The New York Times has published an excellent profile of artist Brian Donnelly. Who is Brian Donnelly you ask? He’s the artist better known as KAWS. If you don’t know who he is, you may know his artwork. It seems to be everywhere these days.
The rise of KAWS as a global mega-star artist is fascinating. It’s a career arc we’ve watched for two decades. That path started with KAWS as a graffiti writer and street artist whose distinct, recognizable work first came to our attention on the streets of downtown New York City, when we started living there in the early 2000s. His images struck a chord. We were fans then. We are still fans now.
In recent years, the output and scale of KAWS artwork seems to have grown by leaps and bounds. Giant installations of his now iconic sculptural characters “BFF” and “Companion” have turned up around the world in museums, corporate lobbies and office-tower plazas and myriad public spaces, not to mention in galleries. Gargantuan balloon versions of “Companion” have appeared in unlikely landscapes — Floating in Hong Kong’s Harbor and sprawled in the countryside surrounding Mount Fuji in Japan. Speaking of balloons, his “Companion” has glided down Broadway as part of NYC’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
“Companion” and “BFF” are but two examples of KAWS oeuvre. They’re certainly the most visible and iconic. Images of them fill the social media feeds of millions. These are fabricated, sculptural objects that work best at massive scale, but can also be produced at the scale of a small molded figure the size of a child’s toy. The characters are like weird mutants from an alt-universe Sesame Street. They’re cartoony and have the look of plushy Muppets, but utterly devoid of the kind of cheer or personality we might usually expect. Granted, these are static creations. But both Companion and BFF possess an emotional posture for our times. They seem defeated, exhausted by some unknowable slow-burn trauma, and resigned to an acute, tragic condition of mute sadness. There is something zeitgeisty about them, and this perhaps explains their appeal.
KAWS vision found its earliest expression in the streets, but it’s a vision that has now found its fullest expressive force as fine art. It is accessible, collectible, valuable (or, at least, absurdly expensive), commercial, and very, very Instagrammable. In 2019, one of his older “Kimpsons” paintings sold at auction for over $14 million! Staggering prices aside, his work is an evocative visual shorthand that has hit a nerve. It has tapped an multi-generational array of pop-cultural references and emotional nuance that has resonated with viewers around the world.