Kim Whanki (1913-1974) Alternate Spellings: Kim Whan-ki or Kim Hwan-gi A pioneering Korean abstract artist, Kim Whanki blended Asian philosophies and practices with the influence of Western abstraction. A peripatetic artist who moved several times—from Korea, to Japan, to France and the United States—Kim developed a refined style filled with varied and enticing colors and patterns. Many of his works have suggestions of recognizable form and can be characterized as semi-abstract. Known for the reduced palette of his mature works, he has been called the “Godfather of Korean Monochrome.”
The only son of a prosperous farmer on the small island of Kijwa in South Korea, Kim grew up in comfortable circumstances. At the age of 19 he boarded a ship—without his father’s permission—to travel to Japan to study art. He first enrolled at Nishkishiro High School in Tokyo and then, from 1933 though 1936, he studied at the College of Arts at Nihon University. After serving as an assistant for one year, he returned to Korea in 1937. Upon his return he befriended a group of bohemian left-wing intellectuals that included the modernist poet Jeong Ji-Yong (1902-1950), the author Lee Tae-Joon (1904-1956) and the painter Kim Yong-Jun (1904-1967). While in Japan, Kim was exposed to new influences including the works of European modernists including Matisse and Picasso. He also studied the Cubist-influenced works of his Japanese mentors Togo Seiji and Fujita Tsuguji. In response to these influences, Kim moved towards abstraction, developing works that featured rhythmic, repeating shapes that often overlapped. These works were exhibited in Japan in the artist’s first solo show at the Amagi Gallery in Tokyo.
In the early 1940s Kim was connected with other modernist painters including Korea’s “Free Painters” and a group with members in Japan called the “Creative Artist’s Association.” Kim took part in the Korean branch of the CAA and participated in an exhibition it sponsored in Seoul alongside Japanese artists. By 1941 Kim left the CAA, partly due to political pressures. During WWII (1942-45) Kim collected and studied Yi Dynasty ceramic and wooden objects. These artifacts provided motifs for Kim’s art as his knowledge of and affection for ancient Korean art grew. Also inspired by nature and everyday life, Kim’s works evolved towards greater simplicity and refinement. During the Korean War (1951-53) Kim fled Seoul and lived in a refugee camp. These were years of anger and suffering, although Kim did complete some paintings. Upon his 1953 return to Seoul Kim developed paintings of jars and taught at the College of Fine Arts and Hongik University. He was the subject of a one-man show at the USIS Gallery and was honored by election to membership in the Korean Academy. In 1954 Kim moved to Paris, something he had been hoping to do for some time. Along with other Asian expatriate artists—including the Koreans Nam Kwan and Kim Heung-su—Kim took in the heady atmosphere of Paris and its incomparable museums. Still, the work he did there was based on familiar subjects: jars, mountains, deer and plum blossoms. The Chinese expatriate artist Zao Wou-ki, who was also living in Paris, once said “Cezanne made me more Chinese.” In similar fashion, Kim’s years in Paris helped put the Korean roots of his art and thought into high relief. When he returned to Seoul to serve as the Dean of an arts college in 1959 Kim felt limited and frustrated by his administrative duties and yearned to travel again. After serving as the commissioner of the São Paulo Biennial in, 1963 Kim moved to New York where he would live until 1974. He was homesick at first, but over time he became productive and the subjects of his work expanded to include cosmic themes and connections to sounds and music. Kim also took an interest in the expansive abstract canvases of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. He also experimented with papier-mâché, and painted on newspaper with oil paints. Kim’s use of dots—which would become an important element of his art—also began in New York. “Do the dots shine as brightly as the stars?” Kim once wrote. “When I close my eyes, I see the rivers and mountains of my country more clearly than the rainbows.” The paintings Kim created during this era, composed of numerous carefully applied dots of paint, contain subtle echoes of Korean landscapes and foliage drawn from the artist’s memories. Kim died at the age of 61 in New York City on July 25, 1974. He is memorialized by the Whanki Museum, a private art museum in Seoul, established by the Whanki Foundation in 1992 to exhibit and commemorate Kim’s art. SELECTED EXHIBITIONS 1974 22nd Private Exhibition in Shreveport Barnwell Gallery, New York (solo) 1973 21st Private Exhibition including masterpieces The Sky and Land, 100,000 Dots in Poindexter Gallery, New York (solo) 1970 Where, What have we become and met again, Gyeongbok Palace Gallery (solo) 1965 16th Private Exhibiton, Invited to the Special Exhibition Room of the 8th Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil (solo) 1964 15th Private Exhibition in Asia House Gallery, New York (solo) 1963 7th Sao Paulo Biennale as a representative painter of South Korea (group) 1959 11th Private Exhibition including paintiongs of Mountain and the Moon,Deer in the Moonlight, and Eternal song in National Information Center Gallery, Seoul, Korea (solo) 1958 10th Private Exhibition in Cluding paintings of Spring,The sky in Institute Gallery, Paris, France (solo) 1956 6th Private Exhibition in M.Benegite Gallery, Paris, France (solo) 1948 New-realist’ Exhibition in Whasin Gallery, Seoul (with Yoo Young Kuk , Lee Kyusang), Korea (group) 1937 First Private Exhibition in Amagi Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (solo)