On 26th February this year, KAWS: WHAT A PARTY opened at Brooklyn Museum in New York. Featuring more than one hundred works from across his career, the exhibition marks the art world’s insatiable appetite for the New Jersey artist who has now been on the contemporary art scene for a quarter of a century. The world’s obsession with the artist, described as ‘KAWS Mania’ back in 2018, seems to remain just as present in the industry three years later. To investigate KAWS’ ongoing success, we asked Maddox Gallery Artistic Director, Maeve Doyle, how KAWS has remained so popular across his illustrious career and why 2021 is going to be such a great year for the artist.
“KAWS’ work channels the most recognisable parts of mainstream culture, and that is what the people really want. He repossesses teenage affections and in doing so, holds up a mirror to our times”.
Known for his collectable toys and reappropriated cartoons, KAWS’ artwork is the perfect fusion between fine art and mainstream culture. The artist transforms characters from classic 90s cartoons, including the Smurfs, the Simpsons, SpongeBob and Snoopy, and in doing so enters recognisable characters into the fine art arena.
Doyle notes that KAWS “satiates the needs of a society who are dictated by a longing for the past” and that the familiar characters in KAWS’ artwork appeals perfectly to a society enamoured withnostalgia. At a time where people are looking back fondly at their childhood years, KAWS’ art provides a fitting fusion of the past, present and future.
“KAWS has created something the art world has never seen before. He has developed his own visual language that speaks universally”.
From crossed out eyes to protruding tongues, KAWS has created a visual lexis that is immediately recognisable as his own. Whilst this alone is not unusual for an artist, with creatives including Keith Haring also creating their own distinctive visual dialect, the universal appeal of KAWS’ imagery remains completely unique. Whether exhibiting in Tokyo or New York, Hong Kong or Paris, collectors from every culture can relate to the artist’s distinctive style, proving that KAWS’ art operates on a higher level than imitation alone. Originally disregarded as a fad or gimmick five years ago, KAWS has proven his lasting power and shown that he is here to stay.
“Thanks to his limited-edition prints and toys, collectors can enter the KAWS market at a variety of different price points and this has secured him as a favourite amongst collectors and investors alike”.
Launching to fame in 1999 with his Companion toy, KAWS’ artwork has always been available to purchase at a range of prices thanks to his love of various mediums and his willingness to blur the lines between art and commerce. Whether you are a first-time collector buying one of his toys or you have an established collection and are seeking a sculpture or print, KAWS’s art accommodates every group. Doyle notes that the artist’s ability to cater to so many, is “a main facilitator of his popularity”.
“KAWS’ ongoing popularity undoubtedly also relates to the sheer power of his reach. From his thriving social media to his global brand collaborations, the artist makes himself ever-present. He cannot be forgotten”.
Known as the king of collaboration, KAWS is never one to shy away from brand partnerships. From Dior to Nike, the artist has worked with top-selling organisations across the globe.These collaborations have not only provided the artist with an immense amount of visibility on an international scale, but they have also introduced a whole new audience to the art market, with many of KAWS’ clients being luxury consumers that have turned to collecting for the very first time.
Speaking about her favourite KAWS partnership, Doyle states “my favourite is his 2020 collaboration with Wear Sons and Daughters, a children’s eyewear brand based in Hong Kong. The concept of KAWS themed glasses seems so fun and making children the target consumer speaks to the universal reach of KAWS. Whether it is age or location, his influence truly knows no limits”.
“KAWS blurs the lines of what is considered fine art and the market has never been more receptive to pushing boundaries than it is right now. With the rise of NFTs in the early months of 2021, the landscape of contemporary art is showing it is ready for change and that is what KAWS brings”.
On 11th March 2021, Christie’s sold The First 5000 Days by Beeple for over £69 million, marking two industry firsts: the sale of a non-fungible token (NFT) by a major auction house and the use of crypto currency as payment for an artwork at auction. The Beeple sale marked a milestone for the art world’s willingness for innovation and change in 2021. With KAWS being well known for pushing boundaries, the current climate of the industry will certainly fuel his success.