KAWS’s start as a graffiti writer—tagging (writing on) physical surfaces in public spaces without license or permission—occupies a significant place in his artistic formation. Throughout the 1990s, KAWS left his mark on walls, freight trains, and billboards, sometimes working solo and sometimes collaborating with a crew. These early years laid the foundation for much of his subsequent practice, which uses large-scale, bold gestures to make an impact on urban and natural landscapes (as seen in his recent HOLIDAY series, on view in this exhibition).
While taking classes at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, KAWS continued his guerrilla takeovers of public spaces, illegally accessing advertisements in phone booths and bus shelters. Removing the ads from their casings, he took them home and made alterations to the existing imagery, often overlaying his logo—a skull and crossbones with Xs for eyes—in a way that subverted the content of the ad. He returned the ads soon after, sometimes placing them in different locations. One of the ads seen here pays homage to artist and activist Keith Haring, who in the 1980s made chalk drawings on the black paper rectangles used to cover expired ads in subway stations, and who, like KAWS, wanted to share his work with the broadest possible audience.
KAWS: WHAT PARTY KAWS: WHAT PARTY traces KAWS’s twenty-five-year career, from his beginnings as a graffiti writer in Jersey City to his current status as a globally acclaimed artist based in Brooklyn. The exhibition highlights his wide-ranging practice, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, product design, large-scale public projects, and augmented reality (AR) work. KAWS is the alias of Brian Donnelly (American, born 1974), who chose the name based on the graphic possibilities presented by the four letters. Through vibrant paintings and sculptures of familiar pop culture–inspired characters, fashion and product design, and the incorporation of AR as an artistic medium, KAWS’s practice interweaves aspects drawn from the distinctive worlds of art, popular culture, commerce, and technology, shifting how we think about cultural production and consumption.
KAWS’s roots as a graffiti writer and street artist laid the groundwork for his creative vision, which has unfolded largely outside the established art world and grows out of a keen appreciation of public space, both real and virtual, as a platform for reaching an expanded audience. His early work, in the 1990s, began with tagging or writing his alias on walls, train cars, and billboards, and evolved into more pointed public interventions involving manipulating advertisements. Often KAWS added his distinctive logo of a skull and crossbones, with Xed-out eyes.
During visits to Japan in the late 1990s, KAWS observed the popularity of American street culture and a subculture of collectible toys drawn from cartoons. Through collaborations with Japanese creative entrepreneurs, he began to explore the potential of American cartoons to communicate in a universal language that crossed cultural lines. In 1999, he produced his first vinyl toy, COMPANION, a composite of a cartoon character’s body and a skull-and-crossbones head, which became part of an ongoing series in which KAWS fabricated the figure in a range of sizes, materials, and colors. He also created versions of his work that the general public could purchase directly online at various price points—including commercial collaborations with designers of apparel and other products.
For the past two decades, KAWS’s artistic production has questioned many of the long-held assumptions about art and culture, especially the concepts of exclusivity and inaccessibility. By creating objects that are both toys and sculpture, making fine art in collaboration with retail businesses, selling works online and in galleries, and creating large-scale projects and events outside the art world proper, KAWS has leveled some of the conventional hierarchies of the art world, democratizing and enlarging the possibilities of culture in ways that are relevant to the twenty-first century.
In 1997, KAWS made the first of many trips to Tokyo, Japan. The network of relationships he formed there made an enormous impact on his artistic development. His experiences in Japan not only introduced him to the subculture of otaku, devotees of Japanese cartoon culture including manga and anime, but also heightened his awareness of the ability of cartoon characters to communicate across language barriers. Since KAWS didn’t speak Japanese, he found communication challenging. In shops in Tokyo, however, he noted the ubiquity of merchandise featuring characters from The Simpsons, an American cartoon television series named after a fictional and familiarly dysfunctional family, which first aired in 1989. Referring to Homer, the show’s father figure, KAWS observed: “It’s ‘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.’” In 2000, KAWS made his first painting series based on members of the show’s nuclear family: the parents, Homer and Marge, and their three children, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie. While retaining identifying details of hairstyle and dress, KAWS transformed the characters’ faces into a skull and crossbones, with Xs over their eyes, and renamed them the KIMPSONS.
