The artist in his New York studio in 1972. Photo and artworks © Whanki Foundation-Whanki Museum

Kim Whanki — a pioneer of Korean abstraction

A new collector’s guide to the Korean artist who is regarded as the godfather of the monochrome movement, Dansaekhwa. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Kim Whanki (1913-1974) is hailed as one of the pioneers of abstract painting in Korea. His peripatetic lifestyle, which saw him move from his homeland to Japan, France and finally to America, reflects his quest to develop and express a unique abstract painting style.

On 23 November, 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) (1971), one of his greatest paintings, will be offered as a highlight of the Autumn 2019 auction season at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Appearing at auction for the very first time, the work is the only diptych in Kim’s oeuvre, and his largest painting.

Kim was born into a family of wealthy landowners on the small island of Kijwa in South Korea. Having decided to become an artist against his father’s wishes, he secretly boarded a vessel bound for Japan so he could attend the Department of Fine Arts at Nihon University. It was there that he discovered European Modernism — Cubism and Fauvisme — and became fascinated by the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Kim Whan-Ki (1913-1974), 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), 1971. Oil on cotton (diptych). Each panel 254 x 127 cm (100 x 50 in); overall 254 x 254 cm (100 x 100 in). Estimate  HK$48,000,000-62,000,000. Offered in the 20th Century and Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 23 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Artwork © Whanki Foundation-Whanki Museum

Kim Whan-Ki (1913-1974), 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), 1971. Oil on cotton (diptych). Each panel: 254 x 127 cm (100 x 50 in); overall: 254 x 254 cm (100 x 100 in). Estimate: HK$48,000,000-62,000,000. Offered in the 20th Century and Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 23 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Artwork © Whanki Foundation-Whanki Museum

Kim Whanki founded an avant-garde art movement

When Kim returned to Seoul in 1937 he fell in with 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). These activists were to have a profound influence on the young artist.

According to Christie’s specialist Yunah Jung, in the early 1940s Kim founded the radical movement New Realists with the painters Yoo Young-Kuk (1916-2002) and Lee Gyu-Sang. The artists sought to articulate the essence of nature through abstract art.

Kim was the group’s charismatic focal point and a natural writer, outlining its aesthetic philosophy in poems and essays for art magazines. 

‘Do the lines I draw go beyond the limit of the sky?’ he wrote in one. ‘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.’

He fell in love with a poet

With the death of his father in 1942, Kim was able to extract himself from the unhappy marriage he had been forced into by his family and marry the young widow of the boy genius Lee Sang (1910-1937) — a poet and polymath who had died of tuberculosis at 27.

His second wife was the prodigiously talented writer Byun Dong-Rim, who took the name Kim Hyang-An when they married. Later, in the 1970s, she published a series of essays about her life with the artist.

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Kim and Hyang-An fled Seoul for the south, living in a refugee camp while trying to get word of their friends. Jeong Ji-Yong was imprisoned for his Marxist sympathies and later died in jail, while Kim Yong-Jun and Lee Tae-Joon escaped by defecting to North Korea. 

In 1953, Kim returned to Seoul and began teaching at the college of Fine Arts, at Hongik University. Lee Tae-Joon, however, disappeared sometime around 1956, and was presumed to have been killed.

Kim Whan-Ki in his New York studio in 1971. 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe)  is partially visible in the background. Photo and artwork © Whan-Ki Foundation-Whan-Ki Museum

Kim Whan-Ki in his New York studio in 1971. 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe)  is partially visible in the background. Photo and artwork: © Whan-Ki Foundation-Whan-Ki Museum

Kim studied in Paris before moving to New York

Between 1956 and 1959, Kim and his wife lived in Paris, and this short yet prodigious period witnessed an artistic flourishing. He continued to explore various classical Korean motifs and landscapes, but began to simplify them using thick outlines and vibrant colour fields. It was also during this period that his signature blue palette began to appear.

In 1963 the couple moved to the United States on a Rockefeller scholarship, and settled in New York. It was a bold move, says Christie’s Seoul-based Vice-President Yunah Jung: ‘It is quite amazing that Kim rejected the security of life as a professor and established artist in his homeland in order to fully commit to his avant-garde experiments.’

The first few years in the city were tough. In 1964 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 colour of blue — only I can create my world. It’s getting darker outside.’

The artist was fortunate to be surrounded by a group of highly articulate young Korean expats, including the Fluxus video artist Nam-June Paik (1932-2006), painter Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929) and the sculptor Han Yong-Jin (b. 1934), whom he encouraged to find a synthesis between Eastern and Western culture.

He was influenced by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman

During his New York period, Kim explored a variety of materials and techniques, including gouache, sand mixed with oil paint, oil on newspaper, collage and papier mâché.

He also came into contact with many of the greats of Modern American painting. Through Adolph Gottlieb, he was introduced to Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and it was these Color Field artists who inspired the Korean to start creating large monochrome canvases covered in mosaic-like dots.

At first glance, these worked can be easily mistaken for Western geometric abstraction. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the origin of these lines and dots are the shapes of mountains, trees, or the little islands found throughout the Korean landscape.

Kim Whan-Ki photographed in 1972, sitting in front of 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe). The work was purchased directly from the artist by close friends, Mr. Matthew Kim and Ms. Chae Kum Kim, and has resided in their private collection for the past 40 years. Photo and artwork © Whan-Ki Foundation — Whan-Ki Museum

Kim Whan-Ki photographed in 1972, sitting in front of 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe). The work was purchased directly from the artist by close friends, Mr. Matthew Kim and Ms. Chae Kum Kim, and has resided in their private collection for the past 40 years. Photo and artwork: © Whan-Ki Foundation — Whan-Ki Museum

In 1971, the artist presented one of his greatest works, 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), which is offered for sale in Hong Kong on 23 November. Jung explains that it was painted with a thin calligraphic brush in the manner of traditional Asian ink paintings and ‘epitomises the peak of both spiritual and technical maturity in Kim’s “Pointillist” works’.

The godfather of Korean monochrome

According to the specialist, in order to create these works the artist had to stand for many hours and look down upon a canvas laid on a table, bending over to mark each calligraphic dot while carefully controlling the paint with a thin ink brush.

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This painstaking, labour-intensive process gradually damaged Kim’s spine and by 1974, he was forced to seek treatment. Sadly, he failed to recover from spinal surgery, and died at the age of 61.

At the time of his death, Kim was already recognised as a pioneer of abstract art in Korea. Yet since 2015, the value of his paintings has risen sharply. The reason? ‘He is the godfather of Korean monochrome art,’ says Jung. ‘Without him, Dansaekhwa might never have happened.’