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 (MBFR7) features one of KAWS’ most loved motifs – Charles Schulz’s Peanuts character Snoopy revamped with KAWS’ trademark X-ed out eyes. On first glance, there are three Snoopies tumbling through the large-format canvas – discernible via three X-eyes – with more comingling Snoopies appearing as the eye roves the layered abstract composition. Snoopy as a household icon has been magnified, multiplied and fractured in a form of cartoon cubism – a strategy that destabilizes the iconographic narrative and then swiftly reinforces it via the act of viewership: even in abstracted and incomplete forms, the contours of the X-ed out Snoopy remains instantly recognizable. Manifesting as a superlative fusion of cartoon and abstraction, UNTITLED (MBFR7) is archetypal of KAWS’ oeuvre that straddles high and low art, cartoon and design, contemporary art and popular culture. 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).
The relationship between America’s cartoon culture and high art can be traced back beyond the canon of Pop Art. As Michael Auping observes, many of America’s pioneers of abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s owe their artistic breakthroughs to the canon of cartoons. Auping writes: “For that generation, one of the quickest ways to learn how to draw and create dramatic effects through pose and gesture was through illustration and the comics. Willem de Kooning studied ‘applied art’ […] Franz Kline and David Smith made cartoons as teenagers, honing their draftsmanship and compositional skills […] Barnett Newman was fascinated by Disney’s colour extravaganza Fantasia” (Michael Auping, in “America’s Cartoon Mind”, in Exh. Cat. KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, p. 65). Auping goes on to argue 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” (Ibid, p. 71).
KAWS himself has said: “Abstraction always interested me, because it relates to and, in a very basic way, animation. Drawing itself is an abstract process until it becomes something recognizable”. Describing his particular interest in the creations of Charles M. Schulz, KAWS stated: “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). KAWS’ specific emphasis on Schulz’s line work is significant, revealing his deep-set appreciation for the skill of sketching and drawing as well as the centrality of the abstract line in art and design. As an appropriation and reworking of Schulz’s iconic cartoon, the present UNTITLED (MBFR7) reveals not only KAWS’ own dexterous mastery of line and movement and that is rooted in the fundamentals of abstraction, but further engages in minimalism and dissociation via cropping and monochromatic colour tone.
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 universality of the image of Snoopy and his ensemble of friends transcends the barrier of language and culture – a notion that 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). Now an undeniable international phenomenon not just within the artistic sphere but also vis-à-vis the global general public, KAWS’ own impact on art and visual culture within an image-saturated world has reached gargantuan proportions. The highly representative UNTITLED (MBFR7) manifests as a supreme KAWS archetype that channels freely the lexicons of cartoon, high and low art, draftsmanship, design, and popular culture.