KAWS - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

Create your first list.

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

  • Video

    KAWS, 'GRRR!', Lot 28

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Gering & López Gallery, New York
    Private Collection
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Miami, Perrotin, KAWS: SATURATED, September 20 - November 15, 2008

  • Literature

    Monica Ramirez-Montagut, KAWS: 1993-2010, New York, 2010, p. 32 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it” – Michael Auping

    A conflation of high and low culture, GRRR!, 2008, is demonstrative of KAWS’s unique ability to communicate complex human emotion through appropriated cartoon imagery. In “an almost rubber-like matte finish,” similar to that of toys or cartoons, the present work portrays a close-up of the ever-popular animated star SpongeBob SquarePants using flat, evenly saturated planes of color (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 72). KAWS transforms SpongeBob into his “KAWSBOB” by obliterating the beloved character’s eyes with his trademark X-symbols. Presented on a monumental scale reminiscent of the regal legacy of history paintings, the artist depicts a cropped image of SpongeBob, bursting with emotive intensity, his mouth open and exposing the signature gap between his two front teeth. Both formally similar and symbolically dense, GRRR! coalesces the imagery of youth with the interiority of adulthood.

    When visiting Tokyo for the first time in 1997, the artist was astounded by the faculty of cartoons to subvert language and cultural barriers. In exploiting the destabilizing power of appropriation, KAWS began gradually developing an idiosyncratic visual lexicon replete with pop culture references, most repeatedly drawing from comic-strips and television cartoons. From his manipulation of mass media imagery, which he uses to reveal the politics of an ostensibly innocent pictorial world, the artist is now considered to be a preeminent figure of neo-Pop along with Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Employing a vibrant, arresting palette, GRRR! is emblematic of KAWS’s sardonic portrayals of much mythologized and admired cartoon characters, an oscillation between nostalgia and irony.

    Conceived by marine science educator Stephen Hillenburg in 1999, the tale of SpongeBob SquarePants follows the title character and his aquatic friends in their farcical adventures in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom. The highest-ever rated series to air on the children’s cartoon network, Nickelodeon, the show and its protagonist have become ubiquitous over the last two decades. Indeed, it became so well-known that KAWS has frequently opted to utilize SpongeBob SquarePants imagery in his works despite never having seen the series. “SpongeBob was something I wanted to do because graphically I love the shapes,” KAWS elucidated. “But honestly, when I’m painting SpongeBob, I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, I loved this episode.’ Honestly, I’ve never even watched it” (KAWS, quoted in Tobey Maguire, “KAWS”, Interview Magazine, April 27, 2010, online).

    In GRRR!, the source of the protagonists ire or anxiety is seemingly situated in the place of the viewer. The audible manifestation of the scene is conveyed in SpongeBob’s agitated facial expression, which seems to imply an action bubble exclaiming, “GRRR!” By assigning such an intensity to a childhood cartoon character typically characterized by his ebullience, the work complicates the seemingly nostalgic scene. “We recognize the cartoon characters yet, with KAWS’s intervention, the meaning becomes somewhat subverted,” the curator Mónica Ramírez-Montagut delineated. “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” (Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, KAWS, exh. brochure, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, 2010, online).

    By making the compositional decision to portray a cropped image, KAWS has thrust SpongeBob into the space of the viewer, an illusion that heightens GRRR!’s emotive magnitude. Furthermore, the work functions as a crucial mid-point in KAWS’s oeuvre between his production of fully-executed narratives such as THE WALK HOME, 2012 and the divorce of cartoon iconography from figurative renderings present in Where the End Starts, 2011, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. In this sense, GRRR! is a critical juncture in KAWS’s career-long oscillation between figuration and abstraction.

    Despite being inextricably rooted in their source imagery, KAWS’s paintings such as GRRR! are not so much appropriations of specific animated cartoon narratives as they are broader interrogations of universal human emotions. Of his imagery derived from pop culture, KAWS has expounded, “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” (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 5). Indeed, with this in mind, GRRR! predominantly serves as a study in pure human emotion, one that is universally understood and transcends nationality, culture and time.

  • 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..08" on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
68 1/8 x 68 in. (173 x 172.7 cm.)
Painted in 2008.

$1,800,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $2,180,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019