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KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out

The Brooklyn Museum's new KAWS exhibit gets the party started

Gigantic "Companion" sculptures reign supreme at the brand-new exhibition.

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Written by
Shaye Weaver
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The artist behind those cartoon-like characters with x's for eyes that have caught the attention of musicians like Pharrell and Jay-Z has a major survey of his work at the Brooklyn Museum—his first in New York City.

"KAWS: WHAT PARTY," which opens Friday, showcases KAWS's rarely seen graffiti drawings, paintings, smaller collectibles, furniture and popular "Companion" figures.

You'll be greeted by two towering Companion figures inside the museum's lobby (below), but at the center of the exhibit, literally, as you walk into the gallery, is "WHAT PARTY," a giant new sculpture by the artist (pictured above) that will be installed at Rockefeller Center’s plaza in summer 2021.

KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out

The exhibit is split up into five sections—his earliest work (graffiti drawings and notebooks from the early 1990s), his appropriation, alteration and abstraction of characters from popular American cartoons (like his "Kimpsons" and "Kawsbob"), new introspective work addressing the current social climate, KAWS’s collaborations with other designers and brands in fashion and industrial design, and finally, an immersive installation of "Companion" figures surrounded by never-before-seen cinematic short films.

KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: KAWS / Brad Bridgers Photography
KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: KAWS / Farzad Owrang

KAWS, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, began creating graffiti in Jersey City during the 1990s outside of the art world. He'd tag "KAWS" on walls, train cars and billboards across the city but eventually began manipulating advertisements, adding his logo of a skull and crossbones with x'd-out eyes on them.

After a trip to Japan, and seeing the popularity of American collectible toys based on cartoons like The Simpsons, he wanted to create something that would communicate across cultures and came up with his "Kimpsons" and "Kawsbob" series. Then in 1999, he made his first vinyl toy, "Companion," which consists of a cartoon character's body and a skull-and-crossbones head. 

KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out
KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out

Much of his "Companion" work exudes childlike innocence but has an underlying menacing theme. Recently, they've depicted sadness, grief, anxiety and isolation.

"KAWS’s new works speak powerfully to the isolation, fears, and grief of our times," says Anne Pasternak, the Shelby White and Leon Levy Director, at Brooklyn Museum. "It reminds us that there’s a universality to our suffering."

He's also collaborated with designers, blurring the boundaries between populist and elite art, the museum says. You can see that side of his work in the second-to-last section through a selection of sketches and furniture made with plush toys, produced with Brazilian design studio Campana Brothers, as well as toys and other products.
And finally, the immersive experience at the end brings visitors into KAWS’s world. In this last gallery, "Companion" figures from his "Holiday" project are juxtaposed with never-before-seen cinematic short films, which include a virtual installation in outer space.

Why feature KAWS now? The museum says his work is especially relevant.

"The Brooklyn Museum and KAWS have been working together since 2015, and we’re excited to further that relationship by presenting his first mid-career survey in the U.S.," said Eugenie Tsai, the curator of the show. "While participating in a cultural environment shaped by image and consumption, KAWS simultaneously emphasizes the constant presence of universal emotions in his work, such as love, friendship, loneliness, and alienationan emphasis that is now more important and relevant than ever before."

KAWS What Party Brooklyn Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out

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