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In Minds Of: Kim Whanki

Unveiling the figure of Kim Whanki


Kim Whanki at his New York Studio in NYC, 1972. ©Whanki Foundation·Whanki Museum.

Kim Whanki is one fundamental artist to know: not only because he is a central figure of Korean modernism, but also because his legacy is still carried on today. Driven by an experimental spirit, the artist lived and worked in Seoul, Tokyo, Paris, and New York. The result of this continuous merging of global stimuli and experiences unfolds in the entire scope of his art, where Korean tradition and spirit meet the incredible experimental years of Western art in post-war times. In the following interview, we explore the pivotal elements of his figure and steps of his career that have contributed to his status as a modern master. Additionally, we explore his wife Kim HyangAn’s fundamental role in ensuring that his legacy would be carried out in the most conspicuous way. One of her important contributions has been the establishment of the Whanki Museum in the heart of Seoul, whose structure hosts an extensive collection of the artist’s oeuvre, alongside a series of important programs to continue the Kims’ wishes of supporting art in every way. 

Through the conversation with the Whanki Museum director, SeungLee Paik, we delve into the important work of the institution, as well as unveiling the figure of Kim Whanki.

Exhibition installation view, The Centennial Celebration of Kim Whanki’s Birth, 2013, Whanki Museum. ©Whanki Foundation·Whanki Museum.

Valentina Buzzi: Arriving at the museum, an aspect that touched me immediately was its location: surrounded by nature, near Bugaksan(one of Seoul’s majestic mountains) central but far enough from the bustling metropolitan landscape to allow a meditative experience. I would love to start this conversation by asking you if this choice of location was directly linked to Kim Whanki’s fundamental relationship with nature, and if you could guide us in exploring this special bond. 

Paik Seung Lee: I believe there is no artist that deeply thought and felt nature as much as Kim Whanki. He was born on a small island by the blue sea and had lived in an area of Seoul surrounded by mountains. He even tried to be close to nature when he moved to New York, the most bustling city in the world. And this close relationship with nature was strongly reflected in his paintings as well, through the motifs of the mountains, the moon, water, and–of course–the strong presence of blue. It seemed natural the idea that the Museum should have embodied and reflected this important bond. Additionally, the decision to open the Whanki Museum in this precise location was made by his wife Kim HyangAn, reflecting their personal history of marrying and settling in Seongbukdong, a village near Bugaksan. 


VB: It is so interesting to get acquainted with these various sides of Kim Whanki’s figure, which go beyond his role as an artist and enriched him exponentially. And when it comes to his art as well, he is not accredited as an ordinary artist. I read that many acknowledge him as a “natural born artist,” alluding to his capacity to practice art without boundaries… 

PSL: When Kim Whanki’s friends recalled him, they often described how he would always carry his brush around. He was someone who would work in his studio all the time, from early morning to night, except for meal breaks. You know, before he moved to New York in 1963, he was already widely acknowledged as a prominent painter in Korea. However, when he arrived in the city, he re-started his career once again to find new ways of doing art. For instance, he started testing the characteristics of color pigmentation on Korean paper or newspapers and made objects with paper clay. He was extremely brave to devote himself fully to art, and his renowned abstract paintings–such as the dot painting series–are the results of his infinite experimentations on composition, technique, materials, and so on. 


VB: And prior to New York, he had already visited Tokyo and Paris. How do you think these experiences shaped his practice? And I wonder how he would relate to the Korean element of his work during all these encounters with different artistic environments across the globe. 

PSL: If I had to describe Kim Whanki in a few words, I would say that his work embodied the beauty of both Asian and Western culture with continuous challenge and endeavor. He studied and acted as the front runner of the avant-garde movement in Tokyo and worked in Paris and New York respectively in the ‘50s and ‘60s-’70s, when modern art was incubated and then flourished. It seemed that he tried to learn new ways of doing art while always trying to keep his identity as a Korean artist whenever he was. We could say that he experienced a constant flow of references and stimuli, which resulted in endless dialogues between East and West. Today, the audience still discovers a warm feeling in his moon jar painting, silent sentiments in [his] mountain and the moon painting, and Asian philosophies in his dot painting. However, when they look at his abstract art, there’s an inevitable Western influence in it. 

Kim Whanki at his Île Saint-Louis atelier, 1957, Paris. ©Whanki Foundation·Whanki Museum.

VB: Could you share with us one of his poems that you find representative of his lyrical universe and this connection between art forms?

PSL: Of course, let me share with you line

On rainy mornings, 

I make the effort to take a tram before the rush hour.

The floor of the tram is cleaner before the rush hour, 

the number of passengers is just right for a piece I am working on.

Umbrellas dripped with rainwater,

thin, thickly, briefly, constantly, fast, and slowly, rainwater runs. 

It depends on how long they have been on the tram. 

Rainwater flows with its own speed and rhythm.

The streams come and go, run straight or bend, meet then separate.

In such accidental cooperation, I find a wonderfully beautiful composition.

I go back to the spirit of painting, 

even feeling some musical harmony.


VB: I feel like Kim Whanki’s figure is so dense and nuanced that even through this conversation we are just grasping the surface of his genius. It leads me to wonder about what you would recognize as a fundamental element of Kim Whanki’s work…Let’s say, something that you think left a strong legacy in art history.  

PSL: I think one pivotal element can be seen in his avant-garde spirit, a feature that makes an artist think and explore without borders or boundaries. In addition, his abstract paintings are so unique, and very distanced from other modern artists in Korean art history. 


VB: His abstract art, the dot painting, and in particular the Universe series, are acknowledged to be Kim Whanki’s magna opera. There is a certain lyricism in this body of work that connects with the aspects we just discussed, such as his continued experimentation, the transversal approach to art itself, and its relation to poetry. I would love to ask you if you could tell us more about the Universe works present at the museum, and how they sublimate Kim’s artistic practice itself. 

PSL: The museum has beheld important dot paintings of his New York period from 1963 to 1974, which was regarded as the zenith of his abstract art. The Universe 5-IV-71 #200 by Kim Whanki is one of the most well-known paintings among Koreans that was made in this period. This work consists of two-panel paintings covered with blue dots and it reminds us of two bipolar energies on earthas yin and yang thought in Asiacirculated in heaven. When he completed this painting, he wrote down: “Thinking [of] my family and friends who were left in Korea, I put a dot.” A crystal of longing is condensed in every dot, and this immersion and feeling of unity in his dot painting makes it of sublime aesthetic.  

Air and Sound I 2-X-73 #321, oil on cotton, 264x208cm. ©Whanki Foundation·Whanki Museum.
14-XII-71 #217, 1971, oil on cotton, 291x210cm. ©Whanki Foundation·Whanki Museum.

VB: The Universe series, alongside his poetry, are a constant recall to his relationship with music and this idea of universal lyricism. In fact, I cannot imagine the works of Kim Whanki without connecting them with this element. I know in New York he was constantly surrounded by music, and I am curious to ask you more about this aspect. 

PSL: It is interesting because when he worked in New York City, he lived in the Sherman Square Studio supported by the Rockefeller 3rd Fund. According to his journal, he was the only painter who lived in that building. Whanki wrote about his love for music and literature often, and he seemed to think that the basis of all these art forms is the same. In one of his writing[s], he said: “When I work alone with music, sometimes I weep. Music, literature, dance, theaterall these art forms make you weep, but not painting. Is it not possible to paint a picture that makes people weep” (Kim Whanki, January 26, 1968). Maybe, he believed that an important role of artin every iterationis touching the heart and soul. 

This story is from Issue Five.