“American abstract painters employed the shaped canvas to objectify the canvas support, to give it the look of a self-contained painted object. KAWS uses it for just the opposite reason, as a form of physical animation, energizing the characters so that they appear to be moving across the landscape of the wall.”
— (M. Auping, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2016, p. 74.)
IMAGINARY FRIENDS (2012) is a fundamental example of KAWS’s visual language being used as a tool to comment and reflect on contemporary culture. This work demonstrates the artist’s proficiency for clean lines and bold colors. Within this one piece, KAWS positions and establishes himself in the lexicon of contemporary art as the third generation of Pop art. He draws on the aesthetic of Warhol’s manufactured technique while capturing the monumental feel of Claes Oldenburg’s large-scale sculpture. Through his knowledge of Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, he bridges the divide between fine art and the commercial world. Like no other artist has done since Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, his street art and graffiti have ascended into the upper echelons of fine art galleries and institutions.
Seen in profile here, the central figure jets off from the ground with arms thrust backward and legs shooting behind and below. Propelled by an unseen force, he is captured at the moment after lift-off, suspended above an unconnected plane. It’s through the placement of these two separate canvases that KAWS is able to freeze his subject, trapping its kinetic energy and imbuing the work with a sense of frenetic mobility. Smooth, saturated planes of color are stacked and layered in distinct geometric and organic shapes leaving no trace of the artist’s hand, similar to Warhol’s factory approach. While this amalgamation is typical of KAWS’s rectilinear works on canvas, it is distinctly placed within a new context in the shaped canvas. Although the artist often employs recognizable characters from popular culture and well-known TV shows, it is the faces and outlines of them that carry a formal appeal for the artist—he deeply appreciates them for their strong, graphic shape.
KAWS builds upon a legacy of pioneering artists who have questioned the consumerist culture of modern society and has established his own unique, signature style. Similar to Haring’s distinct visual language, the artist’s foundational building blocks lie in a cast of cartoon characters that have been modified into humorous and witty versions of themselves. The figures are found in a variety of iterations from sculpture to paintings to toy design. KAWS expertly crafts his works for multiple markets, considering their formal qualities as well as their salability. The artist recalls, “Then there were artists like Murakami, who really opened up a lot of doors on acceptance and crossover projects. That made what I was doing a bit easier to translate. And definitely Jeff Koons. I love his work. I appreciate his perfectionist mentality. It’s so over the top” (KAWS, quoted in T. Maguire, “KAWS,” Interview, 27 April 2010). The artist has perceptively decoded the strategies of advertisement, a skill that has also earned him a place in the commercial world with a series of limited edition toys, and mega commissions from giant companies such as the Japanese clothing brand, Uniqlo. The work premiered at its namesake exhibition IMAGINARY FRIENDS at the Galerie Perrotin in November 2012—the same month that one of his iconic ‘COMPANION’ figures was included as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—propelling KAWS to new heights of global recognition and pushing him into the mainstream he’s so well-known for reclaiming.
KAWS decided upon his recognizable moniker while in high school when running with a crowd of graffiti artists, with whom he honed his skill and acumen. When asked about his pseudonym, the artist answered, “There’s no meaning to it. It’s just letters that I liked—K-A-W-S. I felt like they always work and function nicely with each other” (KAWS, quoted in T. Maguire, Interview, 27 April 2010). Before achieving success as an artist, he worked as a background painter on an animated television series. By day, the illustrator went by his given name but by night, he transformed himself into his artistic personality using New York’s streets and public spaces as canvas. Through disruption by addition he would tag his name, adding his own mark to commercial ads by placing X’s over eyes and crossbones over faces.
On a seemingly unending upward trajectory KAWS has established himself through a complex relationship to his origins and reflection on popular culture. Having come a long way from the billboards and subway stations of his youth, today he is regarded as one of the critical painters of his generation: not only for his appropriation of American pop culture, but also for the precision of his craftsmanship. KAWS has walked the line of consumerism, fashion and pop culture in a way that few before him have. Like Pop art stalwarts that came before him, the artist makes work that is aware of its position, and participation, in modern society. “I try to take the stuff around me that I feel has made some sort of an impact and explore it and kind of redistribute it out through my work. I do start with familiar things, and that’s primarily to make the work more approachable for people – it’s an entry point” (KAWS, quoted in P. Williams, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2016, p. 80). While he has consistently received acclaim from seasoned collectors and institutions, his work possesses a remarkable awareness of the media culture and has captured the hearts of the fastest growing demographic of collectors today, the youth.