KAWS (b. 1974)
KAWS (b. 1974)


KAWS (b. 1974)
painted aluminum
120 x 75 1/8 x 42 1/8 in. (305 x 191 x 107 cm.)
Executed in 2013. This work is number two from an edition of three plus two artist's proofs.
Perrotin Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, KAWS, February-June 2016 (another example exhibited).
Fort Worth, The Modern and Shanghai, Yuz Museum, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, October 2016-August 2017, pp. 31 and 195 (another example exhibited).
Further details
Edition number three is in the collection of the City Museum of St. Louis, Missouri.

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing

Lot Essay

Impressive in scale and fluid in form, KAWS’s BORN TO BEND combines appropriated imagery with a visionary form of individual annotation. Here, the image of Gumby—a legendary American animated cartoon character developed in the 1950s—is enveloped by a serpentine form resembling an elongated skull. Executed in 2013, the work incorporates several of KAWS’s most important themes, blurring the boundaries between fine art and consumerism. Other works from the edition have been exhibited at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas as well as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Cast in aluminum and then painted to a high gloss finish, BORN TO BEND is exceptionally rendered and audaciously finished. In an intertwining dynamic, the sculpture shows the vintage clay animation character known as Gumby encircled by the body of a distinguishing skull head. Characteristic to his irreverent style, KAWS channels a late 20th century token of youth into a new realm. The Gumby that used to be finished in saturated teal and accessorized only with a smile now exists in a glossy black coat of anonymity—what was once buoyant and colorful is now unidentified and dark. Yet what KAWS subtracts in Gumby he appends in his ‘Bendy’ figure: branded with the artist’s signature X’ed out eyes.

By choosing a cartoon skull and Gumby as his subject matter, KAWS excavates iconic imagery in order to develop his own narrative. Though Gumby was originally created by Art Clokey as a clay animation franchise in the 1950s, the character soon became familiarized with success through appearances on the Howdy Doody show and eventually starring in his own The Gumby Show. With the approach of the 21st century, Gumby’s popularity only grew with the arrival of a bendable action figure by Lakeside Toys. The trademark now stands as an image of popular culture, as well as commercial commerce itself.

The artist’s interest in the crossover between mass market consumerism and fine art can be dated back to his earlier work. KAWS has developed his own iconic visual language since the early 1990s when he first began intervening in street advertisements. Then known as Brian Donnelly, an illustration student at the School of Visual Arts Manhattan, the artist reached a greater audience by way of removing posters and disrupting them with his now iconic imagery of skulls, crossbones, and X’ed out eyes. Through a range of characters, the artist reveals annotations that lack brush strokes and read as flat as the graphics they coexist with. The result of KAWS’s skillfully executed illustrative language is one that makes it challenging to distinguish art from advertisement, and the painter has revisited this theme in a number of ways. The COMPANION series, for example, exists as a series of designer vinyl toys—one of the artist’s first endeavors in commercializing his own artistic brand. Inspired by Mickey Mouse, KAWS once again interprets a recognizable enterprise of pop culture with his own marque: often delineated in postures of vulnerability, KAWS absorbs his visual vocabulary of puffy skull heads and despondent eyes into appropriations of relatability. What ostensibly appeals to the viewer as cute and recognizable imagery in his work actually reveals itself to be a genuine mimicry of human experience.

KAWS takes his place in an impressive cannon of art historical appropriation. This is a continuous journey that was once signified by Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “R. Mutt” signature in his 1917 rendition of Fountain and has since taken on new models of adaptation. Whether it be Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strips, KAWS has since derived the model of appropriating mass-cultural imagery into a context of fine art and inflicted his own respective theme of communication into the mold. Just as Keith Haring had his Pop Shop and Warhol had the Factory, KAWS participates in artistic self-promotion through a utilization of iconic pop culture characters infused with his own vernacular approach to craftsmanship. The result is as ubiquitous as it is individualistic, and as commercial as it is fine art.

Achieving these themes by means of intertwining icons, BORN TO BEND recalls the accessibility of KAWS’s alternative COMPANION series and brings it to life in monumental proportions. As a product of high art, the work appropriately references a long-established tradition of sculpture in its grand size and classical medium, however it does so in the artist’s distinctive, commercialized approach. Aluminum is treated with a thick layer of black and glossed over to give the appearance of plastic. The monumental sculpture is thus rendered to give off the same look of a mass-produced toy, a trademark similar to the early stages of KAWS’s sculpture career seen in the small, commercialized iterations that he is known for. In essence, the past decade is represented in BORN TO BEND in its embodiment of an artistic expansion into a grandiose approach. Be that as it may, as one of the most influential artists of his generation, KAWS presents a visual vocabulary in any medium that ultimately evokes his own theme of relatability: “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 good. I want to understand the world I’m in and, for me, making and seeing art is a way to do that” (KAWS, quoted by M. Price (ed.) Where the End Starts, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, 2013, p. 8).

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