KAWS - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, October 2, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    KAWS, 'UNTITLED', Lot 24

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 2 October 2019

  • Provenance

    Private Collection, USA
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    In UNTITLED, 2014, KAWS’ graphic imagery comes to the fore. Plunged in a mass of kaleidoscopic abstraction, the painting employs the artist’s characteristic forms, comprised of cartoonish iconography and geometric shapes, namely deployed in the shape of the canvas itself. It takes on an aesthetic that aligns with the gestural vigour of graffiti – a visual comparison made all-the-more relevant by KAWS’ very own experimentation with the outdoor craft early on in his career. Before dedicating himself to painting, the artist had sprayed his imaginative creations over billboards, and fashion and photo booth advertisements; as a result, a number of his paintings exude a sense of immediacy which is proper to the urban vernacular of his native New Jersey. These canvases, together, have earned him tremendous acclaim in recent years, culminating in the artist’s first-ever major survey slated to take place at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2021.

    Brimming with rich chromatic hues and amalgamated forms, UNTITLED demonstrates KAWS’ inimitable skill in emulating cartoon drawn lines with heightened graphic energy. Eschewing the artist’s usual delineation of a single cohesive cartoon character – most often Snoopy, SpongeBob, the Simpsons or the Smurfs – here, UNTITLED seems to display a conflation of cartoonish imagery, withholding in the upper quadrant of the composition the artist’s signature X-out eyes. Amongst the array of disjointed features displayed and enmeshed in a single image, a few appear discernible on close and sustained inspection. Despite the lack of a yellow hue and bright blue eyes, the infamously long nose hovering over an idiosyncratic smile, punctuated by whimsical gaps between the two frontal teeth, suggests SpongeBob’s well-known figure fragmented throughout the painting.

    Propelled beyond the world of illustration, KAWS additionally draws kinship with seminal art historical movements. ‘While one expects KAWS’s work would be entirely indebted to Pop art, his process suggests an equal debt to Minimalism, in which abstract parts of materials are rearranged to create different types of wholes’ (Michael Auping, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 68). KAWS’ use of a non-rectangular support in the present image resonates with Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly’s key innovations of the 1960s. Whereas his predecessors’ non-figurative works are based on combinations of geometric forms, UNTITLED follows the contours of a non-descript creature, applying KAWS’ own logic and establishing the painting’s larger-than-life presence. As Auping notes, ‘American abstract painters employed the shaped canvas to objectify the canvas support, to give it the look of a self-contained painted object. KAWS uses it for just the opposite reason, as a form of physical animation, energizing the characters so that they appear to be moving across the landscape of the wall’ (Michael Auping, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 74).

    Continuing KAWS’ glorious take on painting after a number of artistic manifestations that defined the medium and cemented it within a widely accepted tradition, UNTITLED demonstrates the artist’s ability to straddle painterly historicity and contemporary imagery. The work boasts the sleek, immaculate surfaces of Pop art, whilst simultaneously containing hints of abstraction, here made evident in the composition’s geometric structure and highly varied colour palette. Executed in 2014, the present work emerged at a time when KAWS’ appropriative method became increasingly prominent in contemporary discourse, until eventually reaching the heights of today.

  • 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 ◆24


signed and dated ‘KAWS..14’ on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
149.2 x 131.4 cm (58 3/4 x 51 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2014.

£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for £1,089,000

Contact Specialist

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


Rosanna Widén
Director, Senior Specialist
+44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 October 2019