Ask KAWS about his influences and he will draw up a list of 20th century and contemporary artists, most of whom have recognizable graphic styles: “Martín Ramírez. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. HC Westermann. Chris Johanson. Harry Dodge. Robert Crumb. Peter Saul. He pauses. “Look, that’s all. Ken Prix. Lee Quiñones. Joyce Pensato…” It’s a vast body of knowledge that belies any notion that KAWS is somehow not a “serious” artist because “he works with brands. When I put the names of three artists mentioned as comparisons to him in other profiles, he is incredulous.” Can you promise to give up everything you read? “
The same goes for the labels attached to what it does. “I went from being a graffiti artist to being a street artist,” he says, “and those were just other people’s words. Was the street-art label therefore an attempt by commercial galleries to legitimize graffiti? “Honestly, when someone looks at my work now and talks about ‘street art’, I just wonder what they’re looking at. I’m not offended. I just feel bad that they are so visionary.
It makes sense. The world changed years ago, as did the practice of KAWS. The difference between shop, street and gallery is now minimal. In the catalog of a new retrospective of his work published by the Brooklyn Museum, What a party, curator Anne Pasternak writes of how “the practice of KAWS recognizes that works of art can occupy multiple domains – the aesthetic and the transcendent, the commodified and the free.” This is certainly true, but it would perhaps be more accurate to describe his work as occupying all fields at once.
In 1995, if KAWS launched a label on the side of a Jersey City skate store, chances are no one outside of Jersey City would ever see it. Now he could make a limited run of sweatshirts with that same store, and they could be in the hands of a teenager in Singapore in a matter of hours. His work is hyper-commodified and totally global and although the context may change, the iconography – the Companions and references to pop culture – remains the same. And this global appeal is seen in the way the reception of his work has become more consistent over the past two decades. Where once, he says, streetwear brands in Japan were more willing than American brands to collaborate with an artist on a garment, now there is no noticeable difference. “I don’t think there is a brand that doesn’t really approach artists at this point.”
Pasternak, the museum’s curator, then notes KAWS ‘three million followers on Instagram. His production is about as online as art can be without being literally virtual, and he has always been quick to embrace new media to raise his profile and distribute the work (even as early as 1996, says KAWS, he was active early online bulletin boards on Graffiti Art Crimes and 12ozProphet. “I remember kids like, ‘You’re crazy talking about what you’re doing online, because you’re going to get arrested'”).