KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video


    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Provenance

    Private Collection

  • Literature

    KAWS, exh. cat., The Aldrich Museum of Art, Ridgefield, CT, 2010, p. 36 (illustrated)
    Sneeze Magazine, issue no. 8, New York, 2010, summer (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Falling against a pastel blue ground adorned with sparse cartoonish clouds, KAWS’ infamous KURF character is unequivocally familiar in the present work. Forming part of the artist’s larger KURF series, in which KAWS re-envisions the homonymous cartoon character, FAR AWAY FRIENDS, 2009, re-contextualises the figure whilst maintaining the source image’s universal appeal. In its commanding, larger-than-life scale, it promotes a use of vibrant tonality, simplified detail and universally legible pictorial content that is reminiscent of advertising billboards. Such features have come to define KAWS’ work of the past two decades, symbolising a synthesis of high and low culture. The resulting aesthetic, embedding popular cartoon iconography within a fine art context, has given way to extraordinary commercial and critical acclaim, culminating in the artist’s major survey slated to take place at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2021.

    Exemplifying KAWS’ capacity to conjure an almost rubber-like, matte finish in paint, the falling KURF in FAR AWAY FRIENDS appears as flat and evenly rendered on the canvas as its source character does on the television screen. Yet, obliterating its knowable eyes – replaced by trademark ‘X’ symbols – the artist transforms the figure’s well-known silhouette into that of a new, ambivalent counterpart. Graphically, the figure remains recognisable, evidencing KAWS’ ability to transcend language and cultural barriers, yet in its minute details and novel characteristics, simultaneously delves into an otherworldly realm that relies solely on the artist’s imaginative powers. The uniformity of colour and the precision of line, falsely implying themselves to be technological productions, further demonstrate KAWS’ talent in constructing a convincing image. In this way, FAR AWAY FRIENDS successfully dissolves the purported distinctions between fine art and mass media, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture – thus producing an art that is highly coveted yet accessible to all.

    At once familiar and uncanny, entertaining and ominous, FAR AWAY FRIENDS presents an inherently ambivalent image. A plethora of cultural references lay beneath the simplified symbolism of the composition, including diverse images culled from cartoon imagination and art history. Notably, the azure expanse interspersed with naïve, cotton candy clouds recalls John Constable’s Cloud Study which, some two hundred years prior, captured the languorous atmosphere held above our heads with unknowable poetry. In its surrealist pairing, the ethereal setting on which the protagonist floats furthermore evokes René Magritte’s delectable Le Baiser, 1951, which also employs the symbol of the cloud as an index of dreamlike fantasy. Yet simultaneously, the painting entails a synonymy with childhood innocence and play. Reminiscent of the iconic wallpaper that repeatedly appears in the Toy Story franchise, the sky surrounding the KURF’s whimsically suspended figure echoes fictitious landscapes imagined in Japanese anime and manga, whereby falling figures are traditionally caught from below, or alternatively grabbed from above.

    Yet, just as the work points to realms of fantasy and reverie, the absurdity of the KURF’s position within non-habitable space simultaneously holds unsettling undertones. The title itself implies a loss of childhood innocence, or a painful distancing from oneself and one’s most loved. FAR AWAY FRIENDS thus begs the question: from where has the KURF jumped? And to where is he falling? Eyes shut closed with the distinctive KAWS ‘X’s, the figure remains caught in a liminal space between top and bottom, jumping and landing. ‘By giving the comics a new face’, writes Germano Celant, ‘the artist seems to aspire to update their past, which is not simply playful and lyrical, but can also be frightening and deathly. Hence the masks with ‘sewn’ eyes that do not look ahead but inside at their own stories…’ (Germano Celant, ‘BD and K’, KAWS: 1993-2010, exh. cat., Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT, 2010, p. 55). In this way, FAR AWAY FRIENDS can be read as a portrait of loss, once again accessing emotions that transcend nationality, culture and time.

    Referencing visual realms spanning contemporary culture and the art historical canon, the present work attests to Michael Auping’s statement that ‘KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it’ (Michael Auping, ‘America’s Cartoon Mind’, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2017, p. 63). Continually infiltrating his audience’s unconscious by tapping into the mental space where memory and instinctual cognizance collide, KAWS forms a world that runs parallel to our own – using the same graphic codes, yet endowing them with a new, different appearance. As a result, paintings such as FAR AWAY FRIENDS compel us to ‘feel empowered to ponder the meaning and have an opinion’. In them, ‘We recognize the cartoon characters yet, with KAWS’s intervention, the meaning becomes somewhat subverted’ writes Mónica Ramírez-Montagut. ‘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, CT, 2010, online).

    Forming part of KAWS’ shrewdly referential iconographic repertoire, FAR AWAY FRIENDS typifies the language with which the painter has cemented his position as a preeminent figure of neo-Pop, alongside artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. The work is exemplary of the artist’s capacity to create a communicative visual language, rendering complex aspects of the human condition legible to a global audience.

  • 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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Ο ◆32


signed and dated 'KAWS..09' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
198.5 x 198.3 cm (78 1/8 x 78 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2009.

£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for £900,000

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020