The Surprising Ascent of KAWS

This boutique helped make Donnelly into a global brand: At a 2005 performance in New York, Jay-Z wore a jacket that KAWS made with NIGO’s...

This boutique helped make Donnelly into a global brand: At a 2005 performance in New York, Jay-Z wore a jacket that KAWS made with NIGO’s A Bathing Ape. Through NIGO, Donnelly became acquainted with Pharrell Williams, and his work was soon a fixture within a rarefied corner of the hip-hop world: Kanye West, who was already working with artists like Vanessa Beecroft and Takashi Murakami, chose him to do the artwork for the deluxe edition of “808s & Heartbreak.” He then did the cover of the last studio record released by Clipse, a group Williams produced. When Williams’s group N.E.R.D appeared on the cover of Complex magazine in 2008, Donnelly painted a Companion coiled around each member like a snake, in an image that looked a lot like one of his bus-shelter ads, only this time someone had asked him to do it. Still, the art world paid him little notice. I asked at what point that changed. “It’s still happening,” he said, and he laughed.

Over the 10 years Donnelly spent ostracized by the art world, his blurring of the line between fine art and collectibles became normalized and mainstreamed. Nowadays it’s commonplace for artists to juggle commercial and fine-art commissions and collaborate with popular brands on affordable prints. Part of this had to do with the art world’s own attempts at democratizing itself by breaking down longstanding barriers. Museums teamed up with streetwear brands to throw lavish parties at art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach, and the hip-hop figures that were Donnelly’s oldest supporters were courted by old-guard art institutions to draw in younger audiences. In 2013, Jay-Z filmed a music video inside New York’s Pace Gallery, in front of an audience of giddy curators and art advisers. Williams began organizing shows at Perrotin. The producer Swizz Beatz, a collector of Donnelly’s work, was named to the board of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015.

But an artist’s work doesn’t become a shared cultural marker of status accidentally; the whole system needs to be synchronized, whether deliberately or not, to make that happen. Wealthy collectors are naturally intrigued by an artist who has independently shown that his work has the potential for heavy returns on investment, so art advisers help sell the work to them as trophy objects. This compels galleries, who want access to the rich collectors, to start showing this work as well. Museums become intrigued by all the interest from galleries and collectors, and this legitimizes the work and increase its value. By the time a piece of art is being resold, the specialists at Sotheby’s have had their way with it, transforming the art, to quote the auction house on the subject of Donnelly, into something that is “universally understood in a way that surpasses language and cultural barriers.”

I returned to Donnelly’s studio on several occasions over the next year. I noticed on these visits that the walls of the upstairs office — and the staircase leading to them — were covered in bona fide masterpieces from his personal art collection: a colorful but harrowing Peter Saul painting from 1982 that shows a violent encounter between the police and a group of subway passengers; an Ed Ruscha text work that said “Bail Jumper”; a Joyce Pensato depiction of Mickey Mouse, rendered in almost abstract scrawls of black paint; a portrait by Joe Coleman of Henry Darger, a now canonical self-taught artist who supported himself as a custodian, and which looked like a medieval icon painting. All artists who uncomfortably straddle a line between cartoonish and arcane.

There was also a large Martin Wong painting of a brick wall. Donnelly has one of the world’s largest private collections of art by Wong, another artist underappreciated in his lifetime (he died of complications from AIDS in 1999) but whose moving, personal scenes of life on the Lower East Side became celebrated after his death, in no small part thanks to Donnelly, who has lent the works in his collection to exhibitions and promoted Wong on Instagram. A paradox in the trajectory of Donnelly’s career is that, record prices for his own work aside, he is arguably most celebrated by the art world as a collector. “I knew him as a customer before I ever knew him as an artist,” Per Skarstedt, his dealer, told me.

As he sat down in a chair across from me, Donnelly said he’d gone back and read the article I wrote in which I referred to Companion as a “dead Mickey Mouse.” He took issue with this. “I was like, ‘dead Mickey Mouse’? I don’t mean to push your buttons, but I think of him as very much alive.”

Donnelly’s relationship to Companion is an intense one. Sometimes he would show me pictures of the figure and refer to it affectionately as “this little guy,” as if it were one of his children. (He has two daughters, ages 4 and 7, with his wife, the artist Julia Chiang.) At one point, I asked him directly if he thought it was a self-portrait. There are versions of Companion covering his ears or his eyes with his hands, posed as if to say, in a kind of Gen X mantra, “This isn’t happening,” which seemed to sum up Donnelly’s relationship to the art world. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was very personal, but it’s not like that’s specifically me,” he said. When he made the first one, he told me, “I didn’t think I’d make a second one.” He figured it was a one-off thing. “And then it just sort of, I don’t know, evolved.”

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Newsrust: The Surprising Ascent of KAWS
The Surprising Ascent of KAWS
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