KAWS for Alarm?

THE EXTRAORDINARY ASCENT OF STREET ART

“As far as my opinion on galleries, I think they are a great thing. I see them as another outlet. I’m sure by now you’ve figured out that I do my work for everybody to see. That’s the whole point.” - Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS

The meteoric rise of Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly (American, b 1974.), better known as “KAWS”, continues to divide the art world. Whilst most artists work with galleries to find a niche, develop a collector base and then wait for those collectors to donate to museums, KAWS did the opposite; developing a massive global following that attracted some of the biggest players in the art world. In 2018, following a steady burn, his work generated a total of $33.8 million at auction, an increase of 113% from the previous year, according to the artnet Price Database. Then, on April 1 2019 THE KAWS ALBUM (2005) set an artist record when it sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for 115.9 million HKD, or approximately $14.8m (including fees), nearly 15 times the high estimate and more than five times his previous record of $2.7 million, which was set last November in New York at Phillips in its 20th-century evening sale by UNITLED (FATAL GROUP) (2004), a work that presents the artist’s take on the 1970s cartoon series “Fat Albert”. THE KAWS ALBUM, an appropriation of an appropriation, is KAWS’s riff on The Simpson’s The Yellow Album, which was itself a parody of The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just eight hours after the sale closed, the 25-year-old pint-sized pop star Justin Bieber posted an image of THE KAWS ALBUM to his personal Instagram, with no caption, prompting speculation that he could be the mystery buyer. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing about the “NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1” auction, which offered items from the personal collection of Japanese streetwear entrepreneur, DJ, and record producer Tomoaki Nagao, known as Nigo®, who styles his name with a registered trademark.

Every lot sold for at least twice its high estimate, with KAWS’s name attached to 23 works; two lots of two pairs of sneakers, that were BAPE in collaboration with KAWS, carrying a high estimate of $191 sold for 83 times that, fetching 125,000 HKD, or $15,900, approximately $7,950 a pair (or $3,975 per shoe). “I am not surprised by the demand, but I am surprised by the final number,” said Max Dolgicer, a New York collector who’s been buying the artist’s work for seven years. “It’s a very fast-moving market” (M. Dolgicer quoted in ‘Millennials in Hoodies Spend $28 Million on Simpsons Art’ Bloomberg, 1 April 2019). KAWS also posted the painting on Instagram saying: “What a strange morning ... Do I think my work should sell for this much?- No.” Some see KAWS as a natural successor to his pop art progenitors, whilst others see him merely as a businessman, with speculation fueling his ever increasing popularity. “You can call me an elitist,” says art advisor and publisher Josh Baer. “I’m sure he’s a super nice guy and a great businessman. But I don’t think that the history of art will go: Matisse, Pollock, Johns, Basquiat, KAWS. If you think that Paris Hilton and the Kardashians are important cultural figures, then you’re likely to think KAWS is an important artist” (J, Baer quoted in ‘Inside the Craze for KAWS: How a New Jersey Graffiti Artist Achieved Art-Market Domination Without Following Any of the Rules’, 25 March 2019). With a slew of upcoming institutional shows (the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit has an exhibition opening in May), set to cement KAWS into the annals of art history, I spoke to Simon Tovey, specialist in 20th Century and Contemporary art at Phillips, about KAWS, Banksy and the value of street art*.

Kaws, UNTITLED (FATAL GROUP) (2004) Photograph: ©Phillips

Kaws, UNTITLED (FATAL GROUP) (2004) Photograph: ©Phillips

What is it about street art that interests you?

“Art enables us to live vicariously through the imagination of artists. It is a great way to expand our perspective and to gaze through the lens of others. Street art is the most accessible form of art. There is little commercial edge to it and at its core it is there to inspire those that walk past it, whether they intend to engage with it or not.”

Curators are seen to be the gate keepers of the art world. We live in the age of social media, where Instagram gives everyone a platform and can potentially become an influencer. Does this take away some of the power from art institutions?

“I don’t believe it does. If anything having new platforms shines a light on the power of the institution and on the huge swathe of artists that are practising. Social media has also given emerging artists a louder voice and the ability to access so many more people who ordinarily might solely rely on the institutions or galleries to see artworks.”

Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton collaborated with clothing brand Supreme, proving the power of streetwear and product drops in the luxury market. Do you think there are parallels with KAWS who’s $200 Companion figure crashed MOMA’s website?

“Luxury items and limited editions go hand in hand and there has always been a link between the two markets (the art market and luxury/designer goods). The integral part of it all is that these items are all collectibles and artworks in their own right and it is wonderful to give a wider group of people the chance to own something by a great artist.”

KAWS work, of late, has become increasingly abstract. Could it be seen as an attempt to distance himself from his past history of street art and graffiti?

“First and foremost, KAWS trained as an animator which then led him into street art and graffiti. As with any artist his work and practice develops. Perhaps the abstracted works are derived from his approach as essentially a fine artist and trying to push his practice further? Essentially all of his work carries his unique artistic language playing on irreverent humour, comic aesthetic and vibrancy.”

Contemporaries of KAWS, like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, routinely make headlines, but it seems they haven’t been embraced as wholeheartedly by the art world. Do you agree, and if so why do you think that is?

“I don’t agree. The vast majority of people would know these three artists perhaps moreso than other artists featuring in our contemporary sales. If we take into consideration the infamous shredding Banksy which made global headlines, along with the recent stellar results for KAWS’ work, their appeal is repeatedly illustrated in their success not only on the global art market but worldwide. Further to this KAWS’ collaboration with institutions such as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Banksy’s collaboration with Bristol City Museum (not to mention many more worldwide) show that there are a number of great arts establishments embracing these artists.”

Simon Tovey, specialist in 20th Century and Contemporary art at Phillips

Simon Tovey, specialist in 20th Century and Contemporary art at Phillips

The pricing of works by street artists like KAWS and Banksy have become consistent with more strongly backed institutional artists. Some Banksy prints, for example, are generating sales in six figures, very similar to Warhol prices. Is this success indicative of a shift in taste, or generation?

“I believe there is a shift in the wider appeal of these artists. Many resonate with the playful humour of Banksy and the animation based lines of KAWS and want to live with these works which fit into a contemporary aesthetic. I am sure every generation sees artists which have this current appeal.”

Pearl Lam of Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, has said, “[Street art] is about a sense of freedom from the frankly boring and blinkered confines of the traditional art world.” Increasingly, we see prestigious art institutions include street art as a category of contemporary art, placing it side by side with pieces by Haring and Warhol. Is it through a new found appreciation for street art, or is it merely a cynical attempt to engage a younger market?

“Street art is a continuation of the work of Haring, Warhol and other artists (such as Basquiat) who were trailblazers in the 1970s and 1980s. The art world of this time was very much confined to the privileged few and these artists, along with others, strove to break it free by making art accessible to everyone both by making art on the streets but also by creating works which hung in galleries and reflected street and popular culture at the time. Much of the contemporary art that we encounter today derives from this legacy and so contextualizing street art with these greats is hugely important to understanding how this movement started.”

Banksy and KAWS tackle controversial political and social issues that resonate with younger generations. Is your traditional collector as interested in street art?

“Perhaps there is no longer anyone who can be described as a ‘traditional’ collector. Collectors’ tastes vary and are deeply personal therefore it is impossible to pigeon hole anyone in this way. The collector is ever changing and adapting their tastes which is reflected in the art market. There are works by these artists held in very well established collections along with collections just starting out and I think this reflects their unilateral appeal.”

Just as pop art was accepted by the establishment and auction houses, it seems street art is being taken more seriously. What’s next?

“As with our Banksy exhibitions in Hong Kong and Taipei, we are excited to see an increase in the appeal of shows centred around these artists. It is our job as a 21st Century auction house not just to sell things but also to engage with the public and collectors alike through interesting and topical collaborations, events and exhibitions.”

*KAWS’ public relations team have asked that The Art Newspaper drop the “street” from “street artist” when describing him (A. Shaw ‘Why KAWS is not a great artist’, 3 April 2019). 

Benjamin Weaver