Thursday, July 15th, 2010
Despite years of circumventing mainstream art circles and rarely showing his work publicly, KAWS has built up a massively dedicated following of collectors who obsessively seek out his creations, from limited edition toys and clothing, to even more elusive original paintings and drawings. After eight years of absence in the U.S and five years since exhibiting internationally, 2008 marked the artists’ return to gallery walls. With three consecutive solo shows in Miami, New York and Los Angeles, KAWS unveiled entirely new bodies of work that signaled a young artist on the verge of his most productive phase to date.
His most recent display is is no exception to this trajectory. On June 27th, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Connecticut, opened the doors to KAWS’ first solo museum exhibition, providing a retrospective look at his graffiti roots, fine art, and commercial projects, as well as brand new sculptural and installation pieces that stand as his largest and most ambitious to date.
TheArtCollectors spoke with curator Mónica Ramírez-Montagut about the process of creating the landmark exhibition. Read on for the conversation, click images for larger views.
Hi, Mónica. Congratulations on such a strong opening reception. Unveiling seven new exhibitions on the same day is quite an undertaking!
Thank you for joining us on such a celebratory day for the Aldrich.
KAWS already maintains such a strong following, from kids who connect to his toys and graphic work, to seasoned blue-chip art collectors. At the same time he’s not a complete household name. Does producing a show that can simultaneously engage first-time, unfamiliar viewers, as well as such a varied and fanatical fan base, factor into developing an exhibition like this?
It is the mission of The Aldrich to advance creative thinking by connecting today’s artists with individuals and communities in unexpected and stimulating ways, and in that context KAWS is a perfect match. The Aldrich is also well known for having given many artists their first museum exhibitions, which means we are used to presenting artists that are not yet “household names.”
KAWS has an incredible body of work, including painting and sculpture, of quality and vision; he was more than ready for a museum solo exhibition. It is important to The Aldrich not only to bring new audiences to the Museum, but also to make them feel welcome so that hopefully they will start considering contemporary art museums as institutions they can visit and enjoy.
With such an eclectic body of both fine art and commercial projects to draw upon from the last 15 or so years, can you talk about the process of selecting work for the very first retrospective look at KAWS? For example, some things were absent, like the phone booth/bus stop ads that many consider the beginning of KAWS’ recognition by a public audience.
We are showing two phone booth ads, the Calvin Klein ones from 1999 with the skull, x-ed eyes and crossbones. We did want to focus on his new work, since the past work is very well known among his collectors. However, as many visitors will be looking at his work for the first time, we wanted to provide a small peek into his vast output, including design and street art, so as to show the creativity that permeates everything. KAWS has so much work that we could have organized an exhibition four times this size, so we really had to narrow it down to what would give an overall view and also look good.
The exhibition was able to provide a broad survey, drawing almost exclusively from the artist’s own collection. Was there a decision early on not to incorporate works from private collections? I imagine that could present a whole other set of challenges.
For the artwork (paintings and sculptures), we wanted to show exclusively new work. For design objects, since KAWS keeps copies of everything, we decided to consolidate our loan and have everything come from him. Borrowing objects from all over the world would have been too complicated and wasn’t necessary. We are showing work, like the collaboration with photographer David Sims, that KAWS has retained for himself because it is a unique series; it has never before been exhibited*. That is also the case with some of the ink drawings—he is the only one who owns that type of work.
*Note: The Sims collaborations have never been seen in the U.S. and were only shown once, in 2001 at the KAWS – Tokyo First exhibit, Parco Gallery, Japan.
The show is divided into two rooms with works spanning a multiple of distinct mediums including painting, drawing, large scale sculpture, a site-specific installation, various commercial products, and collaborative projects. What was the approach and what challenges were there to incorporating all this into the Museum and show?
We wanted to mix the disciplines somewhat, so in the gallery with the paintings and the sculptures we included the prototype toy of Pinocchio, to enter into dialogue with the large-scale work with which it has a lot in common. In the other room, where we placed more design objects, we included packaged paintings and the David Sims series that are also unique works. We tried to have them be in dialogue, showing what they have in common as opposed to what they do not.
I’m curious about the negotiation between curatorial decisions, the goals of the artist, and the practical matter of dealing with physical space available. How has that factored into this show?
We assigned the gallery space to KAWS hoping he would do a large scale intervention, like a mural or big sculpture. To our surprise he gave us both! Once we assigned the gallery, KAWS built a scale model. He made a proposal that we discussed, but the overall layout was done by him. On site, during installation, we discussed what would look better where, what would be the first impression of someone walking into the room, if the show was well paced, etc. We did some tweaks during the install—you do have to see the things in the room before you make the final decision.
Prior to your current role, you served as Assistant Curator of Architecture and Design for the Guggenheim. Has your background in these creative fields informed your role as curator of The Aldrich and this particular exhibition? For example, the newest set of exhibitions includes not only KAWS, but Rackstraw Downes and Fritz Haeg, who uniquely draw upon elements of design and architecture in their art.
Yes, my background as an architect and at the Guggenheim does indeed inform my decisions. What first caught my attention about KAWS and Fritz Haeg is that they do not really find a strict boundary between art, design, and architecture. I feel the same way. I believe all disciplines would benefit from feeding from each other, which would be a more natural and organic way of not only making new work but experiencing it as well. In my mind, it is important is to have a creative vision that is applied to many different disciplines, activities, situations.
I chatted with many fans and art world professionals that traveled from quite far distances to be at The Aldrich, even from across the country and overseas! There was a real sense that people were compelled to be there for the first look and to show their support. For you, what is it that makes KAWS so appealing?
There are several factors that come together in KAWS. His work is well done, perfect in technique, craft, and manufacture. People still appreciate something well done. Also, conceptually his work is intriguing because at first glance it is easy to understand, funny, and encourages an emotional response. On a second look, it turns out to be quite complex, not that funny, but rather bittersweet and extremely cerebral (criticizing consumer culture, while still a participant in it).
Also, KAWS makes a point of reaching out to diverse communities and being accessible; since his work spans many different disciplines, this creates a large base of followers. It is important to mention that he is extremely generous as a person, and incredibly kind. He maintains a childlike sense of humor which identifies with a lot of not-that-young adults. He has an impeccable work ethic—I would say he is a good role model for young people: work on what you like, don’t give up, and work hard. I guess the fans see that as well!
June 27 – Jan. 2, 2011
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
258 Main Street
Ridgefield, CT 06877
(All Images: Jeff Newman/TheArtCollectors, except where noted)