KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips
  • It’s difficult to overstate KAWS’ importance to contemporary art. The American multidisciplinary creative has in many ways come to define the gold standard of an artist in the 21st century: scything down the traditions of art while retaining a successful and singular vision.  



    Early Beginnings


    KAWS has always understood the fundamental requisite of giving his art a stage to flourish. As a street artist in New York City in the 1990s, he honed his skills by developing a signature skull-and-crossbones motif, which he would later evolve into his iconic ‘Companion’ character. This character, a hybrid of popular culture icons, served as a reflection of KAWS’ deep understanding of the power of public art and the ways in which it can shape the cultural landscape. KAWS’ experiences as a street artist also instilled in him a keen sense of the importance of accessibility and audience engagement; by creating art in public spaces, the artist was able to reach a wider reception and make his work a part of the fabric of everyday life. ‘It’s definitely a great training ground [graffiti]. I mean, that's everything. Basically, speaking for myself, you build an image and a presence’, the artist explainsi.



    KAWS posing with some of his original graffiti work
    Image and Artwork: KAWS


    A Diptych of Popular Chaos


    Adept at subverting and refashioning the familiar in pop culture, KAWS has always tended to cartoons as a means of highlighting the inherent malleability of cultural symbols. As curator Mónica Ramírez-Montagut explains, ‘…we recognise the cartoon characters yet, with KAWS’s intervention, the meaning becomes somewhat subverted…Since we are familiar with these characters…we in fact feel empowered to ponder the meaning and have an opinion. Thus it is up to us to decide whether these are homages or criticisms’ii. The present lot plays well into this satirical reinterpretation. Pinch, painted in 2010, is an extravagant contortion of Cubist measures where the culturally ubiquitous character SpongeBob SquarePants is reconditioned into KAWS’ unique visual vocabulary. Facial features are unanchored and clash together to produce seismic levels of pictorial chaos that is supercharged with raw emotion. By dissecting the figure and isolating certain constituents to magnify the significance of the eyes and mouth, we are compelled to confront these abstracted forms directly. This in turn adds a complex layer to our interpretive process and necessitates our active engagement with the artwork, provoking us to imbue it with our own perspicacious conjectures.


    Despite being rooted in their source imagery, KAWS’s paintings are not appropriations of specific animated cartoon narratives but rather form broader dialogues of universal human emotions. Of his practice, KAWS has commented, ‘even though I use a comic language, my figures are not always reflecting the idealistic cartoon view that I grew up on, where everything has a happy ending’iii.


    “…And as I investigated it more I realised all these similarities between SpongeBob and tonnes of other earlier cartoons from the thirties and forties, up to the present. I like the way common eyes and noses can exist through different formats and how just a dominant colour change or some other sort of shift will completely identify existing forms with a new cartoon. So I think that’s why you see SpongeBob and it instantly feels familiar. It’s sort of a combination of many things you grew up on.”
    — KAWS in conversation with Pharrell Williams


    It is interesting to note that the current lot was exhibited as part of KAWS: PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE. This exhibition title may be a subtle reference to a line in Thomas Pynchon's famous novel, Gravity's Rainbow. In the novel, a character reads a tombstone with the words, ‘Death is a debt to nature due, which I have paid, and so must you,’ which is a powerful reference to the novel's opening epitaph: ‘Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation.’ Remarkable that almost four decades after the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, KAWS’ artistic practice is similarly adept at blending diverse cultural elements in his works, much like Pynchon's penchant for combining high and low culture. 



    KAWS: PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE, 6 November - 23 December 2010,
     Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris 
    Artwork: © KAWS


    Critique of Power


    This recurring theme of merging high and low culture has become a hallmark of KAWS’ diverse and multifaceted body of work, and functions as a crucial postmodern mediation of today’s world. By breaking down and reconfiguring familiar forms, he challenges our assumptions about the coherence and stability of identity and meaning. In Pinch, the figure is deconstructed and reassembled in various permutations, highlighting the fluidity and multiplicity of identity. This fragmentation also speaks to the commodification of art and the commercialization of culture, as its stratification of form attempts to peel back to layers of financial interest that now permeates the art world. 


    Despite his association with pop art and his use of cartoon characters, KAWS’ work is anything but superficial. His works are deeply introspective, exploring themes of loneliness, isolation, and mortality in a way that is both poignant and thought-provoking. Through his use of form, the artist speaks to the ways in which our identities are often fractured and incomplete, highlighting the sense of disconnection that many of us feel in an increasingly polarized world. Therefore in doing so, he creates a body of work that is at once relatable and yet deeply personal.

    From the streets of New York to the global stage, KAWS continues to blaze a trail through the ever-interconnected worlds of toys, graffiti, fine art and fashion. Despite this, he remains resolute about his raison d’être as an artist: ‘It’s just always been about communication, and I've found other means. Now I get to have that dialogue with the world.’iv



    Collector’s Digest


    Sold by Phillips Hong Kong for HK$8,599,000, 1 December 2022
    Artwork: © KAWS


    • KAWS’s multidisciplinary practice has caught the attention of collectors worldwide. The artist has shown commitment to remaining accessible by collaborating with global fashion brands including Dior, Nike, and Uniqlo

    • KAWS has exhibited extensively in renowned institutions including solo exhibitions at—The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Qatar Museums, Doha; Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Michigan; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; Yuz Museum, Shanghai, China; Yorkshire Sculpture Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Málaga; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and the High Art Museum, Atlanta.

    • The artist received a retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia (2019-2020) and most recently, the highly acclaimed major survey at the Brooklyn Museum, New York in 2021. 

    • His works are cemented within the permanent collections of international institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, the CAC Malaga in Spain, and the Rosenblum Collection in Paris.

    i Evan Pricco, ‘Art Louder Than Words’, Juxtapoz, online
    ii Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, KAWS, exh. brochure, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, 2010.
    iii KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 5
    iv Evan Pricco, ‘Art Louder Than Words’, Juxtapoz, online

    • Provenance

      Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, KAWS: PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE, 6 November - 23 December 2010

    • 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..10' on the reverse of each panel
acrylic on canvas, diptych
left 182.9 x 60.96 cm. (72 x 24 in.)
right 213.4 x 152.4 cm. (84 x 60 in.)

Painted in 2010.

Full Cataloguing

HK$5,500,000 - 7,500,000 

Sold for HK$6,096,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023