(Korean, 1913-1974)
signed 'Whanki' in English (lower right)
oil and sand on canvas
85 x 60 cm. (33 1/2 x 23 7/8 in.)
Painted circa 1965
Sale room notice
Please note the correct dimensions should be: 85 x 60 cm. (33 1/2 x 23 7/8 in.).

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Lot Essay

The nomadic life scope of Kim Whan-Ki, spanning Japan, France and America, is an archetypical example of the diasporic identity that is a cornerstone of Korean Modern Art history. Like many other modern Korean artists, Kim first encountered Western abstract art indirectly in Japan. Under Japanese academicism, Kim delved into geometric abstraction of Cubism and Fauvism, experimenting with the colours as solid compositional forms. However, he went further to liberate his Korean spirit away from Japanese training, and thereby profoundly extended his artistic capacity with a new autonomy. He began his artistic experiments with varied Korean motifs, especially summoning the significance of the stark splendor of baekja, Joseon Dynasty ceramics, finding limitless inspiration in their austere and regal beauty. As described in his poetic notation, "round sky, round jar/blue sky, white jar they are surely one pair," nature and tradition were the same thing to him. His way of depicting nature was to take excerpts from the patterns or scenes found in cloud or crane paintings inlaid in celadon or folding screens and re-mold them as abstracted forms in his own art.
In 1956, Kim departed for Paris with the intention of gaining direct exposure to Western art. Here stayed there for three years, a period which saw the advent of a newly flourishing artistic ingenuity. His affection for indigenous motifs ironically grew stronger after arriving in Paris. In this period, Kim continued to explore in depth varied typical Korean motifs and landscapes and eventually schematizing them with simplified outlines and vibrant color-fields. In the realm of Diaspora where subjectivity and the experience of being cultural "other" underlies many interaction, 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 life-long journey of artistic and personal development, Kim consistently set his identity in Korean traditional culture and natural landscapes.

Kim's artistic achievements are further elucidated, when compared with those of Zao Wou-Ki. Both of these key figures of modern Asian art shared a genuine native consciousness and parallel personal trajectory. Starting from their artistic practices influenced by European modern art, they both reached ultimate level of originality with a unique style of pure abstraction that still contains traces of their mother lands. Without any exchange between them, their evolution as artists nonetheless followed parallel tracks, with both artists thinning their oils into softer washes, akin to ink, a move reinforced their Eastern roots, imbuing a subtle grace to their works. They both also had a nomadic life from Paris to New York, and imparted the harmony of East and West to modern Asian art, maintaining rich cultural implication of their origins, while nevertheless breaking through the linguistic barriers and the cultural chasm between East and West, further bestowing a deeper insight into their identity. Sharing similar aesthetic poetry as Zao, Kim emphasized harmony in colour and pattern, the flowing charm of Eastern ink paintings. Painting a nature of his own, Kim's works eliminated conventional representation fully after his move to America in 1963, working instead in large colour grids reminiscent of the logical aesthetics of Piet Mondrian.

Untitled (Lot 2006) was produced in his early New York period (1963-1974). Discarding his secure life as a professor in Korea, Kim permanently left his motherland and settled in New York, in order to break free of his familiar environment and to continue his avant-garde experiments. During this period, he explored a variety of materials and techniques, including gouache, sand mixed with oil paint, oil on newspaper, collage, and papier-mache. Untitled is a result of these artistic experiments and one of best examples using the combined materials of sand and oil. In this painting, he simplified his schematized patterns of Korean landscape by employing O-Bang-Saek(), five traditional Korean colors. He attempts to convey a message of hope to a postwar generation, locating a vibrant yellow round center that evokes within the viewer the image of a rising sun. It has been said that Joan Miro's 'poetry paintings' decisively condensed the dialogues between poetry and art; Kim's work, with seemingly singing colours, could very well match those of Miro's. Our eyes are seized by breathtakingly vibrant colours of the patterns at first, then, with a close contact, we are even more amazed by the maturity of his brushstrokes. They are powerful and uncontrived, reflecting his long pursuit of the traditional Korean value of naturalness. Effortlessly employing O-Bang-Saek in the modern era demonstrates Kim's long-standing desire to fuse these two aesthetic and philosophical traditions with an advanced level of refinement. The maturity of his brushstrokes is a powerful achievement, evoking within us his painful struggle to reach that perfect naturalness. The painting also gains historical importance, explicitly presenting a transition to his next stage of lyrical, pure abstraction, grounded by a horizontal line composed with several dots upper part of the painting.

Through his constant effort to deconstruct and simplify forms during the late 1960s, the artist's own approach to so-called 'pointillism' began to appear in his works in the 1970s. At first glance, we can easily mistake them with Western geometric abstraction. Close inspection reveals, however, that the origin of all lines and dots is that of the common shapes of mountains, trees, or little islands which can be found throughout the Korean landscape. It is crucial to understand that his lyrical abstraction, drawn from nature, aims to return to nature. Kim has summarized this journey: "art is not an aesthetic, philosophical, or literary theory. It just exists like sky, mountain, and stone." Kim took his artistic origin from Korean landscape and through his long journey through Western abstraction, returned to it again with the profound and unique language of Korean modernism.

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