When it comes to work by KAWS, questions of naming and questions of content often become poles with critics fluctuating between them like charged particles. So let’s arm ourselves with some (self-)irony and gingerly set foot on this swamp where people argue about how to describe another genre in which this artist works: painting.


Donnelly chose the art toy as a medium that provided an alternative to sculpture. It is characteristic of artists to create editions of their objects based on a full-size version of a work of art. But what KAWS has done is, essentially, to reverse this sequence of actions. The opportunity to turn one of his drawings of a fantastical character into a three-dimensional object served him as a trampoline from which to jump off into the previously inaccessible realm of art. Something like Exit Through the Gift Shop, only in reverse.

‘I always thought creating a sculpture was something very difficult, if not impossible. To do this, it was as if you had to have patrons, special people to support you. When I had the idea of creating a toy, I realized this was the only way to make my work three-dimensional.
So, instead of making a single, monumental 10-foot-high thingy, I made 1000 eight-inch-high thingies.’

Donnelly began by joining forces with Bounty Hunter at the end of the 1990s to make vinyl Companions to his own designs. He stuck to a carefully honed strategy, combining recognizable features of his figures with the identities of the brands he was working with. This collaboration mechanism was a bit like what we have seen in recent pop culture. Disney, for instance, has been taking a look at its previously popular franchises and trying to relaunch them, going through all kinds of contortions with help from celebrities and famous scriptwriters and directors involved. The results have been mixed, to say the least.

A similar excitement greets announcements made by Brian Donnelly. But in his case the relaunches of already familiar images are invariably successful. After all, there’s pleasure to be had in observing someone swept up in a cloud of carefree memories. Mute plastic figures lend themselves to imitation better than cartoons, which are often reproduced without sufficient care. Recycling popular images and branding them in one’s own style is an approach which barges right through the barrier of scepticism and presses all the right levers of nostalgia in viewers. So now you are already whizzing through the spaces of the worldwide web looking for the Companion that reminds you tenderly of your favourite childhood hero.

Collaborative COMPANION

Or you’re into hypebeast culture and are a fan of Japanese street brands. Then you probably already own one of KAWS’ first drops, released in collaboration with A Bathing Ape (BAPE).

NIGO (Tomako Nagao) – the Japanese designer and founder of BAPE, a brand of urban clothing – asked Brian to create his own interpretation of the boy monkey Milo (named after a character in the film Planet of the Apes). After Donnelly had worked his transformations, the kawaii version of Milo, which is the brand’s logo, acquired new traits: it had Companion’s ears (well, the moulded endings of two bones) on its disproportionately large head and, instead of oval eyes, crossed hatch marks. Donnelly retained the folded paws and overall expression, which does not arouse any emotions, in keeping with the moods of the original characters.

In addition to vinyl apes, the collaboration also involved Brian designing a pair of sneakers for Bapesta. This custom-made object ended up literally toothless: the shoes have an even row of cartoon fangs all along the perimeter of the nose (haven’t we all at least once looked in curiosity right into the maw of Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc.?).   

Wherever a fresh hypebeast phenomenon arises, Medicom Toy is always lying in wait for new players with which to engage in an exclusive collaboration. It would have been strange if the Japanese toy giant had not approached Donnelly with a proposal to create a bearbrick in the artist’s characteristic style. So in 2003 KAWS presented the limited-edition Chomper – a Medicom bear in a rich cobalt colour with cruciform eyes and a blistering grin like the Nutcracker’s. Chomper, by the way, is to this day one of the most desired items sought by collectors at auction.

Additionally, there are special copies of figures by Donnelly showing their scale –every true collector of figures by KAWS ought to at least know or, ideally, own them. They include, of course, the very first drop with Bounty Hunter and the ‘dissected‘ Companion of 2006, which became even more sought-after following its appearance in Toosie Slide, a clip by Drake. Selections also include Donnelly’s interpretations of Disney’s Pinocchio, the Japanese idol Astroboy, and the cosplaying Companion Darth Vader. One of the most expensive figures sold on the secondary market is Companion Karimoku, carved from a solid piece of wood: just a few months after the drop, this figure resold for approximately 25,000 dollars.


