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Art and pop culture collide as global powerhouse KAWS makes Canadian museum debut at the AGO

Sprawling exhibition opens Sept. 27 with paintings and sculptures both playful and serious, intimate and larger-than-life


Opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on September 27, 2023, KAWS: FAMILY invites visitors to explore the multi-dimensional creativity of American artist Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS. Renowned for his larger-than-life sculptures and paintings of iconic characters steeped in the American zeitgeist, KAWS mines popular culture to produce meticulous and exuberant artworks that investigate our connection to objects and one another. Marking the artist’s first museum presentation in Canada, KAWS: FAMILY is curated by Julian Cox, the AGO’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator, and is organized by the AGO.   

Brian Donnelly (born 1974), known professionally as KAWS, spent his teenage years tagging the streets of Jersey City and Manhattan before enrolling in the School of Visual Arts where he received his BFA in illustration in 1996. Since then he has carved a unique position for himself in the art world, creating a globally recognized practice rooted in drawing, painting, and sculpture, and amplified through collaborations with global fashion and design brands. His work can be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Featuring more than 70 artworks from the past two decades, the exhibition is organized as a series of encounters, with families of related artworks installed across Level 2 of the museum, including larger-than-life wood sculptures and augmented reality installations in Galleria Italia.

“KAWS reminds us that art can be many things at once – priceless, useful, commercial, beautiful, familiar, thought provoking and funny. Like Warhol and Haring before him, KAWS welcomes the viewer with forms that are immediately identifiable, and having caught our attention, confounds with his nuance, pathos and technical skill, encouraging us to consider what is companionship, what is family, what is our relationship to objects,” says Julian Cox, AGO Deputy Director and Chief Curator. “We are very proud to be the first Canadian museum to present KAWS - an artist whose commitment to accessibility and creative play is as strong as our own.”  

Working in bronze, wood, on paper and canvas, with plush toys and stainless steel, KAWS’s art is populated by a cast of reoccurring figures, whose shapes were born out of his early interest in collectable toys. Adapting features from popular American cartoons, these figures are at once playful and serious, and in their various poses, forms and sizes, explore distinctly human emotions -- ranging from loneliness and anxiety, to grief and joy. The centerpiece of the exhibition is FAMILY (2021), a painted bronze sculpture featuring COMPANION, a figure with crossed out eyes inspired by early American rubber hose animations, a bulbous figure named CHUM and a fur-covered character named BFF, posed together in the style of a studio portrait. 

A selection of shoe designs, cereal boxes, album covers and a loveseat composed of plush toys made in collaboration with the Campana Brothers showcases KAWS ongoing engagement with commercial design and fashion brands. Rejecting the idea that art is limited to the museum, these mass produced works share the same dedication to bold colour, strong lines, and adaptation that his paintings and sculptures do, and have helped KAWS gain a large and dedicated global following.

Produced in collaboration with Acute Art, a research hub and curatorial laboratory providing artists access to cutting edge technologies, the two augmented reality artworks installed in Galleria Italia, will allow visitors to interact virtually with KAWS sculptures using their smartphone.

KAWS: FAMILY is accompanied by a new 156 page, fully illustrated hardcover catalogue, co-published by AGO and Delmonico Books. Featuring essays by Julian Cox, AGO Deputy Director and Chief Curator, and Mark Kingwell, FRSC, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada; and an interview with KAWS by Jim Shedden, AGO Curator of Special Projects and Director of Publishing, the catalogue will be available in shopAGO beginning in late February 2024, a month ahead of its wider release.

Admission to KAWS: FAMILY is free for all Indigenous peoples, AGO Members, Annual Passholders and visitors aged 25 and under. AGO Members see it first beginning Sept. 27, 2023. Annual Passholders join Members in seeing the exhibition beginning Oct. 4, 2023.  Single paid tickets will be available beginning Oct. 11, 2023. The exhibition runs until March 31, 2024. For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit

Additional programming details, including talks, screenings and studio courses, to be announced in fall.

AGO Art Bash
In 2023, AGO Art Bash – the museum’s biggest fundraising event – is inspired by the art of KAWS and Keith Haring.  Tickets for the September 28, 2023 event are on sale now. For more details, visit

Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1974. Over the last two decades, he has built a successful career with work that consistently shows his formal agility as an artist, as well as his wit, irreverence and affection for our times. His practice possesses a sophisticated humour and thoughtful interplay with consumer products and collaborations with global brands, ranging from General Mills and Nike, to Supreme and Comme de Garçons. He often draws inspiration from and appropriates from pop-culture animations to form a unique artistic vocabulary for his work across a variety of media.

KAWS has exhibited extensively throughout the United States and internationally, but never in Canada. Recent solo exhibitions of his work have been presented at institutions such as the Serpentine Gallery, London, UK; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Fire Station, Qatar Museums, Doha; Mori Arts Center Gallery, Tokyo; and the Yuz Museum, Shanghai. He is represented by Skarstedt Gallery in New York.


On the complex emotions of his characters:
I always wondered why figures never had these kinds of expressive gestures, they were always proud super heroes standing tall or in other stiff poses. I wanted to create an emotional connection that could reflect our times and how I feel.”

On the power of mass culture:
 “[When I was in Japan,] it was difficult to communicate since I didn’t speak Japanese but I could walk down the streets and see shops full of Simpson’s merchandise. It was like, ‘You know Homer, I know Homer: We might not be able to have a meaningful conversation, but to all of us, it’s still Homer!”

On Keith Haring:
 “Keith Haring, for me, was a pivotal influence, because he was somebody involved in the art world, that wasn’t removed or out of reach. With his “Pop Shop”, he made patches and t-shirts and sold them as well as large-scale paintings and sculptures. I thought that it was great there was somebody doing these two things simultaneously. It almost seems like a natural thing these days to be an artist and make products.”

KAWS: FAMILY is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario.

@AGOToronto | #seeAGO   

The exhibition is generously supported by:

Signature Partner

Lead Support
The Dorothy Strelsin Foundation

Generous Support
The DH Gales Family Foundation
Greg & Susan Guichon
Steven & Lynda Latner

Contemporary programming at the AGO is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts

Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists to European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. The AGO is committed to being welcoming and accessible: admission is free for anyone under 25 years, and anyone can purchase an annual pass for $35. In 2022, the AGO began the design phase of an expansion project intended to increase exhibition space for the museum’s growing modern and contemporary collection. When construction begins in 2024, it will be the seventh expansion that the AGO has undertaken since it was founded in 1900.  Visit to learn more.

The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.

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