar Michael Auping, “cartoons are designed to simplify human emotions: happy/angry, good/ bad. KAWS introduces more complex and subtle feelings, such as melancholy, disgust, pride, and envy. This is existentialism absorbed into a cartoon world.” (Michael Auping, in ‘America’s Cartoon Mind’, in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, WHERE THE END STARTS: KAWS, Texas, 2017, p.68 ). Put simply, KAWS’s unique vision allows the artist to sugarcoat the harshness and uncertainty of contemporary life through lovable characters and simple colours.

    Using accessible characters as his main subjects, KAWS opens up the realm of art not only to art critics and intellectuals, but also to a mass audience through popular culture. Not only is he highly sought after in the realm of art, he has continued to influence every possible commercial outlet with his visual identity and voice, collaborating with the fashion and design industry, producing toys, clothes and even furniture, resulting in an increasingly large following on social media. One of the reasons why KAWS is gaining worldwide popularity at breakneck speed, according to art historian and curator Germano Celant, is that his works represent “the democratisation, industrial and commercial, of a contemporary aesthetic, which is supported by the digital network with KAWS as its protagonist with his thousands and thousands of followers”. (Germano Celant, quoted in ‘KAWS célèbre: street artist's first survey—and huge inflatable—make waves in Hong Kong’, The Art Newspaper, 25 March 2019, online)

    KAWS was honoured in 2018 by amfAR at its fourth annual amfAR Gala in Hong Kong. He then received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA) from the New York Academy of Fine Arts in New York in April 2019. The artist’s next solo exhibition will take place in Detroit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), showing 10 May – 18 August 2019.

  • 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.  

    View More Works



signed and dated 'KAWS..15' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
diameter: 244.3 cm. (96 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2015.

HK$3,500,000 - 5,500,000 

Sold for HK$5,310,000

Contact Specialist

Isaure de Viel Castel
Head of Department, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 26 May 2019