Rare collector’s figures clearly shatter any idea that Donnelly’s art is easily affordable. The extremely high demand and prices far beyond most people’s pockets allowed KAWS to take part in auctions held by the most venerable auction houses. You might have thought that all debate about the status of these objects would have been extinguished by the very fact of their presence in auction catalogues. Instead, however, new questions arose: ‘So Donnelly’s art-toys are luxury objects now?’, ‘Can art to‘Oh, yes, Michelangelo and me. So he too did toys and T-shirts with Uniqlo?’ys be called art?’, ‘How fitting is it in general for them to be auctioned at Sotheby’s?’

In his typical ironic and self-snobbish manner Donnelly himself seems to have a universal answer for these questions:

‘Oh, yes, Michelangelo and me. So he too did toys and T-shirts with Uniqlo?’

Incidentally, in his day Michelangelo was criticized for the huge number of commissions he took on. The purists thought him an average artist who sold out for money. In the modern art world little has changed. And it seems that even Larry Gagosian, head of the largest and most commercially successful gallery in the world, is confused about how to categorize the objects created by KAWS. Representatives of Gagosian deny the rumour going round that they are demoting collectors on their waiting lists if they collect pieces by KAWS. Admittedly, they’re hardly inclined to collaborate either. An anonymous account belonging to a member of the art scene – @jerrygogosian (a formation that’s a hybrid of the names of Larry Gagosian and the art critic Jerry Saltz) – has provided the perfect illustration of this situation. In the form of a meme – a piece of modern communication that is easily comprehensible and apparently does not set out to hurt any of the parties concerned.

The record prices achieved at auction for Donnelly’s art toys are not the only events to cause us to scratch our heads looking for answers to (apparently rhetorical) questions.

In April 2019 Sotheby’s held an auction of works of art from NIGO’s collection. When you look at the lots for sale at this auction, it becomes clear that the designer not only fixed Brian up with attention-grabbing collaborations with his own brand and subsequently with the Japanese mass-market giant Uniqlo but also gave him direct support when he was becoming established as an artist. The 33 objects presented here included rare drops of sneakers and limited-edition paint cans pushed to the side by 20 or so early paintings and graphic works by Donnelly.

Lot number 8 was a painting called The KAWS Album with an estimated price of 1 million dollars. Executed using acrylic paints, this work shows the cast of the Simpsons, with extra family members added, in the positions seen on the cover of the 1967 Beatles record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Donnelly has transformed the figures’ appearances using his familiar method: the original yellow faces have been replaced with the skulls and ‘absent’ gouged-out eyes of Companions. KAWS apparently replaced the faces on these pictures with his Companion avatar even before Instagram borrowed Snapchat’s feature and before Nikita Replyansky thought up his cyber-futurist NFT masks.   

In the lower part of the image are dozens of doughnuts covered in pink icing (the kind adored by Homer) and forming the work’s unofficial title: Kimpsons. Choosing a title for this object must have been an engaging quest. The cover is more like an illustration or demonstration of Donnelly’s own style based on a familiar image. It’s as if he has no intention of painting a picture; it’s sufficient for him to make changes to the characters’ existing DNA, to give them a kind of ‘KAWSness’; this is the basis on which the whole point of the image rests. In terms of concept, this is a cautious work, but that didn’t prevent it become the object of a fight of such intensity that it took out the servers used in the online auction, the telephones of the auction consultants, and the consultants themselves.

‘Do I think my work should be sold for such high prices? No.’
<em>— wrote Donnelly in Instagram that day. </em>
‘Did I arrive in my studio this morning at the same time as always? Yes.’

The battle over The Kimpsons at auction raised the starting price 15 times: in the end the buyer, who preferred to remain anonymous, forked out 14.8 million dollars. Rumour has it that the ‘unknown’ buyer was Justin Bieber, who published a photo of The Kimpsons after the transaction had been completed (and then quickly deleted it). For comparison, for the same sum Sotheby’s was offering for sale a painting by Jenny Saville, the most expensive living female artist at the time.

But let’s be honest. Did the sale of Saville’s painting for a similar price create a precedent of the same scale and absurdity as Donnelly’s? The Kimpsons was sold for such a shocking price (there was no one who was not shocked by it) that the art industry can no longer ‘fire’ him – however much certain of its members would like to do so.

