KAWS - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, May 31, 2024 | Phillips
  • “You know, I think it’s more of the visceral feelings of cartoons, the flat colors, that I relate to. When I’m doing a painting there’s no narrative or anything like that. It’s just sort of, ‘This composition feels good. These colors feel good.’”
    — KAWS
    PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE was the title piece for KAWS’s late-2010 exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Paris. Its ominous name refers to a quote from Gravity’s Rainbow - ‘Death is a debt to nature due, which I have paid, and so must you’- a common 18th century epitaph given new life in Thomas Pynchon’s landmark psychedelic novel, and enriched again in this mercurial, multicoloured dreamscape. All at once, the artist animates the memento mori, a classic trope of the Old Masters, with the elastic freedom of colour and line his early graffiti work carried, and his usual wry inversions of pop culture icons. He calls to mind an enormous range of creative influences, but his work is not bound to a set story or line of art history -even his own- and so continues to surprise.


    KAWS’s unique way of refining culture also bears out in this composition, a homage to one of his favourite 20th century artists. In 2001, he discovered the work of the sculptor H. C. Westermann, alongside four other artists who revealed a braver, wilder, and less categorisable side of art history: ‘These were all the artists I was interested in—it was a great opportunity to see all that work together’ i. Particularly enraptured by Westermann’s drawings and watercolours, he started collecting them for 10 years before moving on to his sculptures: the former includes Drawing of a Man Underwater, Sea of Cortez, where the artist, as his lounge lizard alter ego, sees himself threatened by a hammerhead shark. KAWS closely transplants this unsettling silhouette onto the canvas in the present lot - only this time, a large-gloved and shoed mascot resembling Mickey Mouse (or KAWS own Companion) is the aggressor.


    H.C. Westermann, Drawing of a Man Underwater, Sea of Cortez, 1974.
    Image: Courtesy of the artist’s Instagram. Artwork: Artwork: © Estate of H.C. Westermann / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York



    Embracing Diverse Mediums

    One of the most incredible aspects of KAWS’s career and practices is his adventurousness: there is no method of making art that he is not willing to explore, giving him a vast range of tools and influences throughout his rich career. It began with graffiti on the streets of New York as a child, which continued with an illustration degree at its School of Visual Arts, integrating his own designs into the billboards and advertisements of the city. Collaborations with photographers, fashion designers, and toy manufacturers have let him cannibalise multiple forms of established media, injecting his morbid-yet-friendly aesthetic in a similarly disruptive manner and unsettling their cultural dominance in a similar manner to Warhol. Having briefly worked as a background painter for Disney, he takes on the colour... the below work PINCH showcases Mondrian-esque distortions of SpongeBob Square Pants in his rendering of the KAWSBOB character.


    KAWS, PINCH, 2010, sold by Phillips Hong Kong in March 2023. Artwork: © KAWS


    Their uniform, readymade shapes are further meticulously broken down in the present lot. In the exhibition PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE at Galerie Perrotin, it is portrayed as ‘a man captured and manhandled by Nature, which has reclaimed its rights’ ii, yet just as the title suggests, the ‘debts to Nature’ is rendered as faceless and depthless cutouts, filled by single and unmoderated colours. Aside from a jagged, similarly monotone tree branch bending down on said man, the landscape and objects around them have little suggestion of the real world: amorphous blobs and stalagmitic downward spikes fill the black background.



    Still Untethered

    "Abstraction always interested me, […] probably because it relates to design logos, and, in a very basic way, animation. Drawing itself is an abstract process until it becomes something recognisable."
    — KAWS
    By mixing this abstract free play with vaguely cartoon figures, KAWS shows us the shared freedoms of popular animation and high art, without being bound by either label. Both can defy standard realism and figuration to show us incredible new creative visions, but can also become trapped and stale through mass-reproduction, academic sermonising, and overfamiliarity. KAWS allows us to see their potential again: ‘This is not a simple mixing of the cartoon figure with the abstract, but a blurring of the two, bringing to light the abstract nature of cartoons, as well as the figural possibilities of abstraction’.iii His uncontainable oeuvre, constantly introducing new mediums and methods rather than keeping to the familiar, only heightens this effect.


    In this way, his painting continues to introduce revelatory new sights and connections, while carrying over a practice from the outset of his career. As his early graffiti work introduced unexpected colours, patterns, and characters into familiar commercial environments, his painting -executed with the same precise wildness- strands mass-media figures, broken down and recoloured, in the world of the art gallery, where they can inspire and provoke again. For all his prestige, success, and global ubiquity, KAWS is still finding ways to make art feel exciting and new.


    KAWS’s signature graffiti tag on a MetLife billboard, 1995. Artwork: © KAWS


    Collector’s Digest


    The present lot was exhibited at Paris, Perrotin, Pay the Debt to Nature, 6 November 2010 - 23 December 2010. KAWS’s versatility with high and low art, and ability to give any artistic project his own distinct identity, has made him a highly valued name among collectors and institutions. Critical plaudits and high bids have gone hand in hand with big name collaborators, including Uniqlo and Pharrell Williams, keeping his work accessible to a wide audience. He recently finished a solo exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario (September 2023 – March 2024 [it finishes on the 21st]) and in May 2024, The Andy Warhol Museum of Pittsburgh will host an exhibition of his work alongside Warhol’s. Other solo shows have been hosted worldwide, including at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Qatar Museums, Doha (both 2019), Brooklyn Museum, New York (2021), and the Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2017). His work also inhabits permanent collections on a similar level of prestige, including the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, the Rosenblum Collection in Paris, and the CAC Malaga in Spain.











    i KAWS, quoted in an interview with ARTNews, September 24 2019.

    ii Press release for KAWS’s Pay the Debt to Nature exhibition at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris (6 November – 23 December 2010).

    iii Michael Auping, ‘America’s Cartoon Mind’, in Where the End Starts KAWS, eds. Andrea Karnes and Marla Price, Texas, 2017, p. 71.

    • Provenance

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

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Perrotin, Pay the Debt to Nature, 6 November 2010 - 23 December 2010
      Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum; Shanghai, Yuz Museum, Where the End Starts, 20 October 2016 - 22 January 2017; 28 March - 31 July 2017, p. 110 - 111 (illustrated), p.194.

    • 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, titled and dated 'KAWS '10 "PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE"' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
213 x 305 cm. (84 x 120 in.)
Painted in 2010.

Full Cataloguing

HK$7,500,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for HK$5,969,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 31 May 2024