KAWS continued to appropriate cartoon characters in his paintings, using subjects from other popular animated shows like The Smurfs, Sesame Street, and SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as Snoopy. The characters, and situations in which they interact, suggest their role as stand-ins for humans, with behaviors and relationships that convey all of the joy and dysfunction of family and friendship. They also suggest an element of childhood nostalgia, as KAWS loved cartoons growing up, with a special fondness for The Smurfs, whose likenesses he repainted as the KURFS. KAWS has said about his art-making, “I do start with familiar things and that’s primarily to make the work more approachable for people—it’s an entry point.” In addition to representing KAWS’s desire to make his art accessible to a broad audience, these early paintings mark the beginning of his formal career as a painter and as an artist with a studio practice.
CHUM, a character KAWS has used to express human relationships, emotions, and states of mind, appears here in new work created especially for the exhibition. A series of vividly hued canvases, titled URGE (2020), focuses on CHUM’s face and gloved hands, both inscribed with the artist’s signature Xs. The paintings hang together in two rows of five, each canvas its own entity but directly in conversation with its companions. The single painting highlighted in the small adjacent gallery, TIDE (2020), portrays COMPANION taking a moonlit swim, one of the most atmospheric and evocative portrayals of this character to date. In a new sculptural work titled SEPARATED (2021), a seated COMPANION figure with its hands over its eyes could be seen as a reaction to the state of the world in 2020. The nearby paintings MIRROR (2018) and SCORE YEARS (2019) feature fragmented figurative and landscape imagery.
Throughout his twenty-five-year career, KAWS has collaborated with a number of other artists and companies. Through his friend and fellow graffiti writer Stash, founder of the clothing label Subware, KAWS met designers who were integrating art, fashion, and lifestyle into their brands, including Yoshifumi “YOPPI” Egawa of HECTIC, Tomoaki “Nigo” Nagao of the fashion label A Bathing Ape (BAPE), and Hikaru Iwanaga, founder of the toy-design company Bounty Hunter. Nigo provided KAWS with one of his earliest commercial collaborations, which attracted recording artists like Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams to his work. In 1999, working with HECTIC and Bounty Hunter, KAWS produced his first toy, COMPANION.
Through these collaborations, KAWS has been able to expand his practice into other creative industries while also broadening the accessibility—both geographically and financially—of his work. In addition to fashion and toys, KAWS has created furniture with the Brazilian design studio Estudio Campana, incorporating his characters into chairs and sofas. KAWS’s largest-scale works to date have been developed in collaboration with AllRightsReserved, a Hong Kong–based creative studio, creating COMPANIONs that dwarf the surrounding architecture in locations such as Hong Kong, Seoul, South Korea, and Virginia Beach in the United States.
Recent projects illuminate KAWS’s continued engagement with the placement of monumental works in urban environments. In 2019, KAWS launched the HOLIDAY in collaboration with the Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved. This series of spectacular temporary projects feature enormous COMPANION figures. Ranging from ninety-two to just over one hundred and thirty feet, these figures play off of the surrounding architecture and interact with their physical environment on a monumental scale, calling back to KAWS’s graffiti-writing days. Each project opens with an event or special performance, accompanied by the release of thematically designed merchandise. A number of HOLIDAY presentations have taken place in East Asia, including Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan. Since the HOLIDAY projects are temporary events, they live on through photo and video documentation and are widely shared on social media. Most recently, the project launched HOLIDAY SPACE, where a COMPANION in a space suit was sent nearly twenty-six miles into the stratosphere for two hours on August 17, 2020, for a space walk via a weather balloon.