In Donnelly’s approach there’s a brilliant device that guarantees him a degree of loyalty. He realized that cultural phenomena such as the Simpsons, Sesame Street, and cartoons by Nickelodeon and Disney go beyond the language of the original and function as a kind of emotional Rosetta Stone. As something that symbolizes a consistent, universal cultural environment.  Something whose existence is known to everyone, although not everyone has an idea of the scale of its impact. An underwater current whose force is concealed but is sufficient to shape the climate the whole world over.

Aware of the profound collective impact of images such as this, Donnelly realized he could use them for his own purposes – by putting his signature on everything that is considered common cultural heritage. Formally, this kind of device is unobjectionable. And it seems that to put a dampener on the aggressive criticism of KAWS, art institutions are increasingly compelled to remember the words of Marshall McLuhan:

‘Art is anything you can get away with.’

There are all kinds of rumours flying around the corridors, but to openly cancel Donnelly as an artist or ignore his presence on the contemporary art scene is to bury one’s head in the sand and refuse to accept reality for what it is. Just as it is impossible to ignore the fact that KAWS is active as a painter, producing a steady stream of new paintings. This almost craftsman-like aspect of Donnelly’s art has been noticeably eclipsed by his plastic and inflated sculptures. And yet the clots of acrylic paint in his palette have not had time to dry out since the very beginning of the 2000s.


Donnelly’s first visit to Japan in the 2000s visibly affected, among other things, his understanding of the painted canvas as a unit in the art market. The Japanese concept of the value of any and each thing and of passionate collecting of almost anything and everything contrasted strongly with the western model of collecting art objects. Intending to reduce the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, Donnelly realized the idea of ‘total collecting’ in his early ‘Package paintings’.

Donnelly placed his small, handmade acrylic paintings under a transparent cardboard-based ‘screen’ – a construction resembling the flimsy plastic packing in which fan merchandise ranging from collector’s figures to keyholders and from Star Wars toys to souvenirs by Studio Ghibli is generally sold.

Art objects had already been subjected to packing – for instance, in the 1960s the artist Christo Yavachev wrapped objects (even entire buildings) in transparent fabric to give them new shapes, images, and meanings. In the case of the ‘packaged Kimpsons’ the plastic blister packaging gives a unique painting the outward appearance of a good for mass consumption, thus reducing its exclusivity and increasing its accessibility (even if only its psychological accessibility), its openness to each and every viewer.

Not everyone knew what to do with the plastic box after they had bought The Kimpsons. Some did not perceive the packaging as an integral part of the object and, after buying it, happily threw the plastic away; they ended up hanging in their home collections a bare canvas of The Kimpsons torn from its context.  Whether this is ironic or sacrilegious depends on the degree of your snobbery.

The same kind of embarrassment had already occurred with Warhol’s Death and Disaster series – two-sided silk prints with repeating images of accidents on one side and on the other a void filled with a monochromatic colour. When they bought one of these works, some people simply ignored the second, apparently superfluous, empty canvas – being apparently happy enough with the repetitive images of car crashes and the electric chair. Clearly, Warhol needed something in addition to the repeat tragical photos in order to get his idea across.

The Kimpsons made their debut as new figures in KAWS’ libretto in 2001. This first Japanese painted modification of the Simpsons differed considerably from the yellow-headed figures that we know from the record-breaking sale made at Sotheby’s. In Small KM Landscape Brian made slightly less deliberate use of the method of integrating his own signs in images of popular figures. On the contrary, he seemed to be reducing their immediate recognizability, violating the figures’ visual integrity.

Here, as if employing the application technique, Donnelly ‘cuts out’ a memorable piece from each figure and uses these ‘pieces’ to create abstract compositions. In some pictures we get a stronger sense than in others of decorative landscapes with generalized natural forms. For instance, Marge’s tall turquoise hairdo in combination with the emerald shock of Krusty the Clown’s hair form a very naturalistic landscape with luxuriant cypresses and hills that seem made from light-coloured onyx. This picture’s colours, the undulating edges of the spots of paint, and the way they move over the canvas clearly allude to Vincent van Gogh’s wheat fields.

