On a steamy Friday afternoon before the annual Hirshhorn Ball, one of the world’s most popular visual artists received an award from one of the world’s most popular recording artists.
The highly anticipated moment occurred in the sculpture garden of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian’s modern art museum in Washington D.C., a site populated by works from Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and, more recently, Huma Bhabha and Sterling Ruby, but not one from the artist being honored, Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS.
Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu cited KAWS for building an extraordinary career in the contemporary art world. “He’s probably one of the most agile artists we know, being able to collaborate with not just other artists, but those in the fashion and music worlds,” she says. “We look forward to collaborating with him in the future.”
“It’s exciting, the idea of working together, and I’m honored to be awarded this award,” KAWS, 47, said in the briefest of acceptance speeches.
The award to KAWS for his contribution to art and culture prompted speculation that one of the statues from the artist’s toylike Companion series, figures rendered with his signature X’s for eyes might join the museum’s collections. No announcement of any specific collaboration was forthcoming, but after the brief ceremony KAWS allowed that “we are discussing it.”
The global reggaeton superstar from Columbia J Balvin, who handed off the award to the artist, is a friend and collector, and made note of the similarities the pair have shared in conquering their respective worlds. “The way I started the music, he started—in the streets with graffiti,” Balvin says. “Major respect. Because [to go] from streets to be also known in the whole world and to be so respected, it takes a lot of vision and love for what you do.”
A New Jersey native, KAWS claims inspiration from the internationally renowned pop artist Keith Haring, who died in 1988 from AIDS and who similarly began his art career on the streets of New York. In KAWS’ case, he began by “reworking” the high-end ads around the city, adding his tag and animating them with the sad sack face of his Companion, with a nod to the Pop Art influences of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, the Swedish-born sculptor Claes Oldenburg and the American artist Tom Wesselmann.
Though it has been reproduced in many variations, from the Michelin Man to SpongeBob SquarePants, the Companion figure has also been replicated on shirts, prints and collectible figurines—and sometimes in towering statues, often depicted holding his head in his hands as if in grief.
The design caught on in commercial applications from clients as varied as UNIQLO clothing, skateboard manufacturers and MTV, which commissioned a redesign of its moon man MTV Video Award as a Companion in 2013.
But KAWS, who chose that graffiti tag as a teen because he liked the way the capital letters aligned, had once been discouraged that the established art world did not take his work as seriously. He opened a commercial shop in Japan in the mid-2000s, much like Haring’s Pop Shops in the mid-1980s, making vinyl collectible figures, prints and T-shirts available at prices his growing number of fans could afford.
At the same time, the items quickly began to trade on secondary markets at greatly inflated prices. In 2019, The KAWS Album sold for an eye-opening $14.8 million. Described as an “appropriation of an appropriation,” the work spoofs The Simpsons’ The Yellow Album—itself a parody of The Beatles’ album Lonely Hearts Club Band. KAWS’ version recasts the Simpsons characters with his hallmark X’ed eyes. You could suddenly argue, The New York Times Magazine said in an article last year, “that Donnelly is the most beloved contemporary artist alive today.”
Because that hefty sale came at auction, KAWS received none of the money and he maintains it didn’t change his life one bit. “Do I think my work should sell for this much? — No,” he wrote on Instagram the day after the monumental sale. “Did I arrive at my studio this morning same time I always do? — Yes.”
But the fine art world did begin to take notice. His first solo U.S. exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum occurred just last year; his first gallery show was in 2000. Serious art reviews continue to be few and when they do appear, are largely negative. His work is “free of adult supervision, with no one to answer and no justification required,” Thomas Crow wrote last year in Artforum.
But that’s just the kind of quality Chiu cited. “We love his irreverence toward art making,” she says.
By now, KAWS is a celebrated artist of choice in pop culture, being commissioned to do album covers for artists from Kanye West and Travis Scott. When Balvin performed at the Grammys in April, he had his hair done in multicolored X'ed-eyed KAWS designs.
Balvin, who has worn KAWS jewelry and has several pieces of KAWS art at his home, cited his friend for “connecting with the whole world in a different aspect.”
“You have made a lot of beautiful collaborations also and connections with people, not just the people that understand art in a different way,” Balvin says, “I’m talking about the kids. It’s the kids that really know KAWS. They’ve seen him in different places and you always have the view to connect with different generations, through different ways.”
Both KAWS and Balvin have reached young audiences through the online video game Fortnite, creating avatars in their images for a virtual art platform “that allows players and art fans from all around the world to access the show from anywhere.”
KAWS’ first London area show was made partly virtual through Fortnite and attracted a large, youthful audience earlier this year. Still, the long line of kids who found their way inside the Hirshhorn’s afternoon event were largely queuing up to have selfies taken with the reggaeton star, who with KAWS had earlier added thoughts to Yoko Ono’s nearby Wish Tree for Washington, DC.
Hirshhorn board of trustees member Isaac Lee of Miami, chief news entertainment and digital officer for Univision Communications, hoisted a toast “for people who achieve to be called just by one word, like Cher, Madonna, KAWS, Balvin, Bono, etc. A toast for people who have Fortnite in connection, who know how to handle their fandom, and to appreciate and share our gratitude.”
And with that, the museum was making its own wish.