Artnet set out to ‘uncover the powerful forces behind the craze,’ have they identified them?
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Getting the Kaws Market Right—and Wrong
Artnet released a look at the KAWS market late last week in a pdf report that the site says will “uncover the powerful forces behind the craze.” The report doesn’t quite live up to the hyperbole but it is a worthwhile place to start.
The report falls short in sometimes missing the significance of the evidence it cites. Take, for example, the nearly $2m sale of Clean Slate, a giant statue from 2014, that Artnet doesn’t tell us was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth which has played an important role in KAWS’s entry into the ‘serious’ art world with shows in 2011 and a retrospective in 2016 that set the stage for 2018’s market super nova.
The report shines when it makes clear the sheer impact 2018 has had on artist’s market stature (try to ignore the mixed metaphor):
- “Last year, a switch seemed to flip. The steady burn that had characterized KAWS’s market for the past decade transformed into a full-blown inferno. In 2018, his work generated a total of $33.8 million at auction—a 260 percent increase from the previous year, according to the artnet Price Database. His average sale price also nearly doubled, to $82,063 from $42,272 in 2017. What’s more, all 20 of KAWS’s highest auction prices were set in 2018, including five that surpassed $1 million.”
The report also does a decent job of sketching out how KAWS got here from starting as a street artist to building a small empire of toys to expanding into canny partnerships in prints and, finally, paintings. But KAWS is hardly the first commercial artist to make the transition to becoming a ‘serious’ artist. Indeed, the parallels with Warhol are unavoidable. Though KAWS has greater leverage than Warhol did because his commercial art has fed directly into the value, prominence and critical interest in his ‘serious’ art.
KAWS has worked with other companies to create collectibles—like Koons’ Balloon Dog plates or the LVMH handbags that both Koons and Takashi Murakami made—that broadly popularized his artistic vocabulary. In KAWS’s case, the process worked from the bottom up. Where the others sold collectibles with recognizable images from their best art works, KAWS made his characters popular through his toys before he tried to make them art or, at least, in conjunction with that.
There’s also an irony to many in the art market trying to turn KAWS into a punchline for bad taste. His art is so strikingly similar in strategy to the Pop art of 1962—one KAWS holder recently sat at an art dinner with original Warhol collector Irving Blum who told him he owns a seminal early KAWS—the critics who pan KAWS seem oblivious to the ways they echo the critics of Pop art.
KAWS may not be Roy Lichtenstein but he’s playing with the same fire.
Surely much of the problem is that the source material (cartoons) isn’t important to most of us. The allusions, permutations and transmogrifications KAWS tries to accomplish with his cartoon source material is meaningless if the original images have no meaning.
The same can be said about Warhol’s Marilyn and Liz, Elvis and Marlon. These are cultural reference points that only have emotional resonance to a dwindling portion of the population, although a significantly wealthier portion of the population too. There will be a time in the not-too-distant future when museum goers look at Warhol’s pantheon of fame and tragedy the way we look at medieval saints.
So our skepticism about the work being art is understandable. But the audience KAWS has built through collectibles and social media doesn’t have the same concerns, as the Artnet report helpfully tells us:
- “‘I think we’re seeing the effects of how the art market has gone global,’ says Jacob Lewis, director of Pace Prints, which has released about 10 print editions with KAWS. ‘Social media is telling the marketplace what is important culturally.’”
Like Banksy, who is a more literal and less expansive artist, KAWS has been able to generate mass appeal unmediated by a gallery or even a museum infrastructure. The two are very different artists but both have built a direct relationship with their audience and maintain that through social media. So it is a little strange that Artnet tries to imply that the “power forces behind the craze” are the usual art world bogeymen:
- “Despite his detractors, KAWS has been promoted by some of the most powerful figures in the art world—among them, Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns the world’s largest private collection of work by Andy Warhol.”
The Mugrabis have definitely participated in the KAWS market but not necessarily in the way that Artnet is hinting here. The appositive “world’s largest private collection of work by Andy Warhol” is meant to suggest the family is wielding star-making power. But no one knows how many Warhols the Mugrabis own. The family took a long hiatus from supporting the Warhol market over the last several years. Whether that is a sign they no longer have meaningful holdings worth defending or that they no longer think the Warhol market needs to be defended, is also something only they know.
As far KAWS’s market is concerned, the family of normally ostentatious auction bidders has not been seen supporting KAWS works auctioned this year. They probably didn’t have to considering how quickly the works out-paced their estimates. But others in the KAWS market say the Mugrabis have only participated on the supply side. Having acquired a meaningful number of works by KAWS, they’ve been selling into the rising market.
The un-answered question is whether that selling is what created the counter-intuitive liquidity that fostered the rise in prices or whether they’ve been part of the cash out bonanza. Either way, other KAWS market participants don’t see the Mugrabis as the force behind the market.
What we do know is that most of the buying at the top end of this market is coming from Asia, that prices are being set by the buyers and not being controlled by his dealer. Demand cannot be dismissed as “auction house hype” because the auction houses are scrambling to catch up to a market that keeps surprising them.
How KAWS will capitalize on his new cultural and market position with growing museum support and a first-rate dealer at the helm will be fascinating to watch. His ability to generate a large output across media gives him the potential to become an important force in the market some day.
Today, he’s still pretty far down on the list of artists who dominate the Contemporary auction market. Artprice’s report of Contemporary art sales which covers the period from July 2017 to June 2018 puts KAWS at #22 among Contemporary artists by total auction volume with $15m in sales.
If one applied Artnet’s 2018 number of $33m to the same list, KAWS would move up above Martin Kippenberger, Takashi Murakami, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Keith Haring, Cecily Brown, Richard Prince and Damien Hirst. But he would still lag behind Yoshitomo Nara, Mark Bradford, Kerry James Marshall, Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool and George Condo.