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Why did a $200 toy crash the Museum of Modern Art’s website?

The story behind one of the weirder collectibles and its cult of admirers

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This email caused a rush to the Museum of Modern Art

On May 17, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City sent out an e-mail blast announcing that it had limited supplies of the $200 KAWS Companion action figure available for sale in its stores and online. The resulting rush of traffic promptly crashed the MoMA Design Store website, which stayed down for most of the day

It isn’t usually the MoMA’s style to circulate breathless messages about the limited availability of hot toys, so I was immediately curious. I decided to go to the museum and see what was going on.

What was going on, as it turned out, was that KAWS had basically taken over the entire block of 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. The Uniqlo store was wrapped in huge decals of a 30-foot tall Snoopy, wearing a t-shirt celebrating the fact that he is now “Joe KAWS.”

The MoMA store, which is on the same block, had set up a display case with a set of the KAWS Companion toys, but they hadn’t bothered to shelve their stock of the toys; there was no point, since their allotment wasn’t even going to last through the afternoon. They had a pop-up register manned by a couple of staffers checking people out with an iPad, and the toys were sitting in a pile of boxes behind them.

The pop-up shop
Daniel Friedman/Polygon

The guy in front of me told the staffer he’d been trying to get a Companion for months. As he swiped his credit card, his hands were shaking. When he’d finished buying $600 worth of the toys, the store staffer at the register asked me which Companion I wanted.

Did I want one of these at all? The hype was kind of intoxicating, but was this a thing I needed in my life? Who is KAWS, and why are people mobbing art museums to buy his $200 action figures? I spent the next few days finding out.

The Artist

KAWS is the professional name of the street artist Brian Donnelly, who rose to prominence in New York in the 1990’s by making clever modifications to advertisements on phone booths and bus shelters.

He has since progressed to museum exhibitions and then to brand collaborations. He has designed album covers for Kanye West. He redesigned the Moonman trophy for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. And he has designed shoes and streetwear for Nike, a cognac bottle for Hennessy and a perfume bottle for his buddy Pharell’s fragrance.

Until 2013, KAWS operated a store in Tokyo under his OriginalFake brand that served as an exhibition space for KAWS installations and and sold streetwear and limited edition toys designed by the artist.

KAWS currently has a line of graphic t-shirts with Uniqlo, featuring Peanuts characters, which is why the Uniqlo store was covered in KAWS Snoopy images.

The Companion

The Companion is a character who features in many of KAWS’s most famous works. It is a figure wearing pants with large buttons that resemble those worn by Mickey Mouse, but the Companion has a skull and crossbones for a head, and X's for eyes.

The skull head is a common recurring motif throughout KAWS’s work; his early street art involved pasting this head onto figures in advertisements on bus shelters and in subway stations. His signature XX has similarly been an element of his work for decades, and features somehow in nearly everything he does -- it’s on the eyes of all his cartoon figures, the stitching on his custom Nikes, and even in the filaments of a series of colored lightbulbs he designed for the Standard Hotel.

It’s not clear what statement KAWS intends to make with the Companion. But KAWS’s response to fans’ frequent questions about the enigmatic character’s meaning was to offer them a literal look beneath the surface: he started depicting the companion dissected like an anatomical model, with its brain, organs and muscles exposed and rendered in great detail that contrast strangely with the character’s simple cartoon exterior. Make of that what you will.

Anatomy of a Companion
Daniel Friedman/Polygon

The Companion character has been the subject of many of KAWS’s experiments with large scale installations; he built an enormous fiberglass statue of a weeping Companion, first installed on the grounds of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, and he floated a 40-foot Companion balloon down 5th Avenue during the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

The Toys

The Companion wasn’t created, however, to be a monument or a parade float; it was created to be a toy, and KAWS was among the first fine artists to enter the market for high-end vinyl figurines when he released the first version of the Companion in 1999, a squat-bodied, noodle-armed dead-ringer for Mickey Mouse with a KAWS skull for a head.

