I’m into Schulz as an artist, a company, and an icon; I got into his stuff just because I liked the looseness of the line work, and I thought that it was just sort of a nice thing to bring into my paintings.
Untitled MBFJ8 presents two characters from KAWS’s highly coveted and universally adored Peanuts-inspired creations: the iconic Snoopy, with Woodstock in a red dog bowl balanced on his head, both revamped with the artist’s instantly recognizable X-ed out eyes. In 1995, still in his graffiti artist days, KAWS tagged a billboard for MetLife insurance that included the Peanuts characters Snoopy and Woodstock; since then the artist has collaborated with the Peanuts license multiple times to much popular appeal. Describing his interest in the cartoon creations of Charles M. Schulz, KAWS states: “I’m into Schulz as an artist, a company, an icon; I got into his stuff just because I liked the looseness of the line work, and I thought that it was just sort of a nice thing to bring into my paintings” (KAWS, quoted in Steff Yotka, “Inside KAWS’s Studio With the Artist—And His Snoopy for Uniqlo Toys”, Vogue, April 27, 2017, online).
At its peak in the mid to late 1960s, the Peanuts comic had a readership of around 355 million in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. The pervasive universality of the image of Snoopy and his cohort of friends transcends the barrier of language and culture – a notion which fascinated KAWS. The artist has explained that he “found it weird how infatuated a cartoon could become in people’s lives, the impact it could have” (Murray Healy, “Graffiti Artist Turned Gallery Artist Turned Art Toy Maker: KAWS”, Pop, Feb. 2007, pp. 260-265). In his own oeuvre, KAWS harnesses the recognisability of icons in popular culture and adapts them with his own playfully subversive, instantly recognisable signifiers and trademarks, building a wholly unique visual lexicon that has become singular in its own right. Such a lexicon straddles high and low art, cartoon and design, contemporary art and popular culture; like no other artist before him, KAWS manages to operate in – and create a dynamic interplay between – the dual and often opposing worlds of art and commerce. In the artist’s own words: “Whereas in the 1990s, it was put to me that you got to be commercial or you can be a fine artist. [They were] very different roads you need to choose and lanes you need to stay within in order to be one or the other. And now I feel like a lot of those barriers have been knocked down” (the artist cited in “KAWS: Finding Narrative in Abstraction”, COBO SOCIAL, 9 April 2018).
As exemplified by works such as Untitled MBFJ8, the increasingly universal appeal of KAWS’s creations stems from its core roots in an aesthetic hitherto excluded from the realm of fine art – the aesthetic of cartoons. As KAWS observes, cartoons “operate in a way that nothing else does, throughout different countries” (Ibid.). Michael Auping observes that “cartoons are the closest figurative equivalent to abstraction”, and that “looking at KAWS’s paintings is to witness someone who very naturally approaches cartoons and abstraction as symbiotic languages of visual tropes” (Michael Auping, “America’s Cartoon Mind”, in exh. cat. KAWS: Where the End Starts, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, p. 71). Now an artist of indisputable international acclaim, KAWS was recently honoured by amfAR at its fourth annual amfAR Gala Hong Kong 2018. His selected recent solo exhibitions include ‘WHERE THE END STARTS’ at the Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2017) and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth (2016); ‘KAWS’ at Yorkshire Sculptural Park, West Yorkshire, UK (2016); ‘ALONG THE WAY’ at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York (2015); ‘FINAL DAYS’ at Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Málaga, Spain (2014).