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Artist KAWS Brings an 18-Foot-Tall Sculpture to the Plaza

By Emily SokolowAug 25 2021
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Until October 8, an 18-foot-tall, toy-like sculpture will grace Center Plaza. Created by New York-based artist KAWS, the piece is called SHARE and features two of his most well-known characters. The larger character, “COMPANION,” was originally inspired by Mickey Mouse. The smaller, plush-like variation in bubblegum pink, a newer motif affectionately named “BFF,” hangs from its left hand.

Familiarity and accessibility are key themes of KAWS’s work. The artist, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, started out as an animator and graffiti artist in the 1990s. He selected the name KAWS for the graphic, creative potential contained by those specific letters. By tagging (writing on) subway cars, he attained “all city” status, meaning his work reached across all of New York City. While visiting Japan in 1997, he realized the power of popular cartoon characters in communicating across language and cultural differences. This inspired him to transform figures from The Simpsons, Snoopy, and The Smurfs, creating versions with his signature Xs as their eyes. This epiphany nurtured his impulse to create art that’s approachable to the broadest audience possible.

This isn’t the first time a COMPANION character visited Rockefeller Center. A 40-foot version floated above the area in the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, although that variation covered its eyes while SHARE stands tall on solid ground. "When I did the Macy's parade, one of my favorite photographs was [COMPANION] passing Rockefeller Center, coming around the corner," reminisces Donnelly.

“When I was invited to do the location of Rockefeller Center, I was thinking about what this area means to me… the verticality of all the architecture, and visiting Rockefeller Center as a kid, looking up and being overwhelmed. I wanted a sculpture that could relate to those feelings,” he explains.

SHARE makes a dramatic impression whether it’s viewed up close or from afar; its scale and style make a sharp contrast to the surrounding Art Deco architecture and artwork. The carved figure in the entrance panel above 30 Rockefeller Center, known as Wisdom, sends a piercing glare directly at COMPANION, creating a dynamic relationship between modern and classic worlds. This effect is multiplied when viewing the piece from across The Rink. The bright, gleaming gold of Prometheus emerges below SHARE, with the Greek god’s ornate style juxtaposed against the smooth, more youthful aspect of KAWS’s work.

The playful, optimistic piece happens to stand close to FAO Schwarz — which celebrates its one-year reopening anniversary this month — adding to its levity and appeal to childlike nostalgia. Notably, this isn’t the first time a striking, toy-like work of art has stood on this iconic spot. In 2017, Jeff Koons’s “Seated Ballerina” similarly drew attention for the dynamic created by large-scale modern art placed in a historic, classic context.

Donnelly explained his vision at the installation of SHARE, stating his motivation comes from “communication and having a dialogue with people…[as well as] getting the opportunity to put [his] work into the world.” His success in accomplishing this goal can be observed in the interactions people have to SHARE. A younger audience demonstrates a stronger connection to the artist, and many visitors proudly pose for pictures while sporting UNIQLO t-shirts featuring the COMPANION and BFF characters (one of KAWS’ many global brand partnerships).

Longtime fan and collector Chris Perez (an owner of two original figurines) described the relatable, attainable quality of KAWS art, saying, “What I love about it is the fact that you can buy it; it’s still accessible. You try buying a Picasso! A hundred years from now, who knows where we’ll be? But my kids will have his toys from me, and they can say, ‘I own this!’”

A graffiti artist himself, Perez described with admiration KAWS’s decades-long evolution from a New York City street artist into a globally recognized figure who spans the worlds of art, fashion, and street culture. “There are a lot of artists out right now who are so hyped for no reason, because of what sneaker culture turned out to be. They were never really legit. Just the fact that [KAWS] blew up so much from doing graffiti in the street, to what he is now, is just amazing,” explains Perez.

For Donnelly, the timing and placement of SHARE contribute to its emotional impact on the viewer. “It’s such an amazing spot to be in the city, especially at this time, with the city opening up again and us coming out of the last year that we just did. I feel like it’s a really important time to have public art,” says Donnelly.

KAWS: SHARE is on view for free and open to the public at 45 Rockefeller Center from August 11 through October 8, 2021.

“KAWS: What Party” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art until September 5, 2021.

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