In Small KM Landscape Brian measures out with great precision the requisite proportion of unclear abstraction based on random elements to instantly readable images. He uses just the right amounts of traditional Postimpressionist landscape painting, the Simpsons, and his signature Companion ears to create (and at the same time laugh at) this diffident, contradictory recognizability. In the small landscapes, which have been put together literally from elements of pop culture, we nevertheless make out images of nature and the environment that surrounds us. In the same way as this not immediately obvious connection, the legacy of mass culture, including cartoons, permeates today’s society and is an integral part of our daily lives. Permeates them gradually, insistently, and comprehensively.


The series of cartoon landscapes consisting of fragments of The Kimpsons became the basis for KAWS’ stylistic language in his painting. Donnelly uses devices and techniques such as this in his paintings to this day – cutting out, layering, making collages, and mixing various codes from mass culture with his own signs to form a single neon alloy.

It would be strange not to find in KAWS’ paintings residual traces of the language of street art. The flatness of the compositions and the abruptness of the outlines are cushioned in shapeless, fluid spots of colour that resemble streams of thick paint. This is the consistency that acrylic enamel takes on when it slides down the side of the paint can and hardens in arbitrary patterns. Donnelly takes recognizable chains of pop-cultural DNA and then subjects them to abstract processes which make them less clearly defined, so that they can be used as independent spots of colour.

This attempt to liberate references from their context gives Donnelly’s pictures a resemblance to works by geometrical abstractionists and colour-field painters of the 1960s such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, and Al Held. At the same time, since it is impossible to extract the entirety of SpongeBob from the constituent parts of his image (you will always find someone who does not recognize in the intensely yellow porous block a toothy speaking sponge), KAWS’ paintings preserve a feeling of figurativeness and the presence of someone or something already familiar to us.

For instance, in works from Donnelly’s solo show at Gering & Lopez in 2008. It’s still possible to find on the web a poster which is simultaneously an invitation to this exhibition and a rare example of KAWS’ early fusion of geometry and comics. Signed by the artist himself, this poster is extremely rare and at auctions is usually accompanied by a label saying ‘sold’.

Even a year after his first solo show in the US, KAWS still found it difficult to get used to the idea that his works were now in the catalogues of galleries run by the big bosses of the art world. In an interview he gave in 2009 to The Los Angeles Times he admitted he had never thought he could be exhibited in galleries: he had always seen them as pretentious and hostile to him personally. The fact that his armoury included a form of artistic statement that was traditional – namely, paintings created on an easel – made it easier for institutions to accept his portfolio.

‘When I was young, I didn’t visit galleries or museums… Everywhere there was so much snobbery, like “that’s art” or “that’s not art”, “it’s commerce”, or “it’s high art”. It always seemed to me that the purpose of art is to be in dialogue with viewers and to put some kind of message across to them.’

Among the first to propose collaboration was Perrotin Gallery. Beginning in 2008, Perrotin represented Donnelly for the next 11 years, during which it held nine one-man shows for him. In 2012 the curators of the Hong Kong branch of Perrotin made an attempt to conceptualize KAWS’ paintings at an exhibition titled ‘The Nature of Need’, presenting them through Derrida’s concept of deconstruction.

Several walls in the exhibition space were occupied by a large series of vertical paintings placed at an equal distance from one another. The presence of these 50 elegant pictures paradoxically fixed and ‘measured’ space and, at the same time, set the tempo of its movement – monotonous but hypnotic, light but steady, like in Donald Judd’s Progressions. There is also movement inside each individual picture: the eyes, teeth, and mouths of Spongebob change and are on different scales, mixed up with floating blocks of Donnelly’s fonts. This entire abstract mass boils and glistens iridescently against an understated dark-grey background; you feel as if gravity has disappeared.

When you are examining this series of abstract images, you need to pay attention to your vestibular apparatus: the paintings may be seen as a single coherent object extending infinitely with no clear boundaries showing where it begins and ends. Or as a gesture like the one which dissects Damien Hirst’s mammals. The paintings can be grouped into separate cells connected by unique micro-narratives and micro-compositions. Or you can focus on each work individually, examine its details and conventionalities, and reveal the minimal differences and similarities between them and other lines, spots of colour, patterns, signs, and characters.   

