KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, May 15, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I’m not thinking about a narrative, just the aesthetic and the shapes – how I can manipulate an image and reuse it” – KAWS

    In Untitled, 2016, KAWS embraces both popular culture and the tradition of abstraction through his iconic vocabulary of cartoon imagery. Executed the same year as the artist’s major solo exhibition KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which later traveled to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, Untitled is a striking example of KAWS’ signature shaped canvas paintings. In the present work, KAWS’ use of the dolphin-shaped canvas immediately calls to mind the ubiquitous symbols associated with popular beach vacation destinations, signifying a new direction in the artist's ever-playful, whimsical oeuvre. Imbued with a palpable, almost humorous energy, Untitled transports viewers to a holiday locale where KAWS reigns supreme.

    Fusing his signature cartoons with geometric abstraction, Untitled is exemplary of KAWS’ salient visual lexicon that has made him a leading purveyor of a new iteration of Pop artists in the 21st century. Around 2001, KAWS conceived of his first formal acrylic paintings on canvas. Executed fifteen years later, Untitled is a mature example of his unwavering exploration of the possibilities of this medium, moving beyond the traditional rectilinear limits of the canvas plane. Rendered on a monumentally-scaled, shaped canvas, Untitled appears to literally leap off the wall and into the viewers' space. Infused with a highly-saturated palette of neon pinks, blues, yellows and greens, the composition reads almost as a coloring book, replete with black contour lines filled with uniform blocks of smooth color. Here, borders and depth become immaterial, as the geometric abstractions resist correlation to the underlying shape of the support.

    With works such as Untitled, KAWS explores both the figurative iconicity and the abstract nature of cartoons. Of the reciprocity between these two elements in the artist’s practice, Michael Auping writes, “Looking at KAWS’ paintings is to witness someone who very naturally approaches cartoons and abstraction as symbiotic languages of visual tropes. This is not a simple mixing of the cartoon figure with the abstract, but a blurring of the two” (Michael Auping, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 71). In Untitled, KAWS magnifies and distorts recognizable animations to the point of abstraction, removing the cartoon from its traditional context and inserting it into the realm of fine art. Yet from this highly fractured picture plane, a pair of KAWS’ signature X’ed out eyes emerges, pulling us back into the world of figuration. This bridging of the cartoon – a symbol of consumerism and mass media – with abstraction – considered to be the apex of fine art – exemplifies KAWS’ own reckoning with these high/low aspects of American culture.

    Reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s iconic Pop Art, to Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental shaped canvases, to Jeff Koon’s predilection for kitsch, Untitled is not without art historical precedence. As Auping notes, “American abstract painters employed the shaped canvas to objectify the canvas support, to give it the look of a self-contained painted object. KAWS uses it for just the opposite reason, as a form of physical animation, energizing the characters so that they appear to be moving across the landscape of the wall” (Michael Auping, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 74). In Untitled, KAWS pays homage to his distinguished predecessors, while simultaneously looking to the future. Animating the dolphin with his signature playful guise, Untitled engages with its audience, offering a contemporary lens into the image-saturated world in which we live.

  • 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.  

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signed and dated "KAWS..16" on the reverse
acrylic on shaped canvas
72 x 52 in. (182.9 x 132.1 cm.)
Painted in 2016.

$450,000 - 550,000 

Sold for $1,124,000

Contact Specialist
Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York
+ 1 212 940 1250

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 May | On View at 450 Park Avenue