KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • If there is one artist who can effortlessly combine such varied influences as Dutch polyptychs, cartoon characters, and stylistic references taken from American literature, it is KAWS: an ardent chronicler of our times whose unique visual language has created an instantly recognisable oeuvre. Inspired by the Pop sensibility of artists like Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann, KAWS topples traditional ideas of fine art, masterfully blurring the line between art and commerce.


    A master in transforming the familiar, KAWS draws from nostalgic imagery in order to capture complex ranges in human emotion. Painted in 2010 and exhibited in the solo show, KAWS: PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE in Galerie Perrotin, HOT SEAT JUNCTION is a key example of this very ability. Cropping in on and chopping up the culturally ubiquitous character SpongeBob SquarePants, KAWS brings this well-loved icon into his unique vernacular with his signature crossed out eyes. Presented with a gasping mouth and surprised face, spliced together with dissected zoom-ins of his pupils and clenched jaw, our SpongeBob is charged with raw emotion. Standing at more than two by two metres high and wide, the figure’s iconic yellow visage is expanded and abstracted to larger-than-life proportions, amplifying its emotional impact on the viewer.


    Immediately recalling the introduction and theme song to the cartoon, where SpongeBob balloons into a swelling sponge mass in a bathtub, his body then quartered, each section bouncing arbitrarily to form an ill-fitting whole, HOT SEAT JUNCTION is an early work that re-contextualises the humble cartoon character within an art historical canon. Paralleling religious polyptychs most commonly created by early Renaissance painters, the present work borrows from this tradition, whose central panels would serve as the crux of a scene, with minor side panels serving to further bolster the over all narrative depicted.



    Agnolo Gaddi, Madonna and Child with Saints Andrew, Benedict, Bernard, and Catherine of Alexandria with Angels, triptych, c. 1387
    Image: © National Gallery of Washington, D.C., Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.4.a-c


    In HOT SEAT JUNCTION, KAWS succeeds in emphasising the magnitude of emotion captured through the repetitive nature of the panels. By starting with the character’s face as his reference point (the largest reproduction of which serves as his central panel), KAWS deconstructs the figure and isolates parts of the whole to place emphasis on the eyes and mouth within the exterior panels, forcing us to behold these vignettes essentially as abstractions of an already abstracted form, thus complicating our narrative reading of the scene, and compelling us to imbue the work with our own suppositions. 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.’i


    “…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

    Despite being rooted in their source imagery, KAWS’s paintings are not appropriations of specific animated cartoon narratives but rather broader interrogations 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’.ii Indeed, the overtly emotional reaction KAWS conveys in HOT SEAT JUNCTION—further reinforced by the strained emotions captured in the repeated focus on the character’s mouth, perhaps the nervousness one feels when sitting in the proverbial ‘hot seat’—seems to hold more convincing links to Pablo Picasso’s renderings of The Weeping Woman or indeed the frozen shriek of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, than any scene from the children’s cartoon show. Bearing this in mind, HOT SEAT JUNCTION serves primarily as a study in pure human emotion, one that is universally understood and transcends nationality, culture, and time.



    Private Collection, Artwork: © KAWS 
    Sold by Phillips, New York, 17 November 2021 for USD1,542,500 (Premium)


    It is curious to note that the present painting was exhibited in KAWS: PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE, a veiled nod perhaps to a line included in the great American novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Within the novel, a character reads the words ‘Death is a debt to nature due,/ Which I have paid, and so must you.’ inscribed upon a tombstone, a potent nod to the epitaph at the beginning of the novel: ‘Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation.’ In a strange twist of fate nearly four decades after the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, KAWS’s tireless aptitude for interweaving divergent strands of culture into his works can perhaps be likened to Pynchon’s own penchant for conflating high and low culture. In KAWS’s own varied and diverse practice, the transformative appropriation, recreation, and conflation of the high and low has served as a common thread for more than thirty years, serving as a theme that has underpinned his repertoire spanning painting, sculpture, printmaking, street art and clothing design.


    Following his limited edition toys of the late 1990s, of which the subjects were KAWS’s own creations, the artist turned to familiar television and cartoon icons such as The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse, the Smurfs, and SpongeBob in the early 2000s. Created by marine science educator Stephen Hillenburg in the late 1990s, SpongeBob SquarePants is the highest rated series to ever air on the children’s cartoon network, Nickelodeon. Speaking about his use of SpongeBob’s character in his practice, KAWS said ‘…I started doing SpongeBob paintings for Pharrell. Then I started doing smaller paintings, which got much more abstract. And SpongeBob was something I wanted to do because graphically I love the shapes.’iii


    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. His practice has been honoured with numerous solo shows around the globe, including a 2011 solo exhibition at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT, where the present work was on view. The artist also 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 Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, KAWS, exh. brochure, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, 2010, online

    ii KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 5

    iii KAWS, quoted in Tobey Maguire, “KAWS”, Interview Magazine, April 27, 2010, 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, triptych
overall 213.4 x 274.4 cm. (84 x 108 in.)
Painted in 2010.

Full Cataloguing

HK$7,000,000 - 10,000,000 

Sold for HK$8,599,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022