KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Wednesday, March 6, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles
    Private Collection
    Private Collection

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in 2012, Untitled is a paradigmatic example of KAWS' characteristic inventive and distinctive energy, his spherical canvasses offering a window into his graphic visual world of uncanny cartoon characters and highly abstracted compositions. Brian Donnelly, better known as ‘KAWS’, spent his early career as an illustrator and graffiti artist in Jersey City, New Jersey, before moving to New York in the 1990s. KAWS first developed an interest in the codified language of commercial images through his experiments with ‘subtervising’ – a form of artistic intervention that transformed the advertisements he found on bus shelters and billboards around the two cities. This early interest in re-appropriating and manipulating commercial images was subsequently developed in his later work through his incorporation of a stock of familiar television and pop-culture characters. KAWS’ recurring cast include Spongebob Squarepants, The Simpsons and The Smurfs, all of whom appear frequently in the toys, sculptures and paintings that make up his varied and imaginative practice.

    In Untitled, KAWS’ character is rendered in muted, amphibian-like hues that contrast sharply with the near-radioactive yellow of its eyes, suggestive of an otherworldly creature. Replacing its pupil, the character’s eye is marked by KAWS’ characteristic cross, his globally recognised cartoonish symbol which alludes to drunkenness, death or a piratical skull and crossbones. The result is an image stripped of comforting familiarity. As KAWS explains, ‘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...I want to understand the world I’m in and, for me, making and seeing art is a way to do that.’ (KAWS, quoted in KAWS. WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p.5).

    Visual quotation was also a common theme in the work of American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who, like KAWS, was heavily influenced by cartoon and comic book imagery; Lichtenstein commented that ‘artists have often converted the work of other artists to their own style.’ (Roy Lichtenstein, ‘A Review of My Work Since 1961’, in Graham Bader, Roy Lichtenstein, Cambridge, MA, 2009, p.61). Whereas Lichtenstein’s Mirror series exposed the artifice of the canvas by mimicking the surface of a mirror which cannot reflect, here KAWS uses the tondo formation to reflect the viewer’s reflection as a cartoon character, subsuming us into his protagonist's world. Continuing a dialogue with Pop and Street artists, KAWS captures an astute cultural consciousness in his work whilst simultaneously carving out a unique style. With a background in the New Jersey skateboarding community, KAWS’ oeuvre seeks to blur and level distinctions between perceived ‘high’ and ‘mass’ culture, his work playfully oscillating between traditional painting practice and recognisable cultural signifiers from the cartoon world of television, books and film.

  • 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 12' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
diameter 152.7 cm (60 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2012.

£300,000 - 500,000 

Contact Specialist
Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4065

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 8 March 2019