Bold, iconic and tinged with pathos, NYT (COMPANION CLOSE UP) Brown is a large-scale painting depicting KAWS’ signature character. It was COMPANION who propelled the artist onto the international stage around the turn of the millennium. Starting life as a sell-out vinyl toy, the figure has since become synonymous with KAWS’ practice, taking his place within the artist’s celebrated pantheon of cartoon appropriations. COMPANION has toured the world as a monumental sculpture, graced New York as a 40-foot-long balloon in the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and recently occupied Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong as a gigantic floating inflatable. Extending the legacy of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, KAWS has forged one of today’s most recognizable art practices, shifting seamlessly between painting, sculpture, clothing and toy design. With his roots in animation and graffiti, he takes well-known cartoon characters and endows them with his trademark features: a skull-and-crossbones head and crossed-out eyes. In doing so, he rescues them from the world of fictional happy endings, re-casting them as flawed, emotionally-complex beings. The present iteration of COMPANION, with his head in his white gloved hands, is among the most poignant examples of this approach: ‘I wanted him to have a human sensibility’, explains the artist (KAWS, quoted at http://time.com/5553351/kaws-artist-sculpture-companion-hong-kong-harbor/ [accessed 24 May 2019]). A large-scale sculptural version, COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH), has been installed at various sites across the world, including Hong Kong, the Aldrich Museum, Connecticut, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Though other cartoon figures frequently populate KAWS’ practice, COMPANION remains his most enduring character. The artist started his career doing graffiti, taking the moniker KAWS – a name initially chosen for its visual appearance. Unlike many of his peers, he would remove posters from city walls and draw over them at home before returning them the next day. This practice gradually took him across the globe, most notably to Tokyo, where he began to collaborate with a variety of designers. Working with labels Hectic and Bounty Hunter, he conceived the seminal COMPANION toy, which was released in 1999. By this stage, KAWS was well known for his skull and X motifs, and this was the first time one of his figures had come to life in three dimensions. The first editions sold out almost immediately, spurring the character’s subsequent incarnations in painting and sculpture. For KAWS, he remains a universal symbol of the human condition: ‘he deals with life in the way everyone does … He reflects attitudes we all have’ (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: Where the End Starts, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, 2017, p. 5).