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  • Description

    Please note that this lot is subject to a guarantee by a third party with a financial interest who will bid on this lot.

  • Video

    KAWS, 'UNTITLED', Lot 39

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Gary Tatintsian Gallery, Moscow
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Moscow, Gary Tatintsian Gallery, MUTATED REALITY (organized in collaboration with the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow), November 27, 2015 - March 2, 2016 (installation views illustrated, pp. 48-49, 58-59; illustrated, pp. 50-51, 62)

  • Catalogue Essay

    An idiosyncratic portrayal of one of Japan’s most iconic cartoon characters of all time, UNTITLED, 2014 exemplifies KAWS’s ability to blur abstraction and figuration and to collapse conventional distinctions between high and low culture. The present work depicts the larger-than-life silhouette of Astro Boy suffused with the disparate cartoon elements that comprise KAWS’s visual lexicon. Astro Boy, a manga series written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, was published in the magazine Shōnen from 1952 to 1968 and has since been adapted into four anime series with unprecedented global appeal. Emblematic of KAWS’s engrossment with cartoon imagery, the kaleidoscopic palette, chaotic energy, and hard-edge technique of UNTITLED are also evocative of the artist’s creations from his time as a street artist in New York in the 1990s, during which he transformed preexisting advertisements by incorporating his own aesthetic language. Redolent of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art themes, and Jeff Koons’s embrace of kitsch, UNTITLED nods to its art historical ancestry while embodying the groundbreaking style that is KAWS’s own.

    The tale of Tezuka’s Astro Boy follows a sentient android that is saved from a cruel circus owner by Professor Ochanomizu, who subsequently treats Astro as a son, helping him to lead a normal, human life and chaperoning him on his many adventures. KAWS’s presentation of the shaped canvas is likely a reference to the first scene in all adaptations of the story: the birth of Astro Boy, where he is introduced at the moment of his animation, laying supine. While the comics have sold approximately 100 million copies, the first television series is credited with instigating the phenomenon known worldwide as “anime” and, at its peak, was viewed by 40% of the Japanese population who owned or had access to a television. Astro Boy was also the first Japanese animated television series to be picked up by American screens, and its success abroad made Astro Boy an instantly-recognizable worldwide phenomenon, and hence an obvious subject candidate for KAWS.

    KAWS first visited Tokyo in 1997 at a time when his tags were gaining notoriety in New York and New Jersey. While in Japan, KAWS was struck by the ability for cartoons to bridge cultural differences and transcend language barriers. “It was difficult to communicate since I didn’t speak Japanese, but I could walk down the streets and see shops full of Simpsons merchandise,” he explained. “It was like, ‘You know Homer, I know Homer.’ We might not be able to have a meaningful conversation, but to all of us, it’s still Homer” (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 31). KAWS returned to Japan often in the early 2000s, during what was a formative period in his career: he painted his first acrylic on canvases in 2001, and opened his collectibles store, OriginalFake, in 2006. This coincided with Takashi Murakami’s coining of the term Superflat, which denoted a postmodern neo-Pop movement influenced by manga and anime. Indeed, both KAWS and Murakami make slick, commercial works, grounded in contemporary Japanese aesthetic concepts, that rely on cartoons for source material and conflate the ostensibly fixed dichotomy of art and commerce. Thus, when considering Japan’s influence on KAWS visual language, it seems unsurprising—even inevitable—that he would eventually turn to Astro Boy as a subject.

    UNTITLED denotes a gradual progression from KAWS’s earlier works depicting coherent narratives specific to well-known personages, such as Mickey Mouse, the Smurfs, and the Simpsons, to more deconstructed, ambiguous compositions that highlight the precarious boundary between abstraction and figuration. Though Astro Boy’s profile and distinctive haircut informs the shape of the canvas, and two silhouettes of him flying are discernible in the painting, UNTITLED is replete with numerous other cartoon references and abstract forms that KAWS has rearranged in a Frankenstein-ian array that alludes to Astro Boy’s own origin myth. While some forms are perceptible, including pairs of eyes marked with the artist’s signature X’s as well as a sea of dismembered hands and an open mouth that populate his paintings of SpongeBob SquarePants, others are less easily decipherable, such as the enigmatic eye-like configuration between his legs. “Although an iconic cartoon character seems like a seamless portrait of a cartoon personality, it is in fact made up of eccentrically formed parts: mouths, eyes, ears, hands…Looking carefully at cartoons reveals a fundamental part-to-whole construction,” Michael Auping has elucidated. “KAWS steals parts from various characters to create new ones, and the result of these oddly proportioned conglomerations is a peculiar…humanness” (Michael Auping, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 68). In this sense, KAWS has subverted the very presence of Astro Boy in UNTITLED by enveloping him in his own limbs and abstract shapes to unearth the poignant humanity hidden in cartoons, the same astute perception present in his Where the End Starts, 2011, as well as Philip Guston’s Painter’s Forms II, 1978, both held in the permanent collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

    By coalescing cartoon imagery typically deemed “unserious” with ambiguous abstract forms in UNTITLED, KAWS embraces the kitsch and rejects Clement Greenberg’s modernist consecration of pure abstraction. Like Warhol, who similarly worked as an illustrator before transitioning to fine art, KAWS champions the immense communicative power of the everyday and investigates the communal—even global—experience of television and mass media. Despite UNTITLED’s seeming invocation of Ellsworth Kelly’s colossal shaped canvases, it is thus fitting that the painting pays homage to one of the most significant personalities in Asian television culture. The large-scale manifestation of his preoccupation with Astro Boy in UNTITLED, as well as its fusion of “high” and “low” art, is a tribute to the one of the most conspicuous and undeniable influences on his oeuvre: Japanese visual heritage.

  • 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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Property from an Important Private American Collection

Ο ◆39


signed and dated "KAWS..14" on the reverse
acrylic on shaped canvas on panel
56 1/8 x 116 1/8 in. (142.6 x 295 cm.)
Painted in 2014.

$1,300,000 - 1,600,000 

Sold for $1,520,000

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