Art

A Painter Who Merged Korean Art Traditions with Abstract Expressionism

A retrospective at the Korea Society sheds light on the work of a painter who joined Korean influences and techniques with Abstract Expressionism.

Po Kim at 417 Lafayette (all images courtesy Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery)

There is a curious oasis on the eighth floor of 417 Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village that was once the residence of Po Kim, a Korean painter who came to the US in the 1950s and joined the Abstract Expressionists in New York. The apartment’s only occupants are a royal blue Macaw named Charlie and a baby-pink cockatoo named Jumble, both of whom are fed a handful of cracked nuts each morning by a woman named Pema. According to Kim’s friends, as many as 50 birds formerly filled the space with song.

For three years, since Kim’s death, this 4,000-square-foot apartment — with its potential monthly rent of $18,000 dollars — has had only avian occupants. It is kept as a shrine to its former owner, who the New York Times described as “an artist with exceptional technical ability and authoritative notions about his visions of the world.” The art critic and curator Lilly Wei once deemed Kim’s apartment “a microcosm of his entire universe.” Indeed, it is a crossroads of Eastern and Western sensibilities. His orchids still bask in the mezzanine greenhouse. The rooftop garden, with stunning views of downtown Manhattan, was once lush with rose bushes, magnolia trees, Japanese maples, and cacti. His bedroom holds a collection of personal photographs, Asian antiques, delicate figurines, and books about birds and art. The room’s most striking object is his four-poster, carved wood bed, still covered with a yellow silk comforter. No one seems to know where the bed came from — maybe China, maybe Indonesia. Near the living area, a lounger topped with Japanese tatami mats provides a broad view of Kim’s studio across the northern wall. His pieces have been moved to storage, but flecks of dried paint outline where the canvases once hung.

Po Kim, “Abstract 124” (1961 – 62), oil on paper, 13 x 10.25 inches 

Despite his mastery of painting, Kim’s name remains lost to time. In his attempt to marry Korean and American techniques, he wound up caught between two cultures. Many of his Abstract Expressionist works integrated calligraphy and free-flowing brush strokes stirred by his emotions, similar to the Eastern concept of qi, or eternal energy. In an essay, the art critic Robert C. Morgan contrasted Kim’s sensitive style with Western “action painters” and described Kim’s paintings as an “inward aura relating to karma.” Though other Abstract Expressionists also looked to the East for inspiration, Kim’s deep insight and authentic relationship to those techniques should have elevated his work and name, yet he is rarely mentioned alongside the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Now, 60 years after Kim arrived in New York, a younger generation of Korean artists living here still grapples with these same feelings of displacement and otherness. And while other elements of Korean culture have become fashionable, like K-pop music and kimchi, Korean art still struggles for attention. However, a new series of exhibitions at the Korea Society paying homage to New York’s Korean masters has launched with a long overdue showcase of Kim’s work, Po Kim: In Search of Arcadia.

Po Kim at work 

Before he passed away in 2014 at age 96, Kim was a living symbol of the fall and rise of South Korea. As a young artist there, the North Koreans falsely accused him of being a leftist and tortured him by electric shock. Later, during the Korean War, he was thrown in jail for allegedly lecturing on communism to an art class. He fled to the United States in 1955 at around age 38. In New York, he gravitated toward the Abstract Expressionists, befriending well-known artists like Lenore Tawney. His works from the 1950s and ’60s employ thick brush strokes in saturated corals and turquoise, reminiscent of Tachisme and with hints of Pollock’s drip painting method. I was mesmerized by one dark and lonely piece hanging in the apartment at 417 Lafayette, “Untitled” (1958), which depicts red orbs glowing from behind dense dribbles of black paint, like sheets of rain cloaking city streetlights. In the 1970s, Kim switched to highly detailed still life drawings that foreground the beauty of ordinary objects such as corrugated walnut shells and lustrous green beans floating in an indeterminate space. A 1979 review in the New York Times declared that these pieces convey “the feeling of psychological isolation.”

Po Kim, “Untitled” (1958), oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

By the ’80s, Kim was producing large-scale, fantastical scenes based on his memories. They are patchworks of strange, cartoonish figures: humans hanging upside down; a nude woman being stretched by nothingness; faces the color of dried blood; hungry lions; and a rabbit with its back arched like a hissing cat. The carnage he witnessed in Korea haunted him the rest of his life, and his nightmares were often manifested in the his work. Ironically, Kim once claimed these dark fantasy paintings allowed him to escape reality, yet their bold, haunting images seem bent toward confrontation.

On a recent afternoon, a man named Young Cho poured me a cup of green tea in Kim’s former seating area. Cho emigrated from Korea after college and became Kim’s friend in the late ’90s. He is now the president of the foundation created in 2005 by Kim and his wife, the late sculptor Sylvia Wald, which owns the entire building. Kim and Wald purchased 417 Lafayette in the mid ’70s after selling their townhouse on East 4th Street to financial advantage. Cho admired Kim’s unwillingness to abandon his Korean heritage, despite the country’s disrepair. “His life shows a Korea and United States alliance,” he said. “He was doing Western methodology, but he did not lose his Korean touch in his own art.” Cho wants to make Kim known and use his friend’s story to educate Americans about Korean history, which he says is not taught properly in school here. “Promoting him is like promoting Korea,” he said. “All the suffering, all the brightness, the honor, it’s like a Korean modern history.”

It’s a difficult and slow undertaking to unpack Kim’s legacy, and Cho has made some strides. He renovated the seventh floor where Wald lived and turned it into a permanent showroom for the couple’s work. Last fall, he hosted a dinner there to close out the Korean Art Curator Symposium and allowed Open House New York participants to wander the roof, which is now under renovation. Some of Kim’s works now hang at Chosun University in Seoul, where he taught in the late ’40s and early ’50s, while many are in the storage room at 417 Lafayette, and still others reside in private collections as well as in the permanent of institutions including the Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. “We are small, but [like] a Korean version of the Whitney,” Cho said of the Sylvia Wald & Po