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KAWS, THE KAWS ALBUM, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 101.6 × 101.6 cm. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Kawsification

Also available in:  Chinese

When the parodic, Sgt. Pepper-meets-The Simpsons canvas THE KAWS ALBUM (2005), by Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly (known globally as KAWS) sold for 14-times its presale estimates at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in March, hammering down at an astounding USD 14.8 million, many auction-watchers were shocked. Yes, the canvas came from Japanese street-style icon NIGO®’s collection, but KAWS had only broken the million-dollar mark as recently as 2017. The artist himself marveled to his 2.6 million followers on Instagram: “What a strange morning . . . Do I think my work should sell for this much?—No.”

Leading up to the sale, the 37-meter, inflated manifestation of the artist’s signature character COMPANION was installed in the city’s Victoria Harbour, and set off an Insta-frenzy among social-media-savvy art scenesters. Titled HOLIDAY (2018), the giant waterborne figure floated outside the Art Central tent and the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre—where auctions and Art Basel Hong Kong were happening simultaneously. Up in Central, the comprehensive solo show “KAWS: ALONG THE WAY” at PMQ garnered snaking queues and throngs of attendees merrily posting photos of themselves re-enacting the postures of the sculptures inside the galleries. 

What followed the headline sale and tragicomedic deflation of HOLIDAY was the “KAWS effect.” Nearly a thousand works by the artist were auctioned off globally in 2019. His artworks had generated a total of USD 33.8 million in 2018, a 113-percent increase over 2017. In 2019, the total auction earnings from just ten top lots by KAWS was USD 45 million. His more “affordable” figurine toys retail for hundreds of dollars, making the KAWS magic accessible to legions of fans. A collaboration between KAWS and clothing brand Uniqlo launched stampedes at stores in China as zealous shoppers wrestled their way to branded T-shirts. Footage of these clashes went viral. 

The iconic cartoon characters that KAWS primarily draws inspiration from tap into an infantilism mania in the art market today. In the fall series of Hong Kong auctions, both Yoshitomo Nara and Liu Ye, renowned for their animated depictions of young girls, achieved auction records. Perhaps the godfather of infantilism is Takashi Murakami, who has incited public delirium since 2002, when he collaborated with Louis Vuitton on sold-out handbags stamped with smiling flowers and appropriations of Japanese anime. With art collectors becoming progressively younger—and younger collectors growing older—the styles and social-media habits of millennials who favor neo-pop, manga, and street art may be where the art market is headed. 

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ARNDT David Zwirner