Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929 - 2021) is an internationally acclaimed painter who spent most of his career in the St. Germain district of Paris. During his early years, Kim Tschang-Yeul lived amid the turmoil of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Born in North Korea, Kim experienced the imminent threats of communism firsthand and eventually fled to South Korea, leaving his family behind. He studied painting at Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts before establishing Korea’s Modern Artists’ Association which would later be renamed Actuel. Subsequently, Kim Tschang-Yeul left for New York in 1965 in order to develop his artistry and experienced deep isolation in America which profoundly influenced his style. He pushed the boundaries of his own abstract, shifting from thick layers of paint to embracing the flatness of the picture plane, painting biomorphic compositions that bordered on psychedelic. In 1969, Kim Tschang-Yeul moved to Paris, where he discovered his signature style: water droplets.
Drawing from the Pop Art and Minimalism he encountered in New York, Kim continued his study of pure abstraction until 1969, at which point he began producing globular, phlegmatic forms that appear to ooze out through the canvas, as in the painting Untitled (1971). The following year, the artist unveiled a painting of a magnified single drop of water in the first exhibition at Salon de Mai in Paris, France. It was Kim’s ability to navigate between diverse modes of abstraction, minimalism, and photorealism that led him to settle into this motif that he would continue to pursue. Spanning the early 1970s to the present day, Kim Tschang-Yeul devoted his career to a single optical device that allowed him to confront the dichotomy between nature and contemporary culture: the drop of water. As Kim explained, “The act of painting water drops is to dissolve all things within [these], to return to a transparent state of ‘nothingness.’ By returning anger, anxiety, fear, and everything else to ‘emptiness,’ we experience peace and contentment. While some seek the enhancement of ‘ego,’ I aim toward the extinction of the ego and look for the method of expressing it.”
In 1996, Kim was bestowed with the French Order of Arts and Letters, followed by the National Order of Cultural Merits of Korea in 2012. The artist participated in major international group exhibitions such as Korean Contemporary Painting Exhibition, Paris, France (1971); Salon de Mai, Paris, France (1972-76); Korea: Facet of Contemporary Art, Tokyo Central Museum, Tokyo, Japan (1977); and Korean Drawing Now, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA (1981). Kim’s significant retrospectives were held at the Gwangju Museum of Art, Korea (2014); National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan (2012); National Museum of China, Beijing (2005); and Jeu de Paume National Gallery, Paris, France (2004). The Kim Tschang-Yeul Museum was founded in 2016 in Jeju, Korea, and recently showcased a solo exhibition of Kim’s works titled, Récurrence, in 2018.
Kim’s works can be found among the collections of numerous institutions including the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea; Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Korea; Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art, Japan; National Museum of Modern Art, Japan; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Flipping through the pages of Kim Tschang-Yeul's sketchbook of water drop studies reveals the artist's careful consideration of his central motif and exposes unseen aspects of his process. Leaves hold austere compositions of photorealistic drops and unconfined gestures only suggestive of the principle of Kim's oeuvre; some approach finished works, while others represent Kim Tschang Yeul's dissection of the water drop into sheer form.
Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris, 2019
A video tour of Tina Kim Gallery's exhibition, Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris.
Video by ArtDrunk