Pop Artist KAWS Takes Us to “Where the End Starts”

Artwork: KAWS. WHERE THE END STARTS, 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 inches.

Brian Donnelly, known to the world as KAWS, has become one of the most famous Pop Artists working today, successfully bridging the spaces between design, commercial and fine art. Born in 1974 in Jersey City, he first came to renown when remade fashion advertisements encased behind the glass protection of bus stop shelters and phone booths. Key in hand, he broke in, snatched the posters, a brightly colored cartoon head and tail in acrylic paint, and then slide them right back into place. The effect was beguiling; at a time when street art was first coming up, KAWS provided the perfect mix of subversive charm to the form.

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In 1999, he successfully parlayed into the emerging world of graffiti-inspired toys, making a vinyl figure of Mickey Mouse with the eyes x-ed out, recalling the cartoon iconography of older times. No longer was Mickey a loveable scamp; through KAWS’s hand he was rendered a warning of the influences of pop culture and consumerism.

KAWS. PASS THE BLAME, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Unframed: 120 × 196 × 1 3/4 in. (304.8 × 497.84 × 4.45 cm)

KAWS. PASS THE BLAME, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Unframed: 120 × 196 × 1 3/4 in. (304.8 × 497.84 × 4.45 cm)

From here, everything began to bloom, as pop culture refused to subverted and embraced KAWS with open arms. He embraced the commercial culture and parlayed that into art, creating a curious space where the comment becomes commerce itself. It’s a bit of the ouroburo, the snake eating its tail, reminding us that art is the only unregulated industry in the world. But, as with all Pop Art, the comment is second to the content because the content is the known; it is the relatable, embraceable space that pulls art off its pedestal It takes pleasure in the pedestrian over the pedagogic, reminding us that art as an expression of self need not be obscure or academic.

Like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, KAWS speaks to our love for the signs and symbols we recognize from our daily lives. In celebration of two decades in art, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents KAWS: Where the End Starts, a major survey exhibition on view now through January 22, 2017. Featuring approximately 100 works, the exhibition includes a selection of key paintings, drawings, large-scale sculpture, graffiti, and products including toys and apparel.

KAWS. ACCOMPLICE, 2010. Fiberglass and black rubberized paint Overall: 120 x 47 1/2 x 36 in. (304.8 x 120.65 x 91.44 cm)

KAWS. ACCOMPLICE, 2010. Fiberglass and black rubberized paint. Overall: 120 x 47 1/2 x 36 in. (304.8 x 120.65 x 91.44 cm)

Included in the show are KAWS’s three most iconic figures: COMPANION, inspired by Mickey Mouse; CHUM, a derivative of the Michelin Man; and ACCOMPLICE, an adorable bunny that resembles a plush toy with long ears. These figures were inspired by the animated cartoons he grew up watching, then transformed into symbols of life itself.

KAWS explains, “COMPANION is a figure in the world now, and it’s not all great out there. He deals with life the way everyone does. Even though I use a comic language, my figures are not always reflecting the idealistic cartoon view that I grew up on, where everything has a happy ending. COMPANION is more real in dealing with contemporary human circumstances. He reflects attitudes we all have. I think when I’m making work it also often mirrors what’s going on with me at that time. Things change—sometimes it’s tense in the studio, other times things are happy. I want to understand the world I’m in and, for me, making and seeing art is a way to do that.”

KAWS. COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH), 2010. Fiberglass, metal structure and paint 208 1/2 x 169 1/4 x 185 inches. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Photo: Heath Braun

KAWS. COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH), 2010. Fiberglass, metal structure and paint. 208 1/2 x 169 1/4 x 185 inches. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Photo: Heath Braun

For many, this is what gives KAWS’s work its added charm; like the bus stop posters of old KAWS subverts the constructed narrative that these are the good time and everything will work out just fine—provided we buy into the mythology that is being used to shill product. KAWS deconstructs the hype, yet leaves the warm, familiar emotions we associate with the symbols untouched. He operates in a space that quietly undermines the brainwashing without harming our sense of self. His work allows us a space that Madison Avenue and Hollywood rarely go—one that say, you can have your idols, so long as you are willing to give them their full humanity.

KAWS. MAN'S BEST FRIEND, 2014]. Acrylic on paper. Overall: 120 x 200 in. (304.8 x 508 cm). Sheet (each): 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.64 cm) Framed (each): 22 3/8 x 18 3/8 x 1 1/4 in. (56.83 x 46.67 x 3.18 cm)

KAWS. MAN’S BEST FRIEND, 2014]. Acrylic on paper. Overall: 120 x 200 in. (304.8 x 508 cm). Sheet (each): 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.64 cm). Framed (each): 22 3/8 x 18 3/8 x 1 1/4 in. (56.83 x 46.67 x 3.18 cm)


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.