Since then, Kaws has released several limited-edition lines of the original and flayed versions of the Companion, a four-foot tall version that costs tens of thousands of dollars, and even 10-foot tall statues made of fiberglass, but covered in a “rubberized paint” that mirrors the appearance and texture of the toys. In 2007, KAWS did a limited edition Darth Vader Companion for the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, and he followed that up with a Stormtrooper version and Boba Fett. These figures are widely counterfeited, and authentic ones sell for thousands of dollars.

Mixing collectible vinyl with pop culture is a great shortcut to mainstream love
Original Fake via Hype Beast

The current line of toys is produced by the Japanese toy company Medicom, stand about 11 inches tall, and are made from vinyl. Originally released in 2016 to commemorate KAWS’s retrospective exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth they are the first KAWS toys produced since the closing of the OriginalFake store in Tokyo, and the first set of KAWS toys that were not produced in a numbered limited edition, so several batches of these have been shipped out to specialty toy distributors and museum-affiliated stores like MoMA Design, and more are likely to be produced in the future.

When you compare the KAWS toy to high-end collectible action figures which are comparably priced, the KAWS toy has fewer bells and whistles. A Hot Toys Masterpiece Spider-Man figure, for example, has multiple joints on the body of the doll, enabling it to be posed in a number of ways; several different sets of hands that can be swapped onto the body of the doll, enabling Spidey to be posed to appear as if he is punching, slinging his webs, climbing a wall or gripping one of his accessories. There is even a second head, so you can display him with or without his mask.

By comparison, the KAWS Companion has very limited articulation. You can rotate the hands and feet and raise the arms. On the full-body figure you can rotate the neck, but the head is fixed on the flayed version. This is meant to be displayed as the artist intended, not customized. If you want a Companion posed like one of KAWS’s other larger-scale works, you’ll have to buy a different toy.

Nonetheless, the silky texture of the vinyl and heft of the Companion toy convey unmistakably that this is a high-end object of the sort that collectors tend to covet, and KAWS distributes these products in ways that make them difficult to obtain, and therefore more desirable.

Limited supplies of the KAWS Air Jordan shoes are made available by lottery; when you buy them, it feels like you’re winning a prize even though you’re actually spending $350 on sneakers. The Star Wars toys were only available in the OriginalFake store in Tokyo, so most collectors had to hunt them down on secondary markets. And even with the open edition, the decision to sell online exclusively through smaller stores like MoMA’s results inevitably in traffic that crashes websites, and speculators buying up stock to sell on eBay to fans who can’t get through to the official retailer.

Meanwhile, partnerships with brands and licenses like Nike and Star Wars have helped turn sneaker and memorabilia collectors into KAWS collectors.

Art and Commerce

But KAWS’s marketing and corporate collaborations have raised the ire of some critics. A Los Angeles Times reviewer called a KAWS exhibit “a disheartening case study of the phenomenon of branding,” and a critic in The Independent dinged his work as “a product devoid of complexity that children will love.”

But Western art has always been tied to money. The master painters and sculptors of the Renaissance worked on commission, building shrines and tombs for wealthy patrons and adorning their private homes with elaborate frescoes and statuary.

More recently, Andy Warhol, a leading pop art figure and inspiration to many contemporary artists, explored the relationship between art and commerce by depicting pop-culture subjects like movie star Marilyn Monroe and mass-produced objects like Campbell’s soup cans, and by replicating his paintings using a silk-screening process in a studio he called The Factory.

And, along with his soup-can paintings, at one famous gallery exhibition he sold actual cans of Campbell’s soup, identical to the ones you could buy at a supermarket, except that he had autographed them and priced them at the inflation-adjusted equivalent of about $50. For Warhol, the commerce was part of the art, and his underlying critique of the valuation markets would place on anything ostensibly made by a famous artist is one way of understanding works like his piss paintings, which were canvases he (or other people) urinated on, and which have sold for six-figure sums.

