Arts / Galleries

Cool Art: A Young Curator Embraces Punk Culture, Skate Rats and KAWS — the Revolution Continues in Fort Worth

BY Billy Fong // 10.18.16

KAWS. The name — or rather, the tag (a graffiti signature) — just seems cool. I may not know which emoji is trending, but I do know what’s cool. During my undergrad and graduate studies in art history, that word — cool — was verboten. Even though my fellow students and I might have thought Pollock or Judd were cool, we didn’t say it, lest it diminish the importance of their work.

Today, though, curators and art-world types are willing to bend in an attempt to reach younger audiences. (FYI, Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers.) They are taking cues from Museum Hack — the nontraditional museum-tour company’s motto is “Museums are F**king Cool!” — and looking to renegades like the Historic House Anarchist.

Many curators who are close to my age grew up in the time of punk culture and skate rats — as did the artist known as KAWS. So I was over the moon when my dear gal pal Andrea Karnes — she is a top curator at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — shared that she was putting together a comprehensive survey of KAWS’ work at The Modern, to open this month.

KAWS has far more than his finger on the pulse — the zeitgeist, if you will. He follows in the lineage of Pop Art icons Warhol and Lichtenstein. And while the term “important” is used entirely too much of late, especially in art circles, KAWS is just that. More importantly, his work makes me smile.

It is thought-provoking. It leaves me wanting for more. Admittedly, this lust for more may have something to do with his crossover into fashion.

Art and fashion became bedfellows in the mid-20th century. Sometimes these were full-fledged partnerships, and other times designers used their work to pay homage to artists they respected. One of the greatest examples of the latter was, of course, Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian-inspired dresses: Monsieur Saint Laurent used graphic black lines — horizontal and vertical — to break up expanses of white and primary-color blocks.

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True collaborations between artists and designers have occurred with more frequency lately, and include Robb Pruitt and Jimmy Choo, James Nares and Coach, Anselm Reyle and Dior, and Keith Haring and Nicholas Kirkwood. During Marc Jacobs’ long tenure as creative director of Louis Vuitton, the luxury label embarked on numerous collaborations, including with Stephen Sprouse, Richard Prince, Daniel Buren, the Chapman Brothers, Dino and Jake, and Takashi Murakami. Jacobs also admires KAWS and has worked with him on creating pieces for his namesake collection.

KAWS’ playful style has such wide appeal that the capsule collection he created with Uniqlo instantly sold out — a first for the company that had previously only sold T-shirts stamped with the work of artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Its popularity prompted a re-release of the collection earlier this summer. When I was walking through SoHo in June, I spied at least two-dozen passersby wearing KAWS Uniqlo shirts.

Currently, KAWS is doing an incredibly intriguing collection for the coveted handbags created by Nancy Gonzalez. With KAWS’s iconic double “X’s” emblazoned on the luxurious, exotic skin bags that Gonzalez is known for, this seems to be a true dialogue, or commentary, on the notion of so-called street style.

With the opening of the exhibition, “KAWS Where the End Starts,” set for October 20, I spent some time chatting up Andrea Karnes about all things KAWS.

Is KAWS a fine artist?
KAWS is a fine artist. More specifically, he is a successful crossover artist, between graffiti (which he hasn’t practiced since the late ’90s), design, and fine art. It is a rare position to hold in the art world, but it’s not without art-historical precedence.

Andy Warhol is the best-known example. Warhol started his career as an illustrator, then began to show his works in galleries and museums, eventually selling on all levels of the market — as KAWS does today. Keith Haring is another good example of a successful artist, between high and low art — or, like KAWS, graffiti, fine art, and merchandise.

But what makes it fine art?
Conceptually, KAWS’ work is similar from graff to design to painting and sculpture, but the materials and scale change as he enters the realm of fine art. A vinyl toy of 20 inches becomes a bronze sculpture that soars 20 feet high. An ephemeral image of Chum, one of his recurring figural motifs that began in his graff days, becomes an acrylic on canvas.

His work is sought within the institutions and in the art market — this does not happen with works that are not considered fine art.

Any installations to look forward to?
There are surprises. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

If you could have a soundtrack playing in the galleries, what would it be?
Pop music. Some of his biggest collectors are pop stars. Pharrell, Kanye West, Alicia Keys.

What is his studio like? I can only imagine it’s badass. I’m envisioning a half-pipe for skaters and turntables galore.
The studio has a very serious vibe. It’s gorgeous, clean, and organized. It houses some of KAWS’ personal art collection. We’ve gotten so much work done there. We are always in work mode.

Any fun memories with the artist?
KAWS is a warm person. He has a fantastically funny sense of humor. We laugh a lot. One time, as I was walking out, the founder of Uniqlo and one of their designers was walking in. It was right after KAWS’ clothing capsule for Uniqlo, which launched and sold out within a day or so. Certainly it was thrilling to see them.

“KAWS Where the End Starts,” October 20, 2016 through January 22, 2017, at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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