KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Hong Kong, Ocean Terminal Forecourt of Harbour City, KAWS: CLEAN SLATE, September 18 - October 12, 2014
    Shanghai Times Square, KAWS: CLEAN SLATE, May 15 - 31, 2015
    Ibiza, La Nave Salinas, KAWS: CLEAN SLATE, August 10 - October 10, 2015
    Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, October 20, 2016 - January 22, 2017, pp. 84, 195 (illustrated, p. 85)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Towering over its viewers and animating its surroundings with a uniquely uncanny presence, KAWS’ CLEAN SLATE, 2014, comprises the ultimate monument to the artist’s trademark Companion figure. Recreated in fiberglass at a colossal scale, the Companion is captured midstride, holding two smaller, cloned child-like versions of itself in its arms as it moves forward with a resolution and confidence that seems to reflect the notion of starting with a “Clean Slate” as its title suggests. Since its unveiling in Hong Kong in 2014 as one of KAWS’ largest public sculptures, CLEAN SLATE has taken a prominent position as the artist’s most recognizable figure. Not only was it the first KAWS sculpture of that magnitude to be exhibited in mainland China when it was subsequently erected in Shanghai Times Square in 2015, it was also the key highlight of KAWS’ major museum exhibition KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS where it was displayed outside of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2016 and 2017. With the figure inspiring the artist to create smaller versions, both for exhibitions at such seminal venues as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as well as in the form of limited edition toys, it has become a truly global icon of our time that captures the way in which KAWS has irrevocably changed the relationship between fine art and pop culture.

    It has been with large-scale sculptures such as the present one that KAWS, aka Brian Donnelly, has in recent years claimed his position among the most forward-looking contemporary sculptors of our present age. Like his artistic idols Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons before him, he scales up pop cultural motifs with an irreverent nod to the grand tradition of sculpture. CLEAN SLATE perfectly demonstrates how KAWS re-contextualizes the role of mass culture in art, based as it is on the Companion character that initially took the form of small-scale figurines starting in 1999. KAWS, then largely known as a graffiti provocateur, began collaborating with the Japanese apparel line Bounty Hunter to create a limited edition of vinyl toys. What began as toy versions radically expanded in the past decade to become supersize works of sculpture, deliberately aimed at dismantling distinctions between high and low art. As KAWS explained, speaking of his strategy of blurring the lines between toys and sculptures, "to me they involve the same thought process, so it’s funny that when I work big in bronze, it’s called a sculpture, but something I do that’s small and plastic is called a toy” (KAWS, quoted in Carlo McCormick, "From the Streets to TV to Fine Art Galleries, KAWS Is Everywhere”, Paper, November 4, 2013, online). As the present work exemplifies, KAWS still manages to convey toy-like plushness in the sculptural surface of his monumental works in a manner that echoes Jef Koons’s “Play-doh” sculptures.

    A bold affront to the classical medium of sculpture, CLEAN SLATE confronts the viewer with a hybrid character that is emblematic of the visual tactic of cartoon appropriation KAWS has become synonymous with. Enacting a sardonic appropriation of arguably the most recognizable cartoon character of all time, Mickey Mouse, KAWS takes on a subject that previously entered art history through the appropriated images of pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Yet here the regular reading of the endearing and upbeat cartoon character is disturbed by KAWS’ supplanting of the head with his own eerie skull motif; an irreverent decapitation that instantaneously elicits an emotionally weighted sense of the uncanny amongst a familiar audience. At once saccharine and regal, KAWS privileges the potency of hybridity as a creative tactic to challenge and deconstruct cultural boundaries. KAWS taps into the nostalgic potency of universally cherished childhood characters, importantly imbuing them with emotional undertones as he updates them for our contemporary context.

    KAWS conceived of CLEAN SLATE specifically for his second collaboration with Harbour City, Hong Kong’s largest shopping mall that had previously hosted his first exhibition in Greater China in 2010. Reflecting on PASSING THROUGH, the work that he had created for the first iteration and featured a seated Companion with its head in his hands, KAWS noted, “I went on a site visit to Kowloon and there was just a sea of people. It’s easy to pass people sitting on the street like this all day long – you don’t think twice – but when you see something on that scale you might stop and think a little more about what’s going on” (KAWS, quoted in “Toy Story 2: This Time It’s Artistic”, The Independent, January 31, 2016, online). KAWS monumentalizes his Companion with the present work to similar ends, seeking a diverse public to encourage viewers and unsuspecting passersby alike to pause and reflect in the maelstrom of our contemporary age.

    “Companion is a figure in the world now, and it’s not all great out there,” KAWS has explained. “Even though I use a comic language, my figures are not always reflecting the idealistic cartoon view that I grew up on…Companion is more real in dealing with contemporary human circumstances. I think when I’m making work it also often mirrors what’s going on with me at that time” (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 5). If KAWS’ Companion was caught in a state of isolation with PASSING THROUGH, here he marches resolutely forward with two smaller child-like Companions in his arms in a manner that embodies the optimism and dynamism its very title “CLEAN SLATE” suggests. Like GOOD INTENTIONS, 2005, a large-scale sculpture comprised of a large and small, toddler-like Companions, this sculpture offers a highly intimate portrait of parenthood that, not unlike Henry Moore’s Mother and Child sculptures, is likely reflective of KAWS’s own experience of becoming a father at that time. As Andrea Karnes noted, his Companions “seemingly empathize with us while we emphasize with them – plodding through life” (Andrea Karnes, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 49).

    Despite being imbued with autobiographical undertones, CLEAN SLATE is of universal resonance. Both mourning and celebrating a globalized age of expedited communication, this grand statue reminds usof our own place within society. In the world of cartoons where emotions and violence are readily sanitized for consumption, KAWS’s evolved hybrids operate in a liminal state between life and death, somehow immune to the relentless appeals to shock made by mass media. KAWS leaves behind art’s romantic anti-commercial idealism, and looks toward contemporary Japanese distribution and the world of fantasy icons. His “X” eyes show blindness in a universe only inhabited by logos and brands – a world of homogeneity and indifference, but also a world where there remains hope and faith in the power of human relations.

  • 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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fiberglass, metal structure and paint
base 19 5/8 x 216 1/2 x 216 1/2 in. (49.8 x 549.9 x 549.9 cm.)
sculpture 275 5/8 x 216 x 216 in. (700.1 x 548.6 x 548.6 cm.)
overall 295 1/4 x 216 1/2 x 216 1/2 in. (749.9 x 549.9 x 549.9 cm.)

Executed in 2014, this work is 1 of 3 unique color variants.

$900,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $1,995,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018