October 15, 2020
The exhibition chronicles KAWS’s twenty-five-year practice, featuring graffiti drawings, paintings, smaller collectibles, furniture, recent augmented reality projects, and sculptures, including a new major commission for Rockefeller Center
On view February 12–September 5, 2021
The Brooklyn Museum is the first New York institution to present a sweeping survey of KAWS’s career, from his roots as a graffiti artist to a dominating force in the contemporary art world, tracing common themes in the Brooklyn-based artist’s practice. Renowned for his paintings and sculptures of pop culture–inspired characters, as well as his playful use of abstraction and his meticulous execution, KAWS bridges the worlds of art, popular culture, and commerce while investigating our connection to objects and to one another. With a practice formed outside of orthodox art world channels and rooted in graffiti art, drawing, and animation, KAWS has expanded access to his art by allowing the general public to purchase editions of his work and to interact with it digitally. KAWS: WHAT PARTY highlights a range of works from the artist’s diverse career, including drawings, paintings, bronze sculptures, smaller objects, furniture, and monumental wooden sculptures of the beloved COMPANION character, as well as a selection of new and existing works that have never been publicly displayed. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will be invited to directly engage with KAWS’s work through Acute Art, an augmented reality app the artist has partnered with. In conjunction with KAWS: WHAT PARTY, a towering new sculpture by the artist will also be installed at Rockefeller Center’s historic plaza in summer 2021.
“The Brooklyn Museum and KAWS have been working together since 2015, and we’re excited to further that relationship by presenting his first mid-career survey in the U.S.,” says Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum, and curator of KAWS: WHAT PARTY. “While participating in a cultural environment shaped by image and consumption, KAWS simultaneously emphasizes the constant presence of universal emotions in his work, such as love, friendship, loneliness, and alienation—an emphasis that is now more important and relevant than ever before.”
KAWS: WHAT PARTY highlights five overarching tenets of the artist’s evolving artistic practice. The first section brings together examples of KAWS’s earliest work, including graffiti drawings and notebooks from the early 1990s, on view for the first time in the United States. These works are accompanied by the artist’s early-career altered bus shelter and phone booth advertisements, which first brought him notoriety, as well as a collection of multimedia works that provide glimpses into his studio practice.
The second section focuses on the artist’s appropriation, alteration, and abstraction of characters from popular American cartoons, and includes a selection of shaped canvases featuring characters like the "KIMPSONS" and "KAWSBOB." By extracting details from iconic cartoon figures and placing them at the fore, KAWS masterfully explores line, color, and composition to convey a sense of experimentation, exuberance, and play. KAWS’s work often exudes overtones of childlike innocence while simultaneously retaining underlying, subtly menacing themes of transgression and subversion commonly found in many of his public installations.
The third section consists of all new work addressing the current social climate. Featured is a series of paintings and a grand, introspective sculpture, evoking ubiquitous feelings of sadness, grief, anxiety, and isolation.
“KAWS’s new works speak powerfully to the isolation, fears, and grief of our times,” says Anne Pasternak, Shelby White and Leon Levy Director, Brooklyn Museum. “It reminds us that there’s a universality to our suffering.”
In the fourth section, visitors enter a corridor highlighting KAWS’s collaborations with other designers and brands in fashion and industrial design. A wide selection of preparatory sketches and furniture, produced together with the Brazilian design studio Campana Brothers, as well as toys and other products, showcases the artist’s exploration of other creative industries as a way to expand both his artistic practice and the public’s access to his work. By working with commercial industries to create products on a larger scale, KAWS continues to blur the boundary between populist and elite art, departing from the established notion that fine art must be exclusive or one of a kind. This accessibility, in turn, has gained the artist a large and dedicated global following.
