KAWS’ paintings on canvas may represent only a fraction of his creative universe; and yet such works, the ultimate epitome of which is captured in the present UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #1), reveal the most potent amalgamation of the various foundational sources that inform and drive his output. Beginning his career as a graffiti writer in 1993, KAWS quickly won recognition within the New York “graff” community. In 1996, KAWS visited San Francisco and interacted with the Northern California subculture and Barry McGee (TWIST); it is from McGee that KAWS obtains the tool he deployed to open the display windows of bus shelter advertising posters. The wrench supported KAWS’ early tagging series that, even in the nascent stages of his career, expanded the dimensions of both graffiti and painting in an unprecedented manner. First, unlike the typical graffiti artist who tagged walls or billboards on-site, KAWS’ methodology involved him removing the poster from its glass case and transferring it from kiosk to studio, where the intervention took place. Germano Celant observes that KAWS’ process implies a “controlled and thought out” method “bespeaking a procedure more typical of artists” (Germano Celant, KAWS: 1993-2010, 2010, p. 47). Second, KAWS’ tagging involved not a negative or destructive defacing or negating of existing imagery, but instead a contribution – a transformation of the image not only into a new thing, but more crucially into a dialogue. His interventions were considered responses and interactions; for example, targeting ads featuring women in sensuous poses for GUESS and Calvin Klein, KAWS wraps the figure with a coiling snake, transforming the ad into a new image with new meaning. Celant argues that in this way, KAWS “calls into question the advertisement’s seductive charge, without, however, opposing it […] It is a process that avoids the sort of superimposition which, in much graffiti, tends to cover and cancel out the message of the corporate advertisement, and instead sort of drags it along, connecting itself with it” (Ibid, p. 49).
From the beginning of his career, therefore, KAWS’ output was grounded first of all in serious painterly preoccupations – humorously subversive in content, carefully composed in form, and meticulously executed in finish. As the artist himself said: “I painted with no brush strokes, clean and unobtrusive, as if it were part of the ad. I wanted people to think that what I did was actually part of the ad campaign” (the artist cited in Ibid). Second of all, KAWS’ creative ambitions – and his cartoon personality in particular – were fueled by a genuine philosophy of hybridity, connection, and mutual exploitation that neither critiqued nor commented on the proliferation of consumerist imagery, but actively propagated its modus operandi. Per Celant: “The quasi-spermatic embrace of [Christy Turlington’s] body is not so much an aggression as an expression of the desire for an ‘amorous’ interweaving of art with the product” (Ibid). Michael Auping observes: “He gives the ad what it seems to want. A perky little snake or a cartoon hand reaches into the blouse or pants of a smiling model, who then seems to be either pretending to ignore it or secretly loving it. This is the beginning of KAWS’ cartoon personality – subversive, funny, and a little perverse” (Michael Auping, in “America’s Cartoon Mind”, in Exh. Cat. KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2016, p. 66). KAWS’ early tagging philosophy furthermore announced his democratic visions for the enclosed hypocrisy of painting and fine art; for him, what was most imperative was visibility – for his art to reach multitudes. When fans began stealing his tagged bus shelter ads, KAWS was devastated: each stolen ad meant one less conduit of circulation, interpretation, citation, and re-circulation within the public sphere.
By the turn of the millennium, following his graduation from design school as well as a freelance stint at animation studio Jumbo Pictures, KAWS had left street art behind; by that time he had developed other channels through which to perpetuate his pantheon of by-then increasingly well-known characters, including COMPANION and CHUM, all embellished with his trademark X-eyes. A 1997 visit to Japan had led to fruitful collaborations with street fashion labels and designers as well as the production of the first 3D toy edition of COMPANION in 1999. In the late 1990s KAWS was invited to show and sell his artwork in collaborative exhibitions or projects in Paris and at the New Museum in New York; in the latter, KAWS’ toy editions were extremely well-received, prompting him to expand his production to silkscreens. In the same year, KAWS designed a collection for Jun Takahashi’s brand Undercover, his first collaboration with a couture label. And in 2001, for his first solo exhibition in Tokyo, KAWS created his first formal acrylic paintings on canvas, which featured his KIMPSONS hybrid characters. These first acrylic works on canvas, titled THE PACKAGE PAINTING SERIES, mark an important milestone in KAWS’ career due to multiple reasons: not only were they his first canvas works; they were crucially presented in the same kind of plastic blister packaging used by toy manufacturers. KAWS’ first official infiltration into the realm of ‘fine’ art, therefore, was an orchestrated entrance that cleverly negotiated the parameters between painting and product, fine art and commerce.
It was during this enormously productive and inspired period in his career that KAWS developed a close personal and professional relationship with Tomoaki Nagao, a.k.a. NIGO®, founder of A Bathing Ape®, a.k.a. BAPE. It was to NIGO® that KAWS turned to for expertise when he was producing the packages for his PACKAGE PAINTINGS, and for the same exhibition, KAWS designed a small BAPE head pillow. Shortly after that, NIGO® not only purchased a KIMPSONS painting but also became the first to commission a series of large-scale acrylic KIMPSONS paintings from the artist. The present UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #1) is the first and largest of these commissioned canvas works by NIGO®, marking it a highly significant touchstone within KAWS’ career trajectory imbued with extraordinary significance: itself a work of consummate hybrid imagery, the fact that it was commissioned by one of the most visionary cultural entrepreneurs of our time imbues the piece with heightened dimensions of hybridity, alliance, and connection. NIGO® is one of the most pivotal figures in the international street culture and fashion scene who pioneered the global commercial model of artistic collaborations, “double-name” lines, and limited-edition goods; amongst KAWS’ extensive output, only a small selection bears such esteemed provenance, with the present UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #1) being one of the most remarkable instances of historical import.
Against the venerable tides of art history, KAWS’ swift ascension from outsider status of graffiti artist to the highest echelons of the fine art is not unprecedented: KAWS has already been situated within the lineage of Pop artists from Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring through Jeff Koons who likewise absorbed existing mass-culture or cartoon imagery into their vernacular; what is less discussed is how KAWS takes this modus operandi one crucial step further. Like his predecessors, KAWS harnesses the formal potency of the language of cartoons and exposes its underlying primordial role in informing or indeed dictating identity and visual culture. Taking this to another level, KAWS extends this tradition by imbuing his entire host of hybrid characters with unprecedented humanity and endearing pathos. Auping describes this as “boundary-crossing humanization”: while Oldenburg’s still lifes and Koons’ sculptures were frozen and chillingly lifeless, KAWS’ figures are animated, agitated, lonely, forlorn, and ultimately very human, inviting a resonance and interaction in viewers hitherto unseen in the Pop lexicon. Auping observes that while cartoons are designed to simplify human emotions, “KAWS introduces more complex and subtle feelings” (Michael Auping, in “America’s Cartoon Mind”, in Exh. Cat. KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2016, p. 68), a technically and conceptually sophisticated move that injects existentialism back into a cartoon world – all the while maintaining the cheerful veneer of humour and lighthearted satire. It is through humanization that KAWS’ oeuvre is most distinguished from his peers – past and present, and how the world – art collectors and the public alike – came to fall madly in love with his endearing coterie of X-eyed friends. In full encapsulation of KAWS’ wit, prescient vision and affectionate irreverence for our times, UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #1) engineers a crisscrossing, ever-expanding network of humanity: from the artist to NIGO®, from cartoon characters to the American public, and from the hitherto enclosed sphere of fine art to street art to cartoon culture and to the entire world – a gargantuan apotheosis of the brilliant insurgence of one of the most influential artists of our time.
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