Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris
New York CityTina Kim Gallery
October 24 – December 7, 2019
The Korean painter Kim Tschang-Yeul is part of a generation that traveled outside East Asia in the 1960s and ’70s in order to develop a more universal approach to painting. In those decades, South Korea existed under a military dictatorship that offered its citizens—and specifically its artists—very little exposure to what was happening culturally in the Western world. There were, however, some artists who were interested in radical work, despite government repression and a lack of public interest. Kim was one such artist, as were his colleagues during this period, including Ha Chong-Hyun, Park Seo-Bo, and Lee Ufan—all figures who would eventually become linked to the Dansaekhwa ( Monochrome) movement of the 1970s. In general, however, conditions for Korean artists in the aftermath of the Korean War (1951-53) were not good, and even those most committed to avant-garde culture often moved abroad, where it was easier to participate in the global art world.
In most cases, the artists who traveled outside Korea would eventually return as political and economic conditions—and, hence, the quality of life—slowly improved. Two notable exceptions would be Kim Tschang-Yeul and Lee Ufan, who made the conscious decision to work primarily in Paris with outposts in either New York or, in the case of Lee Ufan, Tokyo. Michelle Yun has argued that for Kim, who maintains a traditional Korean perspective, life in post-war Paris was preferable to the bustling lifestyle associated with New York. In addition, the overwhelming visibility of Pop Art and Minimalist sculpture impeded Kim’s pursuit of his own idiosyncratic style. He was most attracted to paintings related to a late Art Informel approach—we see the fruits of this interest in the front room of Tina Kim Gallery. These works by Kim Tschang-Yeul show clearly that he was pursuing a direction of his own despite the trends that surfaced around him. This was not easily done in the atmosphere of the New York art world of the late 1960s.
According to the years they were painted, many of Kim’s more successful works, such as Composition (1969) painted in acrylic and cellulose lacquer on canvas, as well as another work also titled Composition (1969) and Composition (1970) which both use the same materials on burlap, were created in Paris. The repetition of the titles in these works is typical of Kim, and of the Korean aesthetic in general. Specific titles are rarely if ever used, and, instead, it is the title of what American art historians might refer to as “the series” that is repeated across many individual paintings until a new “series” commences.
In each of the paintings I have just referred to, there is a frontal and emblematic, albeit abstract, quality, in which a unified structure is built up in repeated rows of color. The canvas version of Composition (1969) for example reveals curve after curve, each placed vertically against the next in a loosely optical arrangement. Its compositional clarity is based on symmetry: Kim stacks three spherical forms in the center of the canvas. The color palette is limited to blue, white, and yellow, and the paint was applied by airbrush, a technique Kim would use frequently in the iconic “Water Drop” compositions he developed in Paris during the 1970s.
It is conceivable that the “Compositions” took something from William Seitz’s 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, which was mounted the same year Kim came to New York and showcased the optical effects produced by artists like Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley. However, Kim’s paintings could hardly be mistaken for Op Art—their optical effect is wedded to an atypical and fundamentally biomorphic perspective. Kim’s achievement is to combine the optical, which is usually linked to geometric compositions, with organic form. However, this does not mean the work is illustrative in any straightforward way. Although we might consider looking at Kim’s “Compositions” as metaphorical representations of the human intestine, as others have, it is their formal autonomy, removed from symbolic linkages to the body, that is most powerful. Although Kim discovered the structure that governs these paintings in New York, it reached its full fruition in Paris, shortly after the artist’s arrival in the late 1960s. However, Kim only continued to explore this approach for a short time—he quickly moved on to new experiments.
Paris is where Kim’s famous black paintings, such as Water Drops (1983) and Water Drops (1986), evolved. These works came over a decade after more brightly colored linen paintings, like Water Drops (1973), and the singular Water Drop (1976)—here again, Kim repeats the same title in many works and across many years. Over time, the motif of the water drop, with all of its variations and illusionist permutations (which often vary greatly in quality), has become a signature for Kim Tschang-Yeul. While many refer to the artist strictly in terms of this motif, after having seen enough of these works, one might question whether they had, in fact, run their course relatively early on. Nonetheless, for the past 50 years, the Water Drops have continued to attract the attention of eager collectors the world over, particularly in France. The value of Tina Kim’s exhibition is that it shows not only the rocky road the artist traversed to achieve this success, but also the great value of Kim’s early works, highlighting, in particular, the finest of the “Compositions” he produced as he became enmeshed in French culture.