“For me, art has always had to do with communication,” he says Brian Donnelly which, most likely, you know best thanks to its tag KAWS. In fact, his career as an artist does not begin in a studio but in the street where he can interact directly with passers-by. With the mid 90’s, the figures-cartoon Donnelly’s begin to appear throughout New York (where he studied at the School of Visual Arts), in the act of embracing Christy Turlington in Calvin Klein commercials, and forming the basis of recurring characters in his works, including CHUM (reinterpretation of the Michelin man), COMPANION (a character sometimes dressed in Mickey Mouse shorts and gloves) and Kimpsons (a parody of Simpsons).
All with the distinctive brand of two Xs for eyes, these characters populate Donnelly’s iconography, starting from graffiti through paintings, miniature collectible toys as well as colossal sculptures and even furniture. In 2018, he worked with the duo of Bell Brothers of Sao Paulo in Brazil to create a line of armchairs and sofas covered with KAWS soft toys. The result of the collaboration was presented at the DesignMiami art fair and immediately bought by celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and rapper Travis Scott.
Although often overlooked by critics, Donnelly is probably one of the most loved contemporary artists. Just ask his 3.2 million Instagram followers or the anonymous bidder he paid $ 14.8 million for The KAWS Album at the Sotheby’s auction in 2019 (Donnelly earned nothing due to resale royalty regulations). Not to mention the fact that his bold and ironic gestures turned out to be a real wedding invitation for the fashion world.
The KAWS Album
© Brad Bridgers
He has collaborated with the likes of A Bathing Ape, Supreme and Nike and, for his debut collection at Dior Men, Kim Jones has signed a partnership with KAWS to bring a nearly ten-meter-tall sculpture of his BFF totem character to the catwalk. Instead, for Comme des Garçons Fall / Winter 2021 season, Rei Kawakubo sprinkled shirts, coats and bags with a CDG print created from Donnelly’s designs. “I’ve always loved the way people can relate to your work in an intimate and profound way thanks to fashion,” says the artist. “It is one thing to see a work on a wall, but wearing it printed on a piece of clothing is another sensation entirely”.
Dior Homme spring summer 2019 Paris Fashion Week show
© Bertrand Rindoff Petroff
This month KAWS: WHAT PARTY inaugurates at Brooklyn Museum on February 26. Promoted as his first major monographic exhibition in New York, the exhibition traces Donnelly’s 25-year career and presents his recent forays into the world of augmented reality, allowing people from all over the world to enter his universe via the app. Acute Art. At the inauguration, Donnelly invited Vogue for a virtual tour of the exhibition, to then tell its story thanks to some specially chosen works.
UNTITLED (HARING), 1997
“Growing up my ‘heroes’ were people like Lee Quiñones, Futura 2000 is Blade – graffiti artists of the late 70s and early 80s – who I saw giving themselves an identity and making a name for themselves. I do not consider Keith Haring a graffiti artist but ended up on my radar due to his street art and ties to artists like DONDO. Hanging from a bus shelter in my neighborhood was a poster of the Haring al exhibition Whitney Museum of American Art on which I could not help but ‘get my hands’. I really loved his democratic approach to making art and how he made it accessible through his store, Pop Shop. It came naturally to me to paint on his work ”.
UNTITLED (DKNY), 1999
“I started painting on billboards in 1993. At the time, I was living with my parents in Jersey City [New Jersey] and the posters you found were those of Marlboro and Captain Morgan. When I moved to New York in 1996, there were more fashion advertisements like DKNY and Calvin Klein. I broke the bus cabinets and phone booths in my neighborhood, painted on the billboards and then put them back in their place. I had no intention of entering fashion, I simply wanted to make my art known to the world ”.
Untitled (Kimpsons), Package Painting Series, 2001
UNTITLED (KIMPSONS), PACKAGE PAINTING SERIES, 2001
“This represents my attempt to bring together the universes that are part of my imagination. It is a painting that also functions as a sculptural object and falls within the tradition of toys. Cartoons exist in different cultures and countries: in Mexico, children my age grew up on ‘bread and smurfs’ as it was for me too. Many of my paintings are flat like cartoons. I like the feeling that this work arouses when you stand in front of it and observe it, especially in the format and dimensions in which I work ”.
© Chad Kleitsch
“Originally, in 2002, I had created CHUM as a collectible toy. Michelin was one of the first companies to move away from the product, as a representative image, to choose a character instead. Whether it’s animation or advertising, I’ve always been interested in understanding how characters of the genre become recognizable in the eyes of people and how they relate to each other. They have a life that goes far beyond the actor or personality that represents the brand ”.
“COMPANION it was the first toy I created in 1999. I never imagined that I would continue to use COMPANION in my work after twenty years. Yet there are still messages that I want to convey through this character. It continues to seem new to me ”.
UNTITLED (KAWS PINOCCHIO), 2010
© Peter Harholdt
UNTITLED (KAWS PINOCCHIO), 2010
“Over the course of the exhibition, there are several pen drawings that I have made for different projects. This of Pinocchio it was for a toy I created for Disney in 2010 and sold in my Tokyo store, OriginalFake [aperto dal 2006 al 2013]. Having a permanent shop has been a great platform for me [senza essere rappresentato da una galleria] to work together with companies such as Disney, Warner Bros and Burton ”.
AT THIS TIME, 2013
“In 2005, I started producing small versions of wood together with a Japanese company named Karimoku. Later I created large-scale wooden works over 10 meters high. When you see a sculpture of that size, the effect is almost overwhelming but it is made of wood and we are outdoors so there is also a sense of vulnerability and, like a boat, it needs constant maintenance. I love looking for the best places for my works: the wood carvings are carved near Amsterdam, then shipped to Maastricht to be finished by hand ”.
THE NEWS, 2017
© Farzad Owrang
THE NEWS, 2017
“This series of nine paintings made in 2017 represents a tension I felt at that time. They are colorful and pleasing to the eye but are, at the same time, permeated by a sense of anxiety. She’s gone? Partly yes, partly no. Creatively, anxiety and doubts lead me to give my best ”.
KAWS: HOLIDAY, 2019
“The feeling of having a permanent sculpture that you can visit whenever you are in that city is beautiful but it is also just as fascinating, in quality, the ephemeral nature of a work like KAWS: HOLIDAY. This inflatable reproduction of COMPANION (40 meters long) was set up at the base of Mount Fuji, in Japan, for six days, after touring Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea. People came from afar to see it, then camped nearby. This is what led me to be interested in augmented reality and to play with the question of ‘What is real? ‘”.
URGE (KUB2), 2020
“In March 2020, my wife and I both fell ill with Covid-19. There was uncertainty everywhere and there were reports that said not to touch your face, not to touch anything. I started drawing CHUM with my hands on my face touching and contaminating. It must be humorous but it is also very anxious. When I came out of isolation, I transformed those drawings into 10 paintings, which are arranged in a grid within the exhibition ”.
KAWS: WHAT PARTY is on display at the Brooklyn Museum from February 26 to September 5 2021 and is curated by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein senior curator. Co-edited by Phaidon, the fully illustrated catalog, with new and exclusive content and five different covers, will be available starting June 23