KAWS (b. 1974)
Brian Donnelly, better known professionally as KAWS, is a painter, designer, former graffiti artist, and one of the hottest names in the world of contemporary art. Born on November 4, 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Donnelly earned a BA in Illustration from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1996. His early post-college work included painting backgrounds for now-classic animated series such as MTV’s Daria and Nickelodeon’s Doug.
Getting his start as a graffiti artist in New York City in the early 1990s, Donnelly began experimenting with fonts and exploring character forms. Of his moniker “KAWS,” the artist told CBS News in 2009, “I just liked the shapes of the [letters] K, A, W, S… When your whole art is based on the lettering you choose, you kind of figure out [which] ones work together.”
Much of KAWS’s work falls into the category of “subvertising,” a portmanteau of subvert and advertising, used to describe art that spoofs corporate or political advertisements. Also known as “advertising hijacking” or “meme hacks,” these “subvertisements” present a sociopolitical ideology of anti-consumerism by intentionally imitating and altering an existing image, ad or icon, often in a satirical manner. During the mid-1990’s KAWS made a name for himself producing these subversionary images on bus shelters, phone booth advertisements, and billboards.
KAWS’s paintings and sculptures often utilize a visual language of repeated images and characters, (such as his “Companion” and “BFF” figures). Like fellow contemporary artist and occasional collaborator, Takashi Murakami, KAWS’s work often challenges the distinctions between fine and commercial art, or high and low art. In his acrylic paintings one can clearly see the influence of Murakami’s “super flat” style.
KAWS’s particular blend of fine art and hyper-commercialism is most clearly exemplified by his many collaborations with pop culture superstars over the last two decades. Typically stylized as KAWS x [Brand name], notable partnerships include his first shoe collaboration with DC Shoes (2002), a snowboard with Burton (2006), sneakers with Vans (2007), home products such as rugs and ashtrays featuring KAWS’s signature character, the Companion, with Gallery 1950 (2008), guitar picks with recording artist John Mayer (2008), packaging for Kiehl’s skin care (2009), and bottle designs for liquor companies (KAWS x Dos Equis beer, 2010) and (KAWS x Hennessy cognac, 2011).
For the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, KAWS redesigned the MTV Moonman trophy in the form of his Companion character. In May 2017, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City released limited supplies of the wildly popular KAWS Companion action figure, resulting in a storm of web traffic that crashed MoMA’s Design Store website.
KAWS’s iconic sculptures continue to entice audiences around the world. In May 2018, KAWS installed two 26-foot tall "Companion" and "BFF" sculptures at a shopping complex in Changsha, China. His “KAWS: HOLIDAY” project, a 92-feet long, inflatable Companion sculpture, floated in Seoul, Korea’s Seokchon Lake for much of 2018. It was named one of the “Top 10 Art Moments of 2018” by Hypebeast.com (along with Banksy’s unforgettable Girl with a Balloon that self-shredded after it sold for $1.4 million USD at Sotheby’s).
KAWS’s work is highly desirable on the secondary market and can be found in the permanent collections of notable institutions including the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, California.