KAWS - New Now New York Tuesday, September 28, 2021 | Phillips
  • Executed in 2011, KAWS’ THE GREAT BELOW is a monumental example of the artist’s unique aesthetic that bridges the worlds of art, popular culture and commerce. THE GREAT BELOW exemplifies KAWS’ dramatic re-envisioning of pop cultural icons as he illustrates the inflated facial details of KAWSBOB, an intervention of the animated cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants rendered in the artist’s distinctive graphic style. This work is distinguished by the artist’s use of a circular shaped canvas, or tondo, a format reaching back to the Renaissance which the artist continues to explore in his work today. KAWS’ celebrated practice was recently subject to a large survey at the Brooklyn Museum, exhibiting his imaginative and otherworldly practice to a New York audience on a large scale for the first time.

    "I always think: Where does [graffiti] fall? You can’t look at it the way you do artists coming out of art schools. With graffiti, you’re making work to reach people, you have this bravado, you want to dominate spaces." 



    A defining artist of the present moment, KAWS has created a rich multimedia empire that coyly oversteps widespread distinctions between art and popular culture. Born Brian Donnelly in New Jersey, KAWS came to prominence at the turn of the 21st Century as a street artist tagging subway cars and structures around the New York area. Assuming the nom-de-guerre “KAWS” for its graphic appeal at any size—a crucial consideration for any ambitious graffiti artist—he has since taken the world by storm, bringing with him an army of characters defined by their trademark crossed-out eyes and often inexplicably distorted demeanors. KAWS’ creations are recognized around the world for their wit and bold visual immediacy; macabre manipulations of pop cultural mainstays imbued with a mixture of pathos, humor and rebelliousness, they resituate icons of television firmly within the pantheon of the fine arts. Extending the legacy set by artists such as Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami, KAWS poses important questions about the nature and purpose of art, asking where—and to whom—it belongs. His creations, in turn, have defined a generation; as the critic Michael Auping has written, “KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it.”1




    The present work exemplifies the breadth of influences of KAWS' daring multimedia practice: fusing the humor of Pop and the spartan refinement of Minimalism with a traditional form commonly used during the Renaissance, THE GREAT BELOW straddles street art, pop culture, the history of painting. THE GREAT BELOW assumes the form of the tondo, a type of circular canvas commonly used during the Italian Renaissance distinguished for its compositional difficulty. Long regarded as a challenging form to paint, the tondo has tested artists since the Cinquecento. Works that mastered the tondo, such as Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, 1514, are distinguished for their deft harmonization of lifelike forms within the unnatural frame of the circular canvas.


    Raphael, Madonna della Seggiola, 1514. Palazzo Pitti, Florence. 

    KAWS has similarly achieved this effect by balancing swirling forms around the edges of the canvas. Focusing in on the features of KAWSBOB, one of his most iconic figures, KAWS abstracts the composition into a turbulent swirl of line and color, further distorted as the artist casts the composition in shocking, highly saturated tones of blue and red. By balancing the concentric circles within the round canvas, KAWS assures a high degree of formal accord. This effect, however, is both augmented and offset by the facial features of the eponymous deep-sea sponge, which imbue the work with a delicate abstract quality without undermining its formal harmony. THE GREAT BELOW is an impressive achievement for its balance of competing formal goals and influences; KAWS fuses abstraction and figuration, the contemporary and the anachronistic, and the harmonious and discordant to create a work that smirkingly sidesteps such distinctions.


    1  KAWS: Where the End Starts, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2017, p. 63

    • Provenance

      Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Honor Fraser Gallery, KAWS: Hold the Line, September 10–October 22, 2011

    • 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.. 11" on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
diameter 96 in. (243.8 cm)
Painted in 2011.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $529,200

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig

Head of New Now Sale

212 940 1279


New Now

New York Auction 28 September 2021