KAWS and Andy Warhol Come Together at Last for a Museum Show in Pittsburgh

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There are no shortage of exhibitions dealing with KAWS and Andy Warhol individually, but there haven’t been many that contend with the two artists together. This unusual focus forms the subject of a new exhibition that recently opened at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 47 works by both artists are now on view.

Loosely, the pair has been brought together the shed light on the darkness of their oeuvres. But KAWS and Warhol share commonalities beyond that: works by both have infiltrated the public consciousness, and collaboration with big brands is also responsible for some of their art.

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ARTnews recently spoke with KAWS about the exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum, his thoughts on selling out, and his favorite pieces by Warhol. This interview has been edited and condensed.

ARTnews: The new show at the Warhol Museum features works from his “Death and Disaster” series, silkscreened paintings from the 1960s that feature appropriated pictures of car crashes and other violent imagery that Warhol repeated many times over. What relation does your work have to those paintings?

KAWS: The “darker themes” angle was something that [outgoing Warhol Museum director] Patrick Moore really wanted to explore. It’s funny how putting pieces in proximity to each other can really kind of shift the context. Companion (2020) was a sculpture I created thinking that it was just really representative of that year and exhaustion. But when placed under the Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (1963–64), it suddenly feels much more tragic.

Could you expand on that a little bit in terms of how it feels tragic?

Ambulance Disaster is a much more horrific image. For me, doing this show was a great way to explore even further an artist that I’ve always appreciated. And I felt like there were so many things that Warhol had done that kind of opened doorways for my thinking. So, I wouldn’t pass it up the opportunity to do this show.

Bryan Conley;05/17/2024 - 01/20/2025

Andy Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (1963-1964) above KAWS Companion (2020) at The Andy Warhol Museum. Photo by Bryan Conley

Warhol expanded the way people thought about the business of art and the the notion of selling out. But he also faced a negativity about that during his lifetime, especially because he did so with the explicit goal of making money. What do you make of the allegations that Warhol unashamedly sold out?

I mean, I don’t really think about the term “selling out.” I focus on what I want or don’t want to make, and what outlets I can explore. There’s tons of opportunities these days to get the work out in ways that just aren’t possible in a traditional gallery setting, if you were just doing painting and sculpture. I’ve always been inclined to make products. I’ve always thought about the stuff that came to me through objects, through products, when I was younger, whether learning about artists through skate graphics, through magazines, or through T-shirt graphics. It all felt very natural to me. I don’t see any reason to deprive myself from having opportunities to make the stuff that I want to make.

You’ve previously said you’ve turned down a lot of opportunities.

I don’t want to do anything that I’m not going to be able to stand by. Yeah, there are a lot of projects that we’re presented with, but it’s just not interesting, often. If I feel like it’s not additive, I’ve just tried to stay away from it.

Warhol was making a lot of art in response to ads, TV shows, and news photography, all at a time when this was somewhat taboo in the art world. Nowadays, it’s far less the case. What is your relationship to mass media? What do you think about that shift among artists about making work in response to mass media?

My interested in this started in the ’90s, when I was doing graffiti. Then I transitioned to painting over billboards. I started to think a lot about the parallels between graffiti and advertising, and that need for communication.

I don’t see these things as taboo. I feel like things have shifted a lot. And I think it’s because a lot of artists are just more open-minded these days to working with corporations and even institutions. The landscape has changed so much, and artists are looking to collaborate with different corporations. whether it’s Dior sponsoring a show or something of that sort. Those opportunities are out there, and they can be done in good ways. And if you can find that right balance, I think it’s worth exploring.

When it comes to remixing pop culture, what aspects of Warhol’s process do you draw on?

I think I benefited from his openness to different mediums, whether it’s film or fashion. The Warhol Museum had a show years ago [in 1997] called “The Warhol Look.” It focused on all the collaborative dresses that he printed and the different sort of works in that realm. I feel like I’m in a very different time, in 2024, with social media and everything. I tried to be aware of: how I can create work that could disseminate in the right ways for today?

Are there specific pieces of Warhol’s that really stand out to you?

The first pairing we did for the exhibition was Ambulance Disaster and Companion [2020]. Then we kind of built the show out from around that. I’ve always been interested are the toy package paintings that he did—just the scale and intimacy of them. Cming off of all his previous work, to stop and focus on a series like that: I just thought it was very clever.

There’s a series of paintings I did, which are close-ups of SpongeBob faces. And we paired it with the film Blow Job [1964]. I thought it was important have this humor in the exhibition, and also to bring his movie work into the show.

If there was one work of Warhol’s that you could have on loan from the Warhol Museum to your home, which one would it be?

There’s a painting of a volcano on canvas [Vesuvius, from 1985]. It’s just black ink on white canvas—it’s a startling image that I love. I didn’t put it in the show, but I do always love seeing when I visit.

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