This boutique helped make Donnelly a global brand: when Jay-Z performed in New York in 2005, he wore a jacket that KAWS had made with NIGO’s A Bathing Ape. Through NIGO, Donnelly met Pharrell Williams and his work was soon an integral part of a thinned corner of the hip-hop world: Kanye West, who has already worked with artists such as Vanessa Beecroft and Takashi Murakami, selected him for the artwork for the Deluxe Edition of “808s & Heartbreak”. He then did the cover of the last studio recording by Clipse, a group produced by Williams. When Williams’ group NERD appeared on the cover of Complex magazine in 2008, Donnelly painted a companion coiling around each member like a snake in a picture that looked very much like one of his bus shelter ads, only this time someone had him around it asked do it. Even so, the art world hardly paid any attention to him. I asked at what point did that change. “It still happens,” he said, and laughed.
During the 10 years Donnelly spent being ostracized by the art world, his blurring of the line between fine art and collectibles was normalized and mainstream. These days, it is common for artists to juggle commercial and artistic commissions, and partner with popular brands on affordable prints. Part of it had to do with the art world’s own attempts to democratize itself by breaking down longstanding barriers. Museums have partnered with streetwear brands to throw lavish parties at art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach, and the hip-hop characters who were Donnelly’s oldest supporters have been courted by old-guard art institutions to attract younger audiences . In 2013, Jay-Z made a music video at New York’s Pace Gallery in front of an audience of dizzying curators and art consultants. Williams started organizing shows at Perrotin. Producer Swizz Beatz, a collector of Donnelly’s work, was named to the Brooklyn Museum’s board of directors in 2015.
But an artist’s work doesn’t inadvertently become a common cultural marker of status. To do this, the entire system must be intentionally or not synchronized. Wealthy collectors are, of course, intrigued by an artist who has independently demonstrated that their work has the potential for high returns on investment. Hence, art consultants help sell the work to them as trophy items. This forces galleries that want access to the rich collectors to show these works as well. Museums are fascinated by the interest of galleries and collectors, which legitimizes the work and increases its value. By the time a work of art is resold, the specialists at Sotheby’s have managed to turn the art of citing the auction house on the subject of Donnelly into something that “is universally understood to transcend language and cultural barriers. “
I returned to Donnelly’s studio several times over the next year. During these visits, I noticed that the walls of the upstairs office – and the stairs that led to them – were covered in real masterpieces from his personal art collection: a colorful but harrowing painting by Peter Saul from 1982, the one violent Encounter between police and police shows a group of subway passengers; a text work by Ed Ruscha labeled “Bail Jumper”; a Joyce Pensato representation of Mickey Mouse rendered in almost abstract drawings of black paint; a portrait of Joe Coleman by Henry Darger, a now canonical self-taught who assisted himself as a steward and looked like a medieval icon painting. All artists who move uncomfortably between animation and arcane.
There was also a large Martin Wong painting of a wall. Donnelly has one of the world’s largest private art collections from Wong, another artist who was underrated in his life (he died of complications from AIDS in 1999), but whose moving, personal life scenes were celebrated on the Lower East Side after his death thanks to Donnelly, who loaned the works in his collection to exhibitions and promoted Wong on Instagram. One paradox in Donnelly’s career is that, aside from record prices for his own work, he is arguably the most celebrated collector in the art world. “I knew him as a customer before I ever knew him as an artist,” said Per Skarstedt, his dealer.
As he sat in a chair across from me, Donnelly said he went back and read the article where I referred to Companion as “dead Mickey Mouse”. He had problems with it. “I thought ‘dead Mickey Mouse’? I don’t want to push your buttons, but I think he’s very much alive. “
Donnelly’s relationship with Companion is intense. Sometimes he would show me pictures of the character and affectionately refer to her as “that little guy” as if it were one of his children. (He has two daughters aged 4 and 7 with his wife, the artist Julia Chiang.) At one point I asked him directly if he thought it was a self-portrait. There are versions of Companion who cover their ears or eyes with their hands and say in a kind of Gen X mantra, “This won’t happen,” which seemed to sum up Donnelly’s relationship with the art world. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s very personal, but it’s not that I’m special,” he said. When he did the first, he said to me, “I didn’t think I would do a second.” He thought it was a one time thing. “And then it kind of developed, I don’t know.”