New York

Byron Kim

Max Protetch

The fascination of Byron Kim’s work has always been the way it held its two contrary tendencies, sensualism and conceptualism, in unresolved tension. Feeling has always been packaged in an idea—more specifically, in a voguish topos like the body (Kim’s early “Belly” paintings) or racial and cultural identity (his monochrome “portraits” of skin tones and the surfaces of Korean celadon pottery, respectively). But feeling and concept never quite merged, and this has given Kim’s paintings a sense of constriction, as if sentiment were prematurely cutting off cognition, ideation unduly restraining emotion. Even the modest scale of most of Kim’s efforts seemed like an effect of this constraint, as though he were limiting his art to the scale of an idea rather than risk anything as boundless as imagination or as nebulous as thought. More recently he’s shown some extremely long horizontal paintings on paper, in which two bands of color create a horizon, but even there one felt a deliberate limiting of the field of vision, which seemed to frame what the eyes would take in if one looked from side to side without being permitted to look up or down.

Now, with the large square or nearly square skyscapes in “The Sky Is Blue” (all works 2001), Kim seems to have shed his inhibitions about indulging in the pleasures of light and hue for their own sake. The paintings’ hovering masses of pale color, sometimes separated into two or three bands but always blending and separating almost imperceptibly, surely owe something to Brice Marden, and Rothko perhaps even more. But there is none of Rothko’s too-richness—the troubled, tragic note beneath his work’s sumptuousness. Instead, a mildly euphoric, possibly anesthetized serenity reigns, along with a kind of nostalgia for structurelessness. Only one canvas, 43,500, has any noticeable feeling of dynamic diagonal motion in it. The others are all about hovering and billowing softness.

A fastidious painter of my acquaintance complained that Kim’s technique in these works was loose to the point of sloppiness. To me, that looseness is a big part of their charm, as it lends their surfaces a liveliness that’s unavailable to paintings as intensely focused on their own effects as those of Rothko or even early Marden. It also helps them evoke something of the transitory quality of the weather—the sense of rapidly changing conditions that a static form like painting is not supposed to be able to show. I like the freedom and expansiveness of these paintings. They’re the best Kim has done. Does that mean good riddance to his former ambition to conceptualize his work? I hope not. Just a hint of the old tension might have given these paintings the weight that would balance, not hut, their exquisite lightness.

Barry Schwabsky