Kim started with abstraction in the 1930s. A fresh graduate of the Fine Arts Department of Nihon University in Tokyo, he was given his first solo show by Amagi Gallery in 1937. To gain any exposure to European modernism it was imperative to study in Japan, where artists who had worked abroad were now teaching back home, as Kim himself was to do in Seoul at the National University in the late 40s and at Hong-Ik University in the 1950s. Foreign travel was strictly limited by the Korean authorities until the 1980s--a constraint that intensified competition among Korean artists to participate in a handful of international expositions, the principal being Sao Paulo, and that made it all the more difficult to secure international recognition and sponsorship.
During the Pacific War, Kim painted little, instead writing for the literary journal Munjang (Essay). The artist maintained friendships with authors, musicians and poets as well as painters. In the 1950s he began to extract imagery from the Korean landscape--a blue moon, a mountain, a forest--a symbolic naturalism in keeping with post-colonial nationalism and the art name he chose, Suhwa, "to speak with the trees." Detractors would say that the work's serene world ignored the realities of modern life. In New York, Kim would nurture new hybrids by grafting the spirit of his naturalism to his abstract roots.
Kim moved to New York in 1963 direct from the 7th Sao Paulo Biennale, where he represented Korea and won Honorable Mention for painting. Helped by a Rockefeller Foundation grant for one year, he was able to take stock of the city's lively art community. Kim was put off by the commercialism and vapidity he saw in much of American abstract and Pop art, striving to invest his non-narrative work with the emotive power of poetry and music. In Korea, Kim was creating a sensation with the work he shipped back, particularly as an artist in his late 50s still breaking new ground. In New York, he was making a name for himself, gradually securing gallery representation and critical support. Kim's fifteenth solo exhibition took place at Asia House Galleries in 1964 and his twenty-first, "100,000 Dots," at Poindexter Gallery in 1973.
Kim's work has been showing continuously in the Americas, Europe and East Asia for seven decades, including two special exhibitions at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1965 and 1977 and retrospectives on the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth, twenty-fifth and thirtieth anniversaries of his death in 1974.