Cartoon-Inspired Art Part of Latest Modern Art Museum Exhibit

Tooned In

Brooklyn-based artist KAWS was born Brian Donnelly and is considered one of the most relevant artists of his generation. Growing up in New Jersey, he began his career as a graffiti artist, most notably tagging walls and freight trains. Once responsible for defacing billboards, KAWS went on to earn his BFA degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York. After college he freelanced for animation studios and became part of an outdoor group sculptural exhibit, ARTZUID, in Amsterdam.

Now his fine art is exhibited around the world with much of his work available for purchase in a variety of media, including collectible vinyl toys, sneakers, snowboards and clothing.

It’s evident that KAWS was highly influenced by the cartoon characters he grew up watching. He has primarily looked to and drawn from pop-culture animations, including The Smurfs, Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons, SpongeBob, Hanna-Barbera, and Peanuts.

Best known for his characters possessing Xs for eyes and skulls and crossbones for heads, KAWS has also invented many characters. His three most iconic figures are COMPANION, inspired by Mickey Mouse; CHUM, a variation of the Michelin Man; and ACCOMPLICE, a bunny that resembles a stuffed toy with long ears. The figures provoke a myriad of emotions, from sad, overwhelmed and pathetic to weary and shy.

COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) exemplifies this. The 16-foot-tall sculpture is seated with its head in its hands. With a Mickey Mouse body, complete with gloves, shorts and cartoon-shaped shoes, COMPANION is much like the original character. Its posture and pose suggest sadness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, something in which viewers will be able to relate.

KAWS explains: “COMPANION is a figure in the world now, and it’s not all great out there. He deals with life the way everyone does. Even though I use a comic language, my figures are not always reflecting the idealistic cartoon view that I grew up on, where everything has a happy ending. COMPANION is more real in dealing with contemporary human circumstances. He reflects attitudes we all have. I think when I’m making work, it also often mirrors what’s going on with me at that time. Things change—sometimes it’s tense in the studio, other times things are happy. I want to understand the world I’m in, and, for me, making and seeing art is a way to do that.”

The exhibition includes approximately 100 works and will occupy the entire first-level galleries with some sculptures situated on the museum’s grounds. Organized by Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth curator Andrea Karnes in close collaboration with the artist, this presentation will feature key paintings, sculptures, drawings, toys and street art interventions to examine KAWS's prolific career in depth, revealing critical aspects of his formal, conceptual and collaborative developments over the last 20 years.

Karnes says, “KAWS’s toys and larger-than-life sculpture of hybrid cartoon/human figures are the strongest examples of his exploration of humanity. They reflect emotions and situations we can all empathize with in presentations that are balanced with humor, heartening in their cartoon aesthetic.”

Five years ago, the Modern featured KAWS’s work in a small-scale solo exhibition as part of the FOCUS series. KAWS’s painting, Where the End Starts, was acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. In 2012 his work returned to the Modern when COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) was installed outside the museum’s main entrance.

After the exhibit concludes on Jan. 22, it will travel to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, China, through August 2017. 

KAWS: Where the End Starts

Oct. 20, 2016 – Jan. 22, 2017

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth


Buy the Book

A comprehensive color catalogue tracks KAWS’s work from his early graffiti years to his fashion and design collaborations and monumental paintings and sculptural works. With contributions from Andrea Karnes, Michael Auping, Dieter Buchhart and Pharrell Williams, this hardcover edition has more than 150 color reproductions. The book will be available in December and will feature installation shots of KAWS’s work in the Modern’s galleries. Email [email protected] to reserve a copy.

Member price: $44

Regular price: $55