When Botticelli met SpongeBob SquarePants: KAWS’ UNTITLED

This semi-abstract painting not only marks a turning point in the artist’s career, but also boasts an intriguing tondo format. Alastair Smart explains how UNTITLED  links Botticelli, Raphael and Ingres to the Smurfs and SpongeBob SquarePants

It’s fair to say that KAWS hasn’t followed a traditional path to artistic success. He has launched his own fashion label; created several lines of vinyl toys; even designed a pair of Air Jordan sneakers for Nike. In March 2019, he made headlines after installing a 121-foot-long, inflatable sculpture in the heart of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.

KAWS is the alias of Brooklyn-based Brian Donnelly, who — if his 2.9 million Instagram followers are anything to go by — has become one of the world’s best-known artists.

He began his career in the 1990s as a graffitist on the streets of New York — though he prefers to call what he did ‘alternate advertising’. His routine involved cranking open advertisement casings in bus shelters at night, removing the posters, taking them to his studio, adding various touches of paint, then returning the posters to their casings before dawn.

His additions were usually cartoonish faces with ‘X’-shapes for eyes. These have remained at the core of his visual vocabulary ever since. The Smurfs, The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse  and SpongeBob SquarePants  have all inspired KAWS repeatedly, even staying with him in recent years during what has been perhaps the biggest artistic departure of his career: into semi-abstract painting.

KAWS (b. 1974),UNTITLED, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. Diameter 96 in (243.8 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View post-war and contemporary works currently offered for private sale at Christie’s

KAWS (b. 1974),UNTITLED, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. Diameter: 96 in (243.8 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View post-war and contemporary works currently offered for private sale at Christie’s

In UNTITLED, the artist singled out facial features from different cartoon characters and deployed them in a startling, new combination. Colourful geometric forms and hard-edge lines are what strike the viewer at first glance, evoking artistic styles such as Color Field painting and geometric abstraction.

However, one can soon start to make out fragments of figures from Sesame Street  and The Smurfs, which jostle for attention and seem to push against the picture surface. In the bottom right, there’s also an oversized eye-ball that previously belonged to SpongeBob SquarePants (a character whose ‘positive outlook’ the artist says he has always loved.)

Given his appropriations from popular culture, KAWS has long been described as a Pop artist. Yet, what sets paintings such as UNTITLED  apart is the way ‘his source imagery [is] blown to smithereens… then used as formal, compositional building blocks’ — as a profile of him in GQ magazine in 2019 put it.

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The work’s tondo format is also intriguing. Its circular shape, that is. KAWS has made several such canvases across his career, none of them bigger then UNTITLED, with its 96-inch diameter.

Derived from ‘rotondo’ (the Italian word for round), tondo imagery emerged in Florence in the 15th century, reaching its apogee between 1480 and 1515, when it was adopted by artists as eminent as Botticelli, Michelangelo and, most notably, Raphael. The majority of tondi depict the Virgin and Child, the circular format helping to accentuate the binding intimacy between Mary and Jesus.

In the intervening 500 years, a number of other artists — from Ingres to Monet — have tackled the tondo. On the face of it, KAWS seems a surprising exponent, though. He has never exactly shown an affinity for the Renaissance masters. But, then, in blurring the boundaries between street art, fine art, pop culture, corporate branding and fashion, he has always been an artist who does things differently.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine his blurring the boundaries of five centuries of painting, too, with representations of his own holy family: of cartoon figures.