The Big Review: Kaws at the Brooklyn Museum

He is a global brand, but can a museum show lend Brian Donnelly’s art any credibility?

X-offender: a group of prints from KAWS’s Urge series, and a sculpture, Separated, in the Brooklyn Museum show Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images; works © kaws

X-offender: a group of prints from KAWS’s Urge series, and a sculpture, Separated, in the Brooklyn Museum show Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images; works © kaws

The futility of reviewing KAWS’s What Party at the Brooklyn Museum holds a certain morbid appeal. After participating in several Clubhouse discussions on the death of art criticism, being sent out as a critic for my thoughts on the superstar artist’s retrospective of toys and paintings feels like the final nail in that coffin.

Like assigning a food critic to review McDonald’s, if the show gets the thumbs-up, it’s of no consequence—legions of fans already exist, built through decades of production and brand partnerships with companies such as Nike, Uniqlo, Dior and MTV. If not, well, what did anyone expect? Most art critics agree that the work of KAWS (Brian Donnelly) holds about as much nutritional value as a Happy Meal. That’s not just a tossed-off barb—the critic, artist, and collector Greg Allen unfavourably compared the artist’s work to Happy Meal toys in an article I wrote on KAWS last year.

Sure enough, a trip to the museum met my low expectations. The show, curated by Eugenie Tsai, tracks the artist’s production from a freshly graduated student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, working as a graffiti artist, to his now secured status as artist-icon and mega-brand.

Organised chronologically, the exhibition begins with a vitrine filled with sketchbooks and framed drawings of his graffiti tags. This section leads into paintings riffing on cartoons such as The Simpsons and The Smurfs. Each figure has their eyes crossed out with Xs—the KAWS signature style.

Nearly every sculpture looks like it’s rendered in plastic, even when cast in bronze or aluminium

Tsai dedicates much of the show to the artist’s best known character, COMPANION: a Mickey Mouse-like figure with skull and crossbones for a head and crossed-out eyes. KAWS renders the head in a bubble-letter style derived from graffiti, and produces the sagging character at scales ranging from hand-held collectible figurines to lobby-sized sculptures.

Examples of his product coll­aborations fill the museum’s custom-made cabinets: drawings for magazines, skateboard decks, sneakers, the trophy he made for the MTV Music Video Awards, furniture made with the Campana Brothers. A gallery dedicated to his large-scale public works follows.

Kids love Happy Meals, and they love KAWS. So, too, do their parents, young couples, and just about everyone I saw at the museum. The best I could muster was ambivalence. Partially, that has to do with the gendered nature of the work. The lone representation of a woman, minus a couple of altered Simpsons characters, comes at the beginning of the show in the form of “subvertisements”, where he inserts his own graphics into ads around New York City, wrapping women’s bodies with serpentine tentacles or obscuring their heads. In Untitled (Maidenform), from 1999, the artist replaces the head of a woman wearing white underwear and bra with a COMPANION head. The reference may not be intentional, but it’s hard not to read into the work the same misogyny that defined the Chris Cunningham-directed Aphex Twin video, Windowlicker, also made in 1999. Both men transform the faces of women in white bathing suits into grotesque toothy figures.

For me, that set a tone. The work isn’t for women—unless, that is, you’re a diligent consumer, or a child. I’m neither, but I’m not immune to the nostalgic subject matter. Altered characters from the Simpsons and Smurf cartoons feel less pernicious.

The familiarity of the figures draws out common themes among more populist work: sadness, barely hidden dystopian worlds, a desire to see mega-corporations pay for their success. Two early large-scale paintings made in 2000 and hung side by side, Untitled (Kimpsons) and Untitled (Kimpsons #2), exhibit these ideas. In one, the family sits on the couch watching TV with crossed-out eyes. In the other, they circle the couch, throwing each other’s heads around. I can see why the work might attract fans, even if the themes are a little dopey. Too much TV can suck the life out of anyone.

Critical to KAWS’s popularity is the formula that mixes the familiar model of high-level production with the replication of popular icons, brands, and celebrities. This combination catapulted his work to fame and fortune, like other influencer artists such as C.J. Hendry and Beeple. Multinational companies use the formula too, because it works. Disney reboots Star Wars and other popular franchises, just as KAWS endlessly recycles his own brand.

Like Hendry and Beeple, the reserved and mysterious KAWS persona plays into his celebrity. Street Art consignment specialist and KAWS collector Alan Zeng described his status as akin to urban legend. “He’s like a public-facing Banksy,” Zeng told me last year.

The artist’s mastery of virtually any medium stands out in this show. Very few graffiti artists have successfully made the leap from the text-based graffiti to other media. KAWS made it look easy. He transitions from script to paintings and toys without so much as a hiccup. The smoothly rendered lines and shapes in the early Kimpson paintings exhibit a skilled hand and the vibrant colour and shape of later abstractions vibrate with illusory depth. Flawlessly rendered toy figures that begin in the shape of Mickey Mouse or the Michelin Man please the eye.

To a point, anyway. Nearly every sculpture in the show looks like it’s rendered in plastic, even when cast in bronze or aluminium. KAWS paints the surface of metal, giving it a silky vinyl finish or reflective sheen. In the 1.5m-tall sculpture COMPANION (RESTING PLACE) from 2013, KAWS splits the figure down the middle; one half cartoon, the other anatomical figure. Damien Hirst removed the skin on a gargantuan figure in 2000 to similar effect. Neither reveal much of anything, though I suppose the exposed loneliness of the KAWS figure should get some credit, even if it is too obvious for my taste.

If KAWS made a seemingly effortless jump from graffiti to painting and toys, that effort falters with the large-scale sculptures. The products displayed in vitrines come in the form of an MTV award trophy and Star Wars toys, and sad COMPANION figures carrying dead Sesame Street characters create a manageable and believable sense of sadness and alienation. That same sculpture scaled to larger than life reads as an indulgent boo-hoo monument to white male privilege. I felt left out of a party I didn’t want to attend.

Thus, the final room—a rotunda with sculptures and large-scale projections showcasing KAWS’s public art—fizzles. There’s footage of a 35m-long inflatable COMPANION from 2019 floating in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, paired with documentation of a 11m-tall sculpture, HOLIDAY in Taipei tower. Is the character relaxing or dead? I didn’t care.

As I exited the exhibition to the museum shop, I realised I’d reached the real show. KAWS fans connect to the work in no small part because they can purchase it. There’s some fiction to the idea of accessibility—KAWS limited editions sell for so much now that the average human will never be able to own one, while the open “affordable” editions priced at $250 can’t be printed fast enough—all that remained in the Brooklyn Museum’s shop were some magnets and posters.

The museum’s press people assured me that it periodically restocks its inventory—a point of relevance that depresses me. Sure, if commerce is the best way for people to connect with art, launch the shows that allow people to engage that way. However, there’s not much point in reviewing the Happy Meal toys. They’re relevant cultural ephemera, but ultimately disposable.

Kaws: What Party, Brooklyn Museum, New York, until 5 September

• Curator— Eugenie Tsai, senior curator, contemporary art, Brooklyn Museum