Brian Donnelly started his career in the 1990s, as a teenager tagging KAWS on freight cars, walls, and billboards around his hometown of Jersey City. The name had no real meaning, he just liked the way the letters looked together. Donnelly's art practice took a fortuitous turn in the late '90s, while he was at SVA — at that time he (illegally) acquired one of those master keys to all the ad boxes on New York City bus shelters, as well as phone booths — soon after, KAWS became the guy who was altering ads around town with his cartoony avatar, a skull-and-crossbones head with Xs as eyes. This character would evolve into his most famous creation, called Companion.
Today Donnelly's work fetches millions of dollars at prestige auctions, and he even had a balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, but the core concept running beneath his diverse body of work remains the same as in his SVA days. KAWS takes iconic commercial imagery—the Smurfs, the Simpsons, SpongeBob, to name just a few—and makes it his own. It's candy-colored, crowd-pleasing stuff to be sure, but there's also a distinct air of sadness, fear, and isolation in much of his work.
Opening today at the Brooklyn Museum, KAWS: WHAT PARTY is Donnelly's first-ever retrospective, a sprawling exhibition of more than 165 works, from pencil sketches of his earliest KAWS street-art murals to the monumental pair of Companions towering morosely in the lobby. There are lots of paintings, including jumbo versions of his fan-favorite appropriations like the Kurfs and the Kimpsons, as well as a few of Donnelly's more recent, neon-colored abstract pieces.
Sculptural works abound, mostly of Companion and the puffy-looking Chum, but there are a bunch of surprise guests, too. One area is devoted entirely to Donnelly's licensed ventures, like collectible vinyl toys and co-branded sneakers. There are pieces of furniture, including a dead Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, and Elmo chairs; several cases dedicated to old KAWS graffiti; and videos of some of Donnelly's massive public art installations around the world.
It all makes for a lively viewing experience, and a nice break from the ills of the world.
KAWS: WHAT PARTY will be at the Brooklyn Museum, located at 200 Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights, through September 5. Pandemic protocols like required masks and timed-entry ticketing are all in place.