The street artist is becoming a museum mainstay as the lower end of this collectible and editioned market continues to rise.
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Don’t Hate Him Because He Sells Well
GQ has a profile by KAWS hype man, Arty Nelson, pegged to the MOCAD show of the artist’s work that just closed a few days ago. Nelson covers all of the familiar territory about KAWS’s career as a creator of cultural ephemera that has risen to the height of collectible value. With continuing market growth and increasing institutional alacrity to elevate his work, KAWS has nearly become an instant cliché.
Nelson cannot help himself when he describes the trajectory of the artist Brian Donnelly’s career as KAWS since the 2008 show at Emmanuel Perrotin’s gallery in Miami that was first brokered by the music producer Pharrell. “Donnelly was shot out of a cannon,” Nelson writes, “with bells on and one of those batting helmets with beer holsters and tubes running directly to the mouth.”
With that kind of awkward hyperbole, perhaps we shouldn’t put too much stock in Nelson’s take on the art market. Breathless recitations of recent auction sales are hardly the best way to evaluate an artist’s value or relevance. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is something significant taking place in the parallel rise of KAWS’s market and his steady march toward institutional acceptance and veneration.
The institutions clearly like KAWS’s popularity. He brings in the bodies. It’s no secret that museums like the social proof of their cultural relevance.
To someone like [MOCAD executive director and chief curator Elysia] Borowy-Reeder, whose extensive and varied museum career threading through Raleigh, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and now Detroit has afforded her the POV of a kind of enriched outsider, the prospects of what a KAWS brings to the landscape of contemporary art is a welcome sign of the changing times. “The palace gates might still be somewhat closed—and there’s a moat,” she says. “But I think it was Virgil Abloh who said, ‘How many collaborations is too many?’ He’s mixing street and ready-to-wear fashion and killing it. And I hope more people get inspired by that model or lens of freedom, working on the outside, pushing in. With people like KAWS and Abloh, things could get really exciting.”
Collaborations between artists and luxury and consumer goods companies are not a new wrinkle. What Nelson shows elsewhere in his profile is that KAWS’s collaborations are not ‘additions’ or ‘sidelines.’ The direction of those collaborations—where the artist can begin as a designer of collectibles and develop a powerful constituency through the creation of low-priced ephemera—is a new development.
It’s well known that in the first period of Donnelly’s career, KAWS was a designer of toys in Japan. That’s a line of work that he continues to pursue. For KAWS, they predate his being taken seriously as an artist. Some still legitimately bridle at the claim KAWS can or should be taken seriously. Here we’re less interested in critical appraisal than the fact that KAWS’s art may possibly be more legitimately located in his earlier commercial work.
One clue to that question is the results from Heritage Auctions sale of Urban Art last month in Chicago. The broader sale of work by Banksy, Yoshitomo Nara, Daniel Arsham, Mr., Mr. Brainwash and more made a total of $2.7m with 93% of the more than 600 lots offered.
The star lot in sale was a rare early work from KAWS’s series of works adapting bus stop ads into works of art with his characters super-imposed upon them. Although Heritage might have hoped to see the ad-based work to soar as some of the artist’s canvases have, it remains a work on paper. Nonetheless, it reached a price of $375k.
One of KAWS’s toys made by his OriginalFake company with Medicom Toy, a four-foot tall resin Companion figure with half of the body dissected like an grade-school anatomy model was the subject of bidding by 18 different collectors who drove the work to $137,500. Also in the sale were a number of editioned works that sold well:
Four of the editioned works also made record prices for those examples: