Success lasts long after the first drop

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Success lasts long after the first drop

For the past 30 years, Kim Tschang-yeul has been doing the same thing: painting water drops. Now 73, Kim has to keep up with brisk demand for those water drops from art lovers around the world. In a little more than a year, Kim will be honored with a two-month-long exhibition at the National Gallery of Jeu de Paume, a Paris museum dedicated to contemporary art. Kim will be the second Korean artist to exhibit there; Lee U-fan, the Korean installation artist based in Japan, had a show five years ago.

Although Kim's water drops may appear clear and definitive, he does not like to characterize his art as trompe l'oeil. His water drop paintings create illusions that can be viewed as meditative. The innumerable drops can transport you into the depth of a Taoist state of mind, a world that is empty and colorless. Thousands of water drops set on a simple space can "express the vast world of nirvana," says Gerard Barriere, the French art critic. At a current exhibition in southern Seoul, Kim is showing three distinct types of his water drop paintings: a series of hyperrealistic water drops on bare canvas, a series of painted water drops on Chinese calligraphic poetry called "Recurrence," and a new series, painted water drops on monotone oil paintings.

Kim lives in two different places in France: Montparnasse in Paris and Draguignan in the south of France, with his French wife Martin. Once or twice a year he comes to his northern Seoul home in Pyeongchang-dong and stays for about two months. Recently he was back, doing last-minute touch-ups for 20 paintings being exhibited at Galerie Bhak in southern Seoul this week.

His Seoul home, built in the 1980s above the green ravines of Bugak Mountain, is a three-story building that he told the architect Woo Gyu-seung to "build like a cave so I can live like a barbarian." The house descends 17 meters from the entrance on the top floor to the underground bottom floor. Unlike the mansions found nearby, his south-facing spacious studio has no windows, but uses skylights that allow natural rays into a white space with a high ceiling. The sweet odor of benzene and cool moisture hang in the air despite the fans that work to keep the air circulating. His familiar paintings lean against walls and are propped in corners. Half-used gouache tubes, old paintbrushes and tear-shaped paper stencils lay idly in wooden boxes. Steps are everywhere. You must walk up a few steps to get to his work table, a few more to get to the kitchen, and dozens more to get to the porch.

Kim moves slowly and says, with a few pauses, that he doesn't like to talk. When he closes his mouth firmly, his steady gaze intensifies. With his white beard and wild eyebrows, he looks more like a sansin, an image of a Korean mountain spirit, than a Korean painter living in Paris. And the faint chirping noise of swallows and occasional cries of crows in the background give his home more the feeling of a temple than of a studio.

The three-story home is shared with his younger brother Chang-hwal's family. The younger Kim is unabashedly proud of his brother's achievements. A translator of Korean and French literature, he recalls the title of an article featuring his brother's works about 30 years ago in an art magazine. "The wise man from the Orient," he beams. "He can draw God's teardrops!"

Kim Tschang-yeul was born in 1929 in the small farming town of Maengsan in North Korea. The first of three sons of a well-to-do family, he spent a lot of time with his grandfather, a Confucian scholar, who taught him to read the Chinese classics. Kim says his "Recurrence" series of Chinese calligraphic poetry that he began in the '90s was inspired by his childhood. "Some people think those classics are outdated or too difficult, but I find them very familiar and close to my heart," he explains. "They remind me of my own roots and family."

During the Korean War, when he was 12, his family moved to Seoul and then to Jeju Island to escape the fighting. Later, he went to the prestigious Seoul National University to pursue a career in art, a field considered quite unpromising in those days.

After graduating, he was able to travel overseas, an option closed to most Koreans at that time. He went to New York in 1966 after being selected by the Rockefeller Foundation to study art there. At the time, America was all about pop art. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Jones ruled the scene. "I went on a tour of American galleries and art schools, but everyone was following the same style," he says, adding that the atmosphere was highly promotional and commercial.

Instead of the scheduled one year, he ended up staying in New York for four and a half years. He showed his paintings to curators at less-regarded galleries, but they shook their heads and told him, "You should have come here four years ago." He was doing not what was sought after in America but what was new in Korea, a style called "informel" that was popular in the post-war era and tried to evoke spontaneity, looseness of form and the irrational.

Kim fell on tough times. He picked up part-time jobs to pay the rent; he drew airbrushed lightning designs for $1.70 per hour. He painted the facade of a rich client's home at $10 per hour. But his future in New York looked grim.

Kim considers this period of his life a "dark age" during which he was lost. When the stress mounted, he got together with fellow Korean artists who lived in the city. Among them were Paik Nam-june and the late Kim Hwan-ki. Both, like Kim, also became successful in the international art scene decades later. They bought whiskey, gin, or whatever they could find in the local market and drank all night in their homes. Kim would tell his friends that he would one day retire on Jeju Island, a place good for a painter.

The Rockefeller Foundation gave him another grant, $7,200 for one year, asking him to work in Korea as a promoter of American art. With that money and some savings, he decided to head home, but he went to Paris instead. He wanted to see more of the world, he says, before returning home, and the decision proved to be life-altering.

During his stay in New York City, he did not speak a word of English, so his life there was a "nightmare," he says with a chuckle. But after a short stay in Paris he decided to stay there and devoted two years to studying French. He lived and worked in a horse stall-turned-atelier on the outskirts of Paris. He says with regret that his early works have mostly been lost: "In the '60s and early '70s, paintings had no value, and artists weren't respected. No one tried to keep them."

Paris at the time was in a period of enlightenment for modern art. Many American artists like Andy Warhol came there to experiment with new styles and mingle with the intelligentsia. Kim toured Paris galleries, gained confidence and decided to continue his first series.

Then in 1972, he made a discovery. What used to be white water spots that looked like bullet holes on the canvas became rounder and harder masses, and looked more like mothballs. Then those balls pressed against each other to form more organic shapes. He imagined those shapes to be transparent. Then he sprayed water drops on the canvas and observed them with a new eye. They reflected the morning sun and had a colorful sheen. The color, shape and composition had the potential, he mused, to become a beautiful work of art.

Soon thereafter, a Frenchwoman named Martine, then an art instructor, fell in love with the small Asian man who dedicated his heart and soul to creating perfect water drops. In time, they were married. Then Kim would ask his wife's cousin to take pictures of water drops. He used an airbrush and stencils to create that impression of water drops he had seen that morning. His hyperrealistic paintings were born.

In 1974, a series of 20 water drop paintings was displayed as the backdrop of a Knoll furniture show. Salvadore Dali and Catherine Deneuve came by -- in the visitor's book they left the unknown artist a compliment: "Superb!" He got calls from second and third grade galleries. By then, he and Martine had two children ?he had to work. He signed exclusive contracts with two galleries in Germany and Belgium. Since then, the galleries have arranged four exhibitions per year worldwide for him, so he has held scores of exhibitions.

The rave review his brother mentioned in Art International magazine, which was written soon after the furniture shop show, led to exhibitions at the prestigious Staempfli Gallery in New York. He feels he owes the art magazine a debt for his initial success. "Art reviews can bring indirect effects, and reviews do help the artist," he says. Did he get any bad reviews? He says he has heard: "Kim Tschang-yeul knows only one thing, drawing water drops. That's all he does."

In 1976, he was invited to hold an exhibition in Korea by Hyundai Gallery, then a new gallery. All of his paintings were sold out before they were even hung on the wall.

He credits Korea's art rush in the 1970s and the organizer of the show at the gallery for that success. "The clever curator knew how to market the artist," Kim says. "She created a speculative mood. She would invite the wealthiest client first and drop the names of famous art collectors so that there was a competition among art buyers."

Dividing his time between Paris and Seoul, he became one of Korea's richest artists overnight. "Few people owned cars then, but I was an artist who drove a car," he says grinning, as he pretends to handle a steering wheel.

The strong demand compelled him to think bigger and make larger paintings. That brought a change in style, and he adopted an impressionistic approach. Instead of machine-spraying to make precision drops, he drew to give defined shapes and strong contrasts. "And there was a health reason," Kim adds. "If I had kept on using the airbrush, I'd be dead by now. Even if I wore a mask, the gas was too toxic."

For variety and dramatic effect, he has also delved into installation art with the same theme. He has created works such as large water drops made of crystal, or a steel box filled with water, to give other meanings to water drops. For the Paris exhibition, he plans to make one large water drop on a sand pyramid and smaller water drops set on patinated copper wires.

So how does it feel to be one of Korea's representatives artists today? "I've felt guilty because I thought my work was not wholesome," Kim says. "I was always in the process of improving my paintings."

Success is gratifying for Kim; he can brush aside the criticism that he does nothing but water drops. He can take heart in having endured hardship overseas and returned to help shape a dynamic Korean art scene. "It's ironic," he says, "my friends who were doing much better than me in the old days are struggling now. One painter I've known for years didn't have cash to pay for photos of his own paintings, so he tried to pay with one of his sketches, and the owner of the photo shop got angry. All my friends envy me now."

His friends must at least envy what Kim gets for his works. An 81-by-116-centimeter painting that sold for about 3,000-4,000 francs (about $600-800) in 1974, now may cost more than $17,000.

With his upcoming show at the National Gallery of Jeu de Paume in Paris, Kim says he wishes he could somehow pay back those who had faith in him. Indeed, he says, he has been lucky in his life as an artist: "Koreans believe that the spirits of their ancestors help them prosper. I'm not sure if I believe that, but I do know that someone out there has helped me a great deal."

by Inēs Cho

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