But Warhol’s depiction of mass culture wasn’t entirely dismissive. He praised the democratizing power of mass-produced commodities, saying that: “America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

A statement like this should be understood as potentially containing a great deal of irony; like the street artists who would follow in his footsteps, Warhol was an unapologetic prankster and arguably kind of a highbrow troll. But, it still suggests he was at least aware of the argument that mass/consumer culture was something other than soul-crushing.

Though his depiction of the 32 nearly-identical cans collectively seem to make a critical statement about the culture that makes such things, Warhol would probably, nonetheless enjoy the idea that someone could argue that his series of paintings representing each flavor of Campbell’s Soup may not have represented the homogeneity of consumer culture, but rather, the exciting and historically unprecedented variety of soups available to the ordinary American family in the swinging 1960’s.

In fact, by emphasizing the sameness of the cans, while explicitly structuring the series around the number of different flavors of soup those cans contain, Warhol actually presents both arguments, and leaves the viewer to reconcile them. One could argue that message of the series is that, though the cans look similar, they actually contain tremendous variety, or you could argue that Warhol is showing us that, although Campbell’s and the culture at large promise us a dizzying array of possibilities, they all look the same if you take a couple of steps back.

KAWS’s use of familiar cartoon characters could be viewed as representing a similarly democratic view of art. Andrea Karnes, the curator of the KAWS retrospective in Fort Worth, argued that KAWS’s use of characters like Snoopy and Spongebob represented a flattening of the “hierarchy of images,” a kind of advocacy for the voices of art-world outsiders like the spraycan-wielding Jersey City skater KAWS once was.

Nonetheless, a KAWS x Snoopy for Uniqlo doesn’t seem to contain the complexity present in Warhol’s soup cans; it just looks like any other drawing of Snoopy except it has X’s over the eyes. It’s hard to discern a message underlying the work other than the mere existence of the thing as a Snoopy by KAWS.

KAWS’ choice to draw Snoopy doesn’t seem motivated by much more than corporate synergy; KAWS can use the visibility offered by this popular and widely recognizable license to find new markets for his toys and clothes, the stodgy Peanuts brand gets to associate with a trendy street artist, and Uniqlo can sell graphic tees to fans of both Snoopy and KAWS.

Commerce, therefore, doesn’t seem to be incorporated into the art here, nor is it external to the work. Rather the commercial considerations seem to be dictating the content. You could argue that’s also true of the Renaissance masters, but KAWS x Peanuts seems more like a sophisticated version of what Warner Brothers was trying to do with its stable of characters in the 1990’s when it was selling apparel featuring hip-hop versions of the Looney Tunes.

But is it any good?

KAWS is an artist with a distinctive aesthetic sensibility, a sophisticated understanding of product design, and a great talent for marketing himself simultaneously to the kinds of people who attend Art Basel and the kinds of people who attend Comic Con. The lines and interest don’t lie; the toys are a hit.

The Companion also represents a relatively inexpensive way for people to own a piece of pop art, and the limited nature of each run adds to the excitement. These are fetish objects, and the connection to well known and collectible properties like Star Wars and Peanuts means that many different kinds of collectors are trying to buy them.

KAWS is much more comfortable associating himself with brands and licenses than many of his contemporaries in the street art movement, which invites criticism, but also makes his work much more accessible ... and desirable.

If you can get past the artist’s somewhat mercenary affinity for Instagram-friendly brand collaborations, his monolithic sculptures of cartoon figures weeping, grieving and being flayed alive are among the more interesting contemporary works I’ve seen. You can bring one home at a price that is very high for a toy, but relatively low for a sculpture by a famous artist. That dichotomy scratches two itches: Expensive, rare toys are attractive, but so is art you can actually afford.

I bought the brown flayed Companion, by the way.

Daniel Friedman/Polygon

Daniel Friedman is the Edgar award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. He lives in New York City.