KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'When I was younger, I wasn’t going to galleries, I wasn’t going to museums … There was a lot of ‘this is fine art’ or ‘this is not fine art’; ‘this is commercial’, ‘this is high art’. In my mind I thought, art’s purpose is to communicate and reach people. Whichever outlet that’s being done through is the right one.' —KAWS

    Larger than life and dominated by vibrantly saturated colour, KAWS’ monumental work THIS IS THE WAY  beautifully synthesises the artist’s unique blending of art history, pop culture, and contemporary iconography. Over a career spanning 25 years, KAWS has become known for his playful reinterpretation of instantly recognizable characters in 20th and 21st century visual culture, including The Smurfs, The Simpsons, and more recently, SpongeBob SquarePants. Formerly an animator at Disney, Brian Donnelly first chose ‘KAWS’ as his moniker to tag city streets in the 1990s, and quickly became a celebrated standout in the scene. KAWS’ ability to re-examine and manipulate familiar images and characters has created a universally appealing body of work, which is currently being celebrated with a major exhibition blending physical and virtual works together for the first time at the Serpentine Gallery in London.


    KAWS and Fortnite collaboration exploring the idea of an exhibition existing in both physical and virtual spaces simultaneously


    In the present work, KAWS juxtaposes snippets and fragments from his cast of appropriated characters, fusing them into a singularly specific reinterpretation of the original source material. This collision of familiar cartoons is simultaneously recognisable and jarringly unfamiliar. The central figure’s silhouette evokes the shapes of Garfield and Odie, two beloved animals from the American comic strip originally published in the late 1970s. Cartoon characterises abound: from the simplified triangular cat ears to the odd but universally accepted cartoon trope of a four-fingered hand, one gesturing outwards while the other rests jauntily on Garfield’s hip in the character’s characteristically sassy stance. Garfield’s sidekick Odie appears in the L-shaped snout-like protrusion to the lower left, the outline of which also evokes the profile of the beloved muppet, Gonzo. ‘The Great Gonzo’ product of Jim Henson’s broad imagination, is best known in the series for his eccentricity as well as the ambiguity of his character, a quality that KAWS cleverly fuses into his central figure. Upon closer examination, Odie’s ears resolve into Gonzo’s nose which then emerges as Squidward, the cantankerous cephalopod of SpongeBob SquarePants fame. As has become his trademark, KAWS replaces the character’s eyes with large crosses, imparting a sinister and layered depth to otherwise vapid characters. These ‘X’ eyes appear both in the distorted visage of Squidward that has been superimposed on the lower half of the figure, as well as the partially covered KURF – KAWS’ reimagination of The Smurfs. The rich blue body adorned with the little white hat – usually identified as a Smurf – has become so appropriated by the artist as to become a trademark image.


    Opening Credits, The Smurfs, 1981


    Exemplifying KAWS’ ability to conjure the precision of commercial fabrication, this central figure appears as flat and evenly rendered as the source characters do on the television screen or newspaper comics. Graphically, the shapes and colours of these varied cartoons remain recognizable, evidencing the artist’s unique capacity to transcend the gaps between pop culture, language, and contemporary iconography; however, by obliterating the oversized eyes with his trademark ‘X’ symbols, KAWS introduces an ambivalent psychologically distanced counterpart to these usually cheery cartoons.


    Uncanny and ominous in equal measure, THIS IS THE WAY  presents a wealth of cultural references that highlights the depth of KAWS’ engagement with the legacies of Pop Art. Heir to the likes of Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Ed Ruscha, KAWS presents his audience with imagery that, although recognisable, becomes unfamiliar. In this way KAWS is able to masterfully tip the balance between the innocence and play typically associated with childhood cartoons, and a distinctive sense of unease. The fragmented bodies recall such influences as disparate as the Surrealists’ beloved game ‘Exquisite Corpse’ and Jean Dubuffet’s snipped and collaged works from the 1960s and 1970s; indeed, the quotation and cutting of various figures in Dubuffet’s L’hourloupe series directly prefigures the collision of cartoons in THIS IS THE WAY . Germano Celant writes, ‘By giving the comics a new face, 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.’i

    Jean Dubuffet, Untitled, 1963, Private Collection. Image: © Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022
    Jean Dubuffet, Untitled, 1963, Private Collection. Image: © Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

    Commanding in scale and arresting in its vibrant tonality and universally legible pictorial content, THIS IS THE WAY  successfully dissolves the purported distinctions between fine art and mass media, culture both high and low, and exemplifies the highly accessible art for which KAWS has become best known. Furthermore, by collapsing the space between the art historical canon and contemporary culture, the present work exemplifies Michael Auping’s observation that ‘KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it.’ii The title itself seems to conform to this reading, speaking to the future KAWS sees for his own practice, as well as the unknown directions in which art, pop culture, and the saturation of visual media will take us in the future. Forming part of KAWS’ shrewdly referential iconographic repertoire, THIS IS THE WAY  typifies the visual vocabulary with which the artist has solidified his position as a preeminent figure of neo-Pop, alongside such artists as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.


    Collector’s Digest


    •    Born in New Jersey in 1974, KAWS’s interest in art was shaped by his engagement with skateboarding and graffiti subcultures. Graduating from the New York School of Visual Arts in 1996, KAWS worked as an animator for Jumbo Pictures. It was during this period where he had tagged the advertising posters found at bus stops on the streets of New York with crossed bones and ‘X’s for eyes. His interest in appropriating existing iconography to confront the viewer with the familiar, made strange, soon prompted him to revisit well-known characters from popular culture, reconceptualising their forms as he translates them into the realm of fine art.


    •    Now celebrated as one of the most innovative artists of his generation, work by KAWS can be found in prominent public collections around the world, including the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, and the Rosenblum Collection in Paris.


    •    In addition to extensive solo exhibitions around the globe such as the 2021 KAWS: SPOKE TOO SOON, at Skarstedt in New York, KAWS’s practice has most recently been honoured with a solo exhibition, the ongoing KAWS: NEW FICTION at the Serpentine Gallery, London. This pioneering presentation aims to create an exhibition experience that exists in both physical and virtual worlds simultaneously. KAWS also recently exhibited a monumental retrospective in his hometown, KAWS: WHAT PARTY, which was hosted by the Brooklyn Museum in New York earlier last year. 

    i Germano Celant, ‘BD and K’, KAWS: 1993-2010, (exh. cat.), Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, 2010, p. 55
    ii Michael Auping, ‘America’s Cartoon Mind,’ KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, (exh. cat.), Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2017, p. 63.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Respect, 26 June - 4 October 2015
      Madrid, Galería Javier López, KAWS: PLAY YOUR PART, 20 February - 11 April 2014

    • Literature

      FINAL DAYS, exh. cat., Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Málaga, 2015, p. 37 (illustrated)

    • 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..14' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
304.8 x 274.3 x 4.4 cm (120 x 108 x 1 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

£600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for £796,900

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022