Brian Donnelly is currently best known as the artist KAWS. KAWS is a New York-based artist who has made a name out of him designing limited edition toys and clothing. He is also a world-renowned artist who exhibits in museums and galleries internationally. His art stands somewhere between fine art and global commerce. KAWS moved beyond the sphere of the exclusive art market to occupy a more complex global market.
Brian Donnelly was born in 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York where he obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration. After graduating from college in 1996, Brian Donnelly worked for Disney as a freelance animator. At Disney, Brian Donnelly had the opportunity to paint backgrounds and contributed in films such as 101 Dalmatians, Daria, and Doug.
While living in Jersey City, KAWS began his career as a graffiti artist. By the early 1990s he moved to New York City and began to work focus on subverting the images on bus shelters, phone booth advertisements, and billboards. Soon after his notoriety and popularity reached heights never before expected and these ads became increasingly sought after by the public.
In the late 1990s, KAWS had an opportunity to visit Japan and produce his first limited edition vinyl toys. These toys instantly became a hit with the global art toy-collecting community. In Japan, the toys were a major his since this genre of toys is well respected and widespread. His first ‘Companion’ toy, a clown-like figure based on Mickey Mouse with his face obscured by both hands, was produced in an edition of 500 and sold out almost immediately. COMPANION then became a recurring figure in KAWS’ work. Kaws started developping new characters whose size ranges from a few inches to ten metres tall with materials varying from fiberglass, aluminium, bronze to wood.
Most recently KAWS has designed toys and clothing for well-known companies such as Original Fake, A Bathing Ape, Undercover, Kung Faux, Nike, Vans, and Comme des Garcons. In the early 2000s he also reworked many familiar television and cartoon icons such as characters from The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse, the Michelin Man, the Smurfs, and even SpongeBob SquarePants.
He has also been highly praised for his work on acrylic paintings and large sculptures. One of the more popular KAWS sculpture is that of a gray scale figure based on the Mickey Mouse whose face is obscured by his both hands. This image was even incorporated into a balloon for the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2013, KAWS’s company redesigned MTV’s moon man statue for their 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
In March 2019, an immense 121-foot-long inflatable version of KAWS’ COMPANION toy was installed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour anchored by a 40-ton weight. Versions of the piece were previously on view in Seoul and Taipei.
Then on April 1, 2019 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, The Kaws Album (2005) sold for about $14.7 million U.S. Dollars (115.9 million Hong Kong dollars), a new auction record for the artist, breaking his previous record of $2.7 million which was set in 2018. The Kaws Album is a take on the Beatles’ famous 1967 album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but instead replaced with characters from The Simpsons with the artist’s signature Xs drawn across their eyes and skull. Across the previous year, his work realised over $33.8 million at auction.
In 2019, Paris Fashion Week saw Dior designer Kim Jones debut his Spring/Summer 2019 collection with a KAWS interpretation of the fashion house’s iconic bee design, set against the backdrop of a 33-feet tall pink flower sculpture of KAWS’ ‘BFF’ character, reproduced as an editioned toy in a mini Dior suit.
KAWS museum exhibitions include solo shows at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, High Museum of Art, Modern Art Museum, and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Other international galleries include Galerie Perrotin and Honor Fraser Gallery. His work has been seen in Paris, London, Berlin, New York and Tokyo.
KAWS currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.