Retrospective shows Kim Whanki’s journey : Daegu Art Museum offers tour of painter’s different periods

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Retrospective shows Kim Whanki’s journey : Daegu Art Museum offers tour of painter’s different periods


A visitor looks at two of Korean painter Kim Whanki’s so-called dot paintings, or large abstract paintings that he created in his New York period (1963-74), at a retrospective at the Daegu Art Museum in the southeastern city of Daegu. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

DAEGU - After another abstract painting by modern art master Kim Whanki (1913-74) set a new record for prices of Korean modern artworks auctioned on Sunday afternoon, the artist’s name became one of the most searched words on the nation’s biggest internet portal, Naver.

Netizens wrote a mix of comments about news articles reporting that Kim’s 1972 abstract painting “03-II-72 #220” fetched 62 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.9 million) at Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong sale. The comments ranged from, “A painting just full of red dots is worth that price? I can never understand the art world” to “Just go and see any of Kim’s works. If you knew his art better, you would think even this price is low.”

Luckily, a large-scale retrospective of Kim recently started at the Daegu Art Museum in the southeastern city. “We have organized this exhibition to help the general public understand the oeuvre of Kim Whanki, who pioneered Korean abstract art and led the globalization of Korean art,” Choi Sung-hoon, director of the municipal museum, said in a press preview last week.

The exhibition features 108 paintings and drawings by Kim as well as documents and other materials about the artist. Most of the works were loaned by the Whanki Museum in central Seoul, founded by the artist’s wife, Kim Hyang-an (1916-2004). Some works are from the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.


Kim Whanki’s “Eternal Song”(1957), left, and “Mountain and Moon”(1959) are among works on view in his retrospective at the Daegu Art Museum. They shows the artist’s experimentation with abstraction inspired not only by Western avant-garde art but also by old East Asian hieroglyphics, ink paintings and patterns on crafts. [DAEGU ART MUSEUM]

The works are on view chronologically and well capture the artist’s five different periods according to his bases: Tokyo (1933-37), Seoul (1937-56), Paris (1956-59), Seoul again (1959-63) and New York (1963-74).

Visitors can see how Kim’s works evolved from the half-figurative, half-abstract paintings, which are easily understood by the general public, to pure abstract art, in particular, the so-called dot paintings that he developed in the last four or five years of the New York period. The latter are considered to be hard to understand by the general public but are regarded as the apex of Kim’s oeuvre by art historians. They are also the art market’s favorites.

The exhibition starts with paintings Kim made in Tokyo while studying Western avant-garde art there.

Then, visitors see Kim’s Seoul-period and Paris-period works. They are half-figurative, half-abstract paintings, many of which depict Korean antiques such as Joseon-era (1392-1910) white porcelains, in harmony with the natural motifs that frequently appeared in traditional East Asian art, such as the moon, mountains, clouds, birds and plum blossoms. Most of them have lyrical blue tones and thick textures of oil paint. In several paintings, a white moon jar is paired with a blue moon.

“In paintings of these period, Kim Whanki rendered nature in the way that, for example, cranes flying through clouds were portrayed in patterns of Goryeo celadon,” art historian Yun Nanjie wrote in an essay. Like this, the artist experimented with abstraction based not only on Western avant-garde art but also on patterns on Korean antiques as well as East Asian hieroglyphics and ink paintings, she said.

In the next room, viewers will encounter the paintings Kim created in New York and see how dramatically he changed his style, using much bigger canvases, much thinner paint and pure abstract forms. The extension of canvases are part of Kim’s efforts to achieve the sublime, which New York abstract expressionist painters such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko pursued.

In particular, the dot paintings in diverse blue tones in a separate room give a cosmic feeling, not only because the dots are reminiscent of stars, but also because the big canvases and rhythmical repetition of dots give a sense of infinity, and then sublimity.


Kim’s 1972 abstract painting “03-II-72 #220” fetched 62 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.9 million) at Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong sale. [SEOUL AUCTION]

Some viewers might think the dot paintings, despite the dramatic change from Kim’s paintings in Seoul and Paris periods, share some points with them. This is partly because the round blue dots, surrounded by layers of square borders, are reminiscent of the blue moon surrounded with a layer representing the spread of brilliance, which appeared in many of Kim’s paintings prior to his New York period.

“The dots with layered borders that smoothly permeate the cotton canvas gives the feeling of long-lasting resonance,” said Park Mee-jung, director of the Whanki Museum. “Kim made the strikes of the dots with the brush techniques that he polished up for long since he was trained in seoye (Korean ink calligraphy) as a child.”

Kim wrote in his essays that he created the dots while thinking of not only “stars” but also “a cuckoo’s song” and “dead or living friends.” The dots simultaneously represent the heaven’s stars, the earth’s sound and human beings. This reflects the East Asian concept of the triad of heaven, earth and man and their unity.


The exhibition runs through Aug. 19. Admission is 1,000 won (93 cents) for adults. For details, visit or call (053) 803-7900.
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