Kim Whanki

Although the Korean painter Kim Whanki (1913–1974) spent significant portions of his career in Paris as well as in Seoul, this recent exhibition, entitled “Oeuvres inedites 1963–1973,” corresponded to a period when he lived and worked in New York. The show primarily consisted of works on paper, but it also included a dozen canvases dated circa 1968. As Yves Michaud points out in his catalogue essay, during these years Whanki was able to synthesize Western—or more specifically, American—abstract painting with the Asian sensibility in which his esthetic was rooted.

While Whanki’s earlier work remained tied to representational forms, as well as certain aspects of the School of Paris (Michaud remarks that Braque and Matisse, as well as Klee, were among Whanki’s early models), in New York he reduced his pictorial vocabulary to a few basic abstract elements, primarily dots and lines. One assumes that he had been impressed by the vibrant color and formal clarity of the work of artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland—and perhaps the dot paintings of Larry Poons as well—but there are some fundamental differences. For one thing, Whanki used highly diluted oil paint, which suggests that, thin as his paint may be, he did not aim at pure opticality, as the paint retained slightly more “body,” more separation from the weave of the canvas, than the acrylics or magna used by the American stain painters. This in itself indicates how far Whanki stood from any strict purism. A more profound difference lies in the temporality of his paintings. With Louis and Noland there is an all-at-once aspect to the painting’s impact—that instantaneousness prized by Clement Greenberg—whereas in Whanki’s case there is always an implicit sense of movement and development. In each of the 12 paintings in this show, for instance, a series of curved forms seemed to slowly emanate or seep out from the center, as a result of a primal division of the canvas into equal quadrants by intersecting blue lines. These areas of color can hardly be called forms, since they appear more as indexical records of where a quantity of paint stopped spreading than contained and conclusive shapes.

While the paintings tempt one to see Whanki above all as a colorist, the notebook drawings reveal the underlying preoccupation to be a nonsensuous dialectic of movement and stasis. In the paintings this dialectic is embodied in color relations, but it can also be traced through the interactions of a few scattered pencil strokes. Not exactly “gestural,” Whanki’s mark carries energy and direction but little sense of individuation. Instead, as Michaud explains, it “concentrates on nearly imperceptible effects of modulation applied to the surface treated as a whole,” which is to say, the mark tends to affect the bounded visual field of the page, or the canvas, in ways that could not have been predetermined, but rather can only be perceived. This is all the more the case in those drawings that are densely packed with marks—parallel lines, straight or curved, breaking off suddenly or abruptly changing direction. One thinks of the way, in a child’s science experiment, iron filings placed on a sheet of paper align themselves to reveal the otherwise invisible field of a magnet held underneath. Strangely, these denser drawings are hardly different in feeling from Whanki’s most concise pages, as though the same modulations of the field are only being made more explicit, in a more finely detailed way.

Barry Schwabsky