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Kim Tschang-Yeul turns 90 this December, following an illustrious career that played a crucial role in bringing post-war Korean painting into the modern and contemporary art canon. Long celebrated for pensive depictions of water drops, the esteemed artist uses dual languages of abstraction and hyperrealism to articulate the psychological traumas inflicted by a tumultuous past. Last month, New York's Tina Kim Gallery unveiled its first solo exhibition of the artist's earlier works, titled New York to Paris (24 October–7 December 2019). The paintings on view provide a remarkable glimpse into a formative period marked by a transition from nonfigurative forms, and the debut of his signature water drops.

Understanding Kim's background is essential to grasping the meaning behind his contemplative paintings. Born in Maengsan, a town that is now in North Korea, the artist came of age in a historical time marred sequentially by Japanese occupation, communism, and civil war—the latter of which he witnessed from close range as a soldier. Following the war, Kim helped found the mid-1950s and early 1960s Korean Informel movement, which embraced abstraction as a turn away from traditional artistic norms. In 1965, a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled him to move to New York, where he became acquainted with the trends that pervaded mid-century American art. Kim, however, found New York inhospitable, and relocated to Paris in 1969.

In this conversation, Kim discusses his beginnings in New York and Paris, early influences, and the formulation of his famed water drop paintings.

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