The concluding section of the exhibition centers on KAWS’s acclaimed COMPANION figure, in a number of forms. First appearing in the artist’s early ad interventions, COMPANION serves as a consistent figurative element throughout his work. On display are a number of newly fabricated COMPANION sculptures from the artist’s popular HOLIDAY project. These are juxtaposed with never-before-seen cinematic short films highlighting HOLIDAY, which saw the installation of monumental inflatable COMPANION figures in Seoul, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as a virtual installation in outer space. The result is an immersive experience that brings visitors into KAWS’s world. By bringing COMPANION beyond white-walled galleries and into public spaces, KAWS ensures that the widest range of people can contemplate, interact with, and enjoy his work. Smaller versions of COMPANION are also on view in this section, showcasing KAWS’s attention to execution, craftsmanship, and seriality through extreme variations in scale.
Throughout the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to engage with KAWS’s work through the use of an augmented reality (AR) app. Teaming up with the digital art platform Acute Art, KAWS presents augmented reality sculptures allowing visitors to digitally interact with his art on their smartphones to create their own experience. Through AR, KAWS continues to expand his reach and connect with audiences on a global scale. As an early adopter of social media in the art world, he frequently uses platforms such as Instagram to share new projects and connect with his followers. And now, through AR, the public can bring KAWS’s work into their own world.
KAWS: WHAT PARTY also includes an integrated shop featuring the artist’s products, acknowledging the ways KAWS investigates the space between art and commodity. His exploration of this gray area draws on a rich history of exercises in commodification in fine art, namely Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961) and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop.
A fully illustrated catalogue, co-published with Phaidon Press, accompanies the exhibition. Essayists include Daniel Birnbaum, art critic, curator, and director of Acute Art, and Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.
In conjunction with the exhibition, KAWS is creating a new, monumental sculpture for Rockefeller Center that will be installed in the complex ’s iconic plaza in August 2021.
“We are thrilled to bring the magic of KAWS to Rockefeller Center, and to extend the footprint of the Brooklyn Museum's groundbreaking exhibition with this commission that was conceived for the Center,” says EB Kelly, Tishman Speyer Managing Director overseeing Rockefeller Center. “The Center has long been a platform for public art, and we are especially proud to welcome KAWS, a true New Yorker who is inspired by our city. We believe that KAWS’s new work at Rockefeller Center will instantly become the talk of the town.”
KAWS engages audiences beyond the museums and galleries in which he regularly exhibits. His prolific body of work straddles the worlds of art and design to include paintings, murals, graphic and product design, street art, and large-scale sculptures. Over the last two decades KAWS has built a successful career with work that consistently shows his formal agility as an artist, as well as his underlying wit, irreverence, and affection for our times. His refined graphic language revitalizes figuration with both big, bold gestures and playful intricacies.
KAWS often appropriates and draws inspiration from pop culture animations, forming a unique artistic vocabulary that spans mediums. Admired for his larger-than-life sculptures and hard-edge paintings that emphasize line and color, KAWS’s cast of hybrid cartoon characters are the strongest examples of his exploration of humanity. As seen in his collaborations with global brands, KAWS’s imagery possesses a sophisticated humor and reveals a thoughtful interplay with consumer products. With their broad appeal, KAWS’s artworks are highly sought-after by collectors inside and outside the art world, establishing KAWS as a uniquely prominent artist and influence in today’s culture.
KAWS (b. 1974, Jersey City, New Jersey; lives and works in Brooklyn, New York) has exhibited extensively in renowned institutions, including solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (2019); Fire Station, Qatar Museums, Doha, Qatar (2019); Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Michigan (2019); Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, Missouri (2017); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2016), which traveled to the Yuz Museum, Shanghai, China (2017); Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Longside Gallery, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom (2016); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Málaga, Spain (2014); Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kansas (2013); Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2013); High Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia (2011); and Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut (2011).
KAWS: WHAT PARTY is curated by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Presented by DIOR.
Leadership support for this exhibition is provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Generous support is provided by Jeanne and Dennis Masel and Ross+Kramer.