KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • "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" —Michael Auping 

    KAWS has achieved global acclaim through his ability to straddle the line between fine art and popular culture, working in an incredibly diverse range of media. He is best known for his ‘clean, graphic, and energetic style’ i across his paintings, sculptures and toys, making his work immediately identifiable. Graduating from the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1996, KAWS gained first-hand experience in animation, working at the animation studio, Jumbo Pictures during the time it was purchased by Disney. This informed his appropriation of famous characters in his work, as well as his painterly technique, using bright, saturated colours in an overall emphasis of flatness. KAWS is renowned for his signature hybrid iconography of reimagined childhood icons, and his softened skull with crossbones and X’d out eyes. UNTITLED is indicative of his abstract artwork, a meticulously rendered, deconstructed cartoon character, magnified, distorted and made unfamiliar, on which KAWS has stamped his trademark X’s.


    Abstraction and Animation

    "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

    UNTITLED is exemplary of KAWS’ deconstructive approach to painting. Michael Auping has argued how although one might assume KAWS works strictly within the Pop art tradition, ‘his process suggests an equal debt to Minimalism, in which abstract parts of materials are rearranged to create different types of wholes’ ii. In this way, KAWS draws on different elements of various well-known cartoon characters, creating new ones and inventing a distinct visual lexicon that he employs across different media. This recalls the work of Philip Guston, who became known for his use of recurrent imagery of cartoonish figures after his turn away from Abstract Expressionism.


    Philip Guston, Painter’s Forms II, 1978, Collection of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

    In UNTITLED, the character, barely distinguishable, has been stripped of any familiarity through the alteration of the image. Different features overlap, and we see X’d eyes and eyebrows in the top left corner, a small button nose just below, and what appears to be a red and orange hand, or paw, in the bottom right. These scrawling elements are akin to those found in his MAN'S BEST FRIEND (2016) screenprints, which feature “Joe KAWS”, his playful reimagining of Charles Schulz’s famous Beagle.



    Standing out in contrast to the looser line work of the rest of the painting, large, clearly outlined hands clench over the figure’s X’d eyes, which persist across defined boundaries in both red and grey. This suggests a foreign element on the canvas, the presence of another abstracted character that dominates a possible Joe KAWS. In cartoons, the X’d out eyes are indicative of drunkenness or death, further adding to the confusion and slightly sinister mood created by KAWS in this painting.


    The artist’s approach to painting can be traced back to his experience in animation, and indeed, the square boundary of the canvas of UNTITLED is evocative of an animation cell, giving life to the character by suggesting this is just a snapshot of a larger story. In the mid-1990s, KAWS would use animation paint for it’s ‘flat, self-leveling, and consistent’ qualities iii, and here too, the precision of his brushwork, despite the apparent looseness of the line work, achieves a perfect clarity of colour and line, leaving no trace of his freehand approach and producing an appearance of flatness.


    Andy Warhol, Quadrant Mickey Mouse, 1981

    The luminous colours of this work are not unlike the exuberant hues employed by Andy Warhol, such as in his Quadrant Mickey Mouse (1981), in which the artist has used striking lilacs, mustard and turquoise to create a lively image of this instantly recognisable pop culture icon. In UNTITLED, KAWS’ use of bright red and peach pigments jump out at the viewer, contrasting with the deeper violet and greys, defining the background from the foreground and giving the work a three-dimensionality that seems to pop off the wall.


    Collector’s Digest


    Continuing to blur the boundaries between fine and commercial art, KAWS has received both popular and critical praise. The artist has collaborated with significant global brands, including the clothing brand Uniqlo since 2016, and Nike, producing an Air Jordan 4 Retro shoe in 2017. His work has also been featured in solo exhibitions, such as a recent retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia (2019-2020), and in prominent public collections around the world, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, California, and the Rosenblum Collection, Paris. Last year, KAWS took over Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor during Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 with his large-scale public installation, KAWS: HOLIDAY, a monumental floating sculpture of his iconic COMPANION. KAWS is one of the most forward-thinking artists of our generation, taking the art world by storm and holding a unique influence over today’s popular culture. 

    i Andrea Karnes, ‘Pop in the Expanded Field’, in Where the End Starts KAWS, eds. Andrea Karnes and Marla Price, Texas, 2017, p. 5
    ii Michael Auping, ‘America’s Cartoon Mind’, in Where the End Starts KAWS, eds. Andrea Karnes and Marla Price, Texas, 2017, p. 68
    iii Michael Auping, ‘America’s Cartoon Mind’, in Where the End Starts KAWS, eds. Andrea Karnes and Marla Price, Texas, 2017, p. 72

    • Provenance

      Galerie Perrotin, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • 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

Property from a Prominent Asian Collection



signed and dated 'KAWS..15' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
213.9 x 183.2 cm. (84 x 72 in.)
Painted in 2015.

Full Cataloguing

HK$3,800,000 - 5,500,000 

Sold for HK$4,662,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020