How KAWS and his cartoon sculptures capture sorrow and doubt
Our new book describes how the artist’s pop appropriations bring a little humanity back into our highly commodified world
When did you first hear about KAWS? In our new book, KAWS: WHAT PARTY, the curator and critic Daniel Birnbaum admits something most art world insiders prefer to hide. Birnbaum quite openly states “I came late to KAWS.”
“Other writers have chronicled the evolution of his art from graffiti and public interventions, toys and brand collaborations, to today’s monumental sculptures and elaborate paintings,” Birnbaum goes on. However, as the writer points out, being late is an occupational hazard for artists these days.
In his essay, Birnbaum describes how the kind of appropriation of popular cultural imagery common in KAWS’s work dates back quite a number of years. He points out how Andy Warhol’s pop art from the early 1960s changed the way we view fine art. “The creative impulse is no longer seen as emanating from the mysterious depths of the artist’s unconscious,” he writes, “instead, everything is out there in the open, visible, and (in Warhol’s favorite parlance) on the surface of the things and people that make up the world around us.”
KAWS, alongside many other artists, seems to share this Warholian view, sixty years after Warhol made it plain. So, what does this mean for KAWS? A lazy critic might simply say the graffiti artist turned fine-art darling isn’t really doing anything new, or (worse still) is churning out commodified art, long after Warhol’s spark of brilliance has passed. Birnbaum doesn’t fall into this trap. He understands that the world has changed considerably over the past six decades.
Today, comics, vinyl figurines, advertisements and cartoons aren’t quite the childish, trashy flotsam of Warhol’s day. In many ways, they take up a much more serious and sincere part of our lives, and an artist working within these media might be “concerned with the production of objects and with the social context, the very theater in which art meets audience.”
In our new book, Birnbaum quotes his fellow curator, Scott Rothkopf, who “has pointed out, ‘we are late not just to modernism’s party, but to postmodernism’s, too.’ Arriving late can create a great sense of freedom, but the real problem, says Rothkopf, ‘is not so much saying there’s no such thing as an original image, but knowing full well that it’s not a very original thing to say.’”
Rather than worry too much about that last question, KAWS’s art relaxes, and adds a little humanity into that network of cold commodification. Being a latecomer, Birnbaum doesn’t focus on KAWS’s early graffiti work, but instead on his more recent fine art offerings, including his huge sculptures.
“What his art aspires to is a reintroduction of humanity into forms that have been constructed to communicate the brutal humor and heroism of cartoons,” writes the critic. “His large sculptural works instead give expression to a rich emotional register. They capture moments of sorrow, compassion, and companionship. Although assembled out of body parts from known cartoon characters, they convey intimacy.
“The vulnerability of the often massive creatures placed in the public realm is obvious to audiences, who want to share their regrets and doubts, their loneliness and grief,” Birnbaum goes on. “They create a sense of connectedness in a world of total commodification and accomplish an unlikely reintroduction of human attitudes and emotions where these seem unlikely.”
To connect, or perhaps reconnect with these overly large, get a copy of KAWS: WHAT PARTY. The new book, which accompanies the artist's sold-out show, is available in a range of KAWS-approved colours; take a look at the pink edition here; the yellow edition here; the black edition here; and the orange edition here. No matter which one you pick, KAWS: WHAT PARTY will unlock access to a compelling new field within contemporary culture, pioneered by one of the most important artists of our time.