Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, is at the forefront of a populist movement shaking up the art world. His career as an acclaimed artist and pop-culture phenomenon did not start out on the siloed walls of galleries, but rather, on the streets as a graffiti artist. In the early 1990s, KAWS began tagging bus stops, train stations, and subway cars in Jersey City where he grew up. Speaking about his formative years as a street artist, KAWS said “it meant nothing to me to make paintings if I wasn’t reaching people.”
By the late 1990s, KAWS began making collectible vinyl toys to continue to bring his art to the masses. He made his first toy for streetwear brand Bounty Hunter and has gone onto to collaborate with brands such as Original Fake, Undercover, Comme des Garcons, Vans, Dior, and Nike. As KAWS built a massive online following for his toys and collectible works, the art world started to take notice. In 2008, blue-chip gallery Perrotin began representing KAWS. Emmanuel Perrotin is the same dealer who launched the career of Takashi Murakami, and gave Damien Hirst his first exhibition. His work began to be collected by “some of the most powerful figures in the art world.” The Mugrabi family — who also have the largest private collection of works by Andy Warhol — became major supporters.
In 2018, a switch flipped as Artnet reported, “the steady burn that had characterized KAWS’ market for the past decade transformed into a full-blown inferno.” From 2018-2019, his average price went from $334k to $713k. Auction demand spiked in April 2019 in Hong Kong when he broke his high-selling record and The KAWS Album sold for $14.77M.
People compare KAWS’ unusual trajectory to contemporary artists such as Keith Haring, who also started out as a street artist. According to Miety Heiden, Phillips’ Head of Private Sales, KAWS’ market is “still not at the price levels of Warhol or Basquiat, so it’s still very accessible for a big group of art collectors.”
Otis acquired a tondo painting by KAWS, Gone and Beyond. The work is a part of a limited series of 27 round tondo paintings, which were first displayed at the KAWS: DOWN TIME exhibition at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.