KAWS’ tondos (round paintings) (Death race, Don’t sink) on circular canvases, on the contrary, demonstrate a local, targeted approach. As if collectors’ pins or lapel badges have been hyperbolically enlarged to the size of gigantic paintings – like scaled-up everyday objects in the manner of Claes Oldenburg. Large, easily recognizable shapes pave the entire surface of the canvas – like fragmented parts of a cartoon figure floating in Petri dishes. An eye, an auricular hillock, and a mouth reflect three ways of interacting with reality: sight, hearing, and speech. When he was in Japan, Donnelly almost certainly got to see the traditional Shinto composition ‘Three Wise Monkeys’, according to which it is possible to acquire truth and avoid doing evil only when you renounce these three organs of sense. Modern man’s need for mass culture and its derivatives, a need which is emphasized and partly laughed at by Donnelly in his work, here becomes comparable with the more ancient, natural, and humanist need to seek out truth and resist evil.

The fascination with pop culture in its literal embodiment – a fascination which is insuperable even after radical amputation – exists in the figurative painting New morning. Hinting at the consumerist obsession with KAWS’ figures, a pair of chopped-off paws belonging to Companion continue the motif of segmentation, Hirst’s ‘cutting out’ of the part from the whole, begun in The Nature of Need, which extends over three walls. The first-person view of forward-moving, freshly cut flesh resembles the kind of display you get in shooter games. Or, to follow a more esoteric line of thought, it foreshadows the digitization of Donnelly’s sculptures using AR and VR technology.

In summer 2020 KAWS joined up with Acute Art in a project called ‘HOLIDAY SPACE’ to present the first Companion created using AR technology. Capable of hovering in any location, this digital figure was Donnelly’s way of overcoming the restrictions enforced during the pandemic. A couple of years later, in 2022, he presented his first hybrid exhibition, New Fiction, which combined physical objects in the Serpentine Gallery with digitized characters related to these objects and transferred to the virtual space of the game Fortnite. 

Donnelly continued working with figurative paintings. A year later, he filled the gallery spaces at Perrotin in New York with these alone.

Pass the Blame was an abstraction exploding in the exhibition space – chaotically moving, coloured with the neon colours of sports Lycra, held in a frame of cartoon silhouettes. The content of the pictures was mixed up, churned, as if someone had given the familiar figures a good shake, leaving behind only an outline that became the boundaries of the canvas. This someone was KAWS: he shuffled subjects, situations, heads, eyes, mouths, ears, and tails into one glittering whirlwind. The cartoon hurricane was barely restrained by the boundaries of the paintings’ frames. Enclosed within the borders of the white cube, it sparked and almost jumped out at the viewer from the silhouetted, figurative portals, imitating the effect of sinking into and drowning in a world of comics and cartoons that exists in parallel (and simultaneously) with the real one.


After ending his collaboration with Perrotin in 2019, Brian set about preparing his first retrospective exhibition. WHAT PARTY opened in the autumn of 2021 at the Brooklyn Museum as a reminder of the place where his career in art had started. The 157 objects in the exhibition included sketches, drawings, figures, monumental Companions made from wood and vinyl, enormous psychedelic abstract works (Far far down, Lost time, Alone again), with a separate room occupied by works created during the pandemic. A series of prints with the title Urge and a painting called Tide were literally insulated from the exhibition’s main narrative and enclosed in the atmosphere in which they had been painted. In addition to the temporal frame, these works stood apart from the rest thanks to their content, which had a clearly narrative, even dramatic character.

Urge depicts Donnelly’s ‘Bibendum’ frozen in dangerous proximity to an attacking swarm of hands. The tenfold iteration of this image heightens the intensity and sense of crowdedness forcing apart the boundaries of this work. The repetition of repetition creates a feeling of the obtrusive actions and compulsions that accompanied the anxiety of Coronavirus and its enforced isolation.   

