I like the work I'll be painting from now on. Simple composition, the subtle color of blue - only I can create my world.
- Kim Whan-ki 1
Kim Whan-Ki is one of the most highly recognised pioneers of abstract painting in Korean modern art history. His peripatetic life-style, traveling from Korea, to Japan, to France and finally to America embodies his endless quest to develop and express a unique abstract painting style. Born in 1913 on a small island in Chungnam Province, Kim began his elementary education in Seoul, later transferring to Nishigishiro Middle School in Tokyo. When he returned to the island as a young man in 1932, his father expressed his strong objection to Kim’s desire to study art in college. The budding artist was not deterred and covertly secured passage to Japan so he could start attending classes in the Department of Fine Arts at Nihon University. While in Japan, Kim began to study European Modernism, reflecting upon the works of European geometric abstraction painters from Cubism to Neo Plasticism. He began to incorporate elements he admired from the work of artists such as Klee, Matisse, and Braque into his own painting. (Fig. 1 & 2) However, he always felt an urgency to liberate his Korean spirit from the strict Japanese academicism and the pronounced European influence prevalent in the art world he encountered at that time.
With his return to Korea in 1953, specifically during a sojourn in his hometown, Kim seriously began to delve into the issue of Korean aesthetics. Kim expanded his artistic experiments with varied Korean motifs—in particular with Joseon Dynasty white porcelains, Goryeo Dynasty celadon and traditional literati paintings. His interest was in capturing the poetic emotion and spirit imbued in both the naturalism and actual nature of Korea. To Kim, nature and tradition were one and the same. His way of depicting nature was to extract from motifs, such as clouds and cranes inlaid in Korean ceramic or plum blossoms in literary painting, in order to remold them as simplified forms in his own art.
Kim furthered his experimentation of Korean motifs during his study in Paris from 1956 to 1959. His affection for indigenous motifs grew even stronger after arriving in Paris. During this period, Kim continued to explore in depth various classical Korean motifs and landscapes, eventually schematizing them with simplified outlines and vibrant colour fields. In the realm of diaspora where subjectivity and the experience of being the cultural "other" underlies many interactions, Kim devoted himself to the very difficult question of how to accommodate or embrace mainstream culture, while still adhering to his own subjectivity. In this lifelong journey of artistic and personal development, Kim consistently set his identity in Korean traditional culture and natural landscapes.
After Kim arrived in New York in 1963, his brushwork swiftly evolved from the textured and well-worked surfaces of his earlier canvases to flat, smooth, ink-like expanses of color. Kim’s letters to his family and his journal entries from these early days in New York describe the artist’s sense of being overwhelmed by everything from Manhattan’s sky scrapers, which blocked out the light of the sun, to the voluminous Sunday edition of the New York Times. It is no wonder that Kim felt the need to bring what order and simplicity he could to his painting. In his journal on December 12, 1963 Kim wrote:
"I can’t work very well today because it’s overcast. It was snowing, but now it’s raining, which makes me feel terribly homesick for Korea. I can’t seem to separate my art from Seoul. I don’t like a single work I’ve done so far. I like the work I’ll be painting from now on. Simple composition, the subtle color of blue-only I can create my world. It’s getting darker outside"
4-X-69 #121 (Lot 2509) represents a mature work from Kim Whanki’s New York Period. Composed of a pristine turquoise field flanked by cerulean banks, the painting presents a complete departure from last vestiges of concrete figuration that Kim had held on to until this point. Despite its simplicity, the composition has a distinct luminosity and rhythm. One can imagine entering a meditative state while standing in front of the work—being submerged in the bottomless expanses of blue, contained on each end by a grey line and orderly row of multicolored island-like dots bobbing in an endless sea, bringing regulation to an otherwise vast and incomprehensible abyss. The delicate balance and modulation of color and shape calls to mind the seminal work of painter and Zen Buddhist monk, Muqi (Muqi Fachang, circa 1210-1269), Six Persimmons. (Fig. 3)
The process of 4-X-69 #121’s creation must have been therapeutic for Kim, the perfect antidote to crowded city life and a refuge from his crammed New York studio, barely 100 square feet in size. While the artist’s move to New York was largely motivated by his self-consciousness about his own insularity, it is hard to imagine that Kim’s deep-rooted longing for Seoul did not permeate these compositions which epitomize abstraction within his oeuvre. In 1970 Kim writes,
“Do the lines I draw go beyond the limit of the sky? Do the dots shine as brightly as the stars? When I close my eyes I see the rivers and mountains of my country more clearly than the rainbows.”
Despite traveling to the other side of the world to shed the restrictions of concrete figuration, perhaps Kim Whanki never truly released his grasp on the landscapes of his youth, continuing to draw inspiration from emblems of his homeland’s cultural history and forging a new path forward for Korean modern art with these tokens of his heritage in hand.
1 Kim Hyang-an, "Seoul Period: 1940-56, 1959-1963," Man is Gone But Art Remains, Dosuh Publishing, 1989, p. 30