By M. H. Miller
In April 2019, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong held an auction of artworks from the collection of the Japanese streetwear designer known as NIGO. Among the 33 lots were more than 20 works by the artist KAWS. The lot 8 was a piece called “The KAWS Album,” which Sotheby’s estimated would sell for as much as $1 million. The painting depicts the extended cast of “The Simpsons” posed as if on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 record “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” -itself a gag used for the cover of a 1998 CD of songs from the show- only the characters’ faces are configured into cartoonish skulls and crossbones, a signature of the artist’s work for the last 20 or so years. At the bottom of the scene, dozens of pink-frosted doughnuts (the kind favored by Homer) are arranged to spell “KIMPSONS.”
According to the auction catalog, “The KAWS Album” not only is Donnelly’s “most accomplished work on canvas” but also displays a “prescient vision and affectionate irreverence for our times, manifesting as an iconic apotheosis of KAWS’s entire artistic and cultural lexicon.” Once the auction opened, a bidding war drove the price to nearly 15 times its valuation. An unknown bidder — some believe it was Justin Bieber — paid $14.8 million for it.
In a relatively short period, Donnelly had gone from tagger to in-demand designer to fine artist. In fact, he seems to be collapsing the distinctions between these categories. The successful sale of “The KAWS Album” solidified this reputation, and yet, in a sense, it also had very little to do with Donnelly. U.S. law largely restricts resale royalties on the secondary market for visual artists — who, unlike actors, musicians and even journalists, do not make money off the continued sale of their work — and the sale of “The KAWS Album” didn’t net him a dime. Yet the price of the painting also meant that he had become an emblem of all that was wrong with the art world: its absurd profit margins that favor shadowy collectors and deals, its abasement of creativity for the sake of selling out. An article in The Art Newspaper lamented “the sheer conceptual bankruptcy of KAWS’s work.” And of “The KAWS Album,” it concluded, “Not in their most LSD-addled nightmares would the Beatles have envisaged it would come to this.”
Despite his harsh reception among the kind of people who give quotes to the media about the art market, you could also make the argument that Donnelly is the most beloved contemporary artist alive today. Popularity is a difficult metric to gauge in the visual arts in particular, because there is such an enormous disconnect between the tastes of art critics and those of the general public — and between the art market and the rest of reality.