Bobbing on the soft ripples of post-quarantine impressions we find another well-known character. It’s impossible to identify with precision the circumstances that saw Companion end up in the situation depicted in Tide. It’s a very cinematographic scene: deep night, solitude, and a moon illuminating the space inside the picture. The fluorescent luminosity shed by the moon is created by a special way of sequential laying on of the paint – a subtle layering of neon pigments on top of a white base. Is Companion relaxing in bliss in the shallows, catching the moon’s beams on himself? Or is he drowning in the middle of the ocean in the depths of the night? Unlike his sculptural brothers in Final days, which move forwards diffidently and cautiously, literally feeling their way, this is an allusion to the Hong Kong variant of the drifter.

In Tide Companion’s paws rest calmly on the surface of the water; he is meekly experiencing the present moment, ready to accept any scenario for the future without needing to express his own will. Even if art critics brand the state shown in this picture as empty anabiosis, Companion will continue to rock indifferently in the water as he watches the light of the moon. This what makes Tide different: it is not strident with neon colours, nor does it twitch with energetically curving forms.  It does not try to be something or someone else, does not try to throw itself upon us or prove something. It merely extends – quietly, meditatively, measuredly. Over the course of more than 20 years of his existence Donnell’s Companion has already ‘seen’ a great deal – and in Tide he has finally come to a stop, so as to relax and calmly accept everything that will be said, written, or thought alongside this picture.

Is it not this feeling of cold distancing that viewers feel when they interact with contemporary art objects? Nevertheless, even those paintings by KAWS which are least inclined to dialogue come across, when seen against the background of the latest art, as reasonably friendly (or at least not too oppressive) and visually accessible. There is no viewer that cannot in theory be included in these pictures – no one is so blind as to subconsciously fail to recognize a skull. To take the discussion of its iconography further and come up with explanatory theories is something for each observer to do if he or she should so wish.


In choosing between KAWS’ paintings and vinyl figures, what should we look at and what should we give priority to? Various different instructions exist for how to use his works:

‘Toy collecting, even when you add the prefix ‘art’, should be left to children.’
‘If you like an artist, don’t buy a toy. Instead, spend your money on an engraving, a lithograph, a collector’s book, or simply visiting a museum.’

There is a more effective idea, one that embraces the question in a more comprehensive, radical way. To begin with, discharge the tension that exists between these aspects of Donnelly’s art. How? By annihilating the ‘between’, remove the universal dualism that is characteristic of western thinking. Reduce the gulf between mediums and genres – by acknowledging the possibility of their parallelism, simultaneity, and synergy. Furthermore, the multi-disciplinarity and simultaneity of the approaches used by Donnelly is not a new strategy for the history of art.

KAWS is often compared with Andy Warhol. Like any artist whose work involves borrowing from pop culture. Warhol is known for attaining the ideal mix of fine art and consumer culture. In a similar way, a way which has already become routine, Donnelly carries out an exchange between artists and brands, interacting with his audience through popular and familiar symbols. Warhol made editions of and replicated that which already had the character of mass culture in order to emphasize and laugh at the greed of American commerce.

Meanwhile, Donnelly has been diving into the heritage of mass culture and completely immersing himself in it. Hunting out in it the most nostalgic, select artefacts, he comes back up to the surface bearing customized versions of them. The creators of mass-consumption themselves initiate the integration of KAWS-ness into their identity. Recent work includes the transformation of edible monsters for Frute Brute cereals.

KAWS is often compared with Keith Haring. Donnelly himself has on several occasions mentioned having been inspired by Haring’s striving to create art that is as democratic as possible. The opening of the OriginalFake brand and boutique maximized the concept of the affordable personal brand realized by Haring in his Pop Shop merch shop.

KAWS is often compared with Jeff Koons.

And with Takashi Murakami.

And with Peter Max.

All this is an attempt to hang some kind of label on Donnelly’s art. If during the epoch of propagation of horizontal hierarchies someone will busy him- or herself with creating an appropriate label, how will they go about it? (And, more importantly, for what purpose?) Will they employ already existing ‘isms’ and identify KAWS as ‘pop art’? Or ‘neo pop art’? Or will they invent new configurations and categorize him as ‘post-pop-art’? Or as ‘not-art-at-all’?    

While people are busy doing this, Brian Donnelly will continue doing his stuff in his Brooklyn studio:

‘All I want is to make something classy and not worry about what label people will hang on it.’