Artist Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, hasn’t always been welcomed into the art world. His caricatured style, bold use of colour, and fluidity between mainstream art, street art, and fashion is something that most museums don’t look for in artists. However, that’s significantly changing for the artist who’s become one of today’s most sought-after and innovative artist. And in 2021, he’ll have a homecoming of sorts with the largest survey of his works to date at the Brooklyn Museum.
KAWS began as a graffiti tagger and eventually became a street artist and started creating his own personal rendition of various well-known cartoon characters. From the Simpsons to Mickey Mouse, KAWS recreated the figures adding in his signature: a pair of ‘X’ eyes. In the beginning, he’d put his work up illegally and garnered a massive following, now about two million-strong, on Instagram. It took years, though, before he was recognized by the art community. ‘My trajectory has been from the bottom up,’ said KAWS in an interview with The New York Times.
Though he has shown at the Brooklyn Museum before, in 2015 the museum held an exhibition of his works titled ‘KAWS: ALONG THE WAY,’ but this is his first major retrospective in his hometown. Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, admitted that she ‘didn’t see the appeal initially’ and recognizes that he ‘makes the art world uncomfortable.’ However, she recalls artists tell her to take note and she did.
The survey of his career thus far will come a few years after the artist has risen from street artist with an Instagram following to a major figure in the art world. It wasn’t until last year was the first time KAWS was featured in an evening sale at a major auction house. ‘His work is universal, and it transcends the traditional market,’ said head of Sotheby’s New York’s contemporary art evening auctions David Galperin. Now, his works are setting records. Earlier this year, THE KAWS ALBUM, a 2005 work by KAWS riffing off The Simpsons and The Beatles, set an artist record selling for a whopping $14.8 million. More recently, KURFS (TANGLED) (2009) soared past its $600,000-$800,000 pre-sale estimates and brought in $2.6 million. During Art Basel Hong Kong, a 37-metre, inflatable version of KAWS ‘Companion’ figure was floated in the city’s Victoria Harbour as a collaboration between KAWS and AllRightsReserved drawing crowds to see the work.
Without a doubt, KAWS is a part of group of artists today reshaping the way we think of and interact with the art world. Until the retrospective begins in 2021, it seems certain that the trajectory of KAWS, the artist that according to Galperin ‘surprised all of us,’ and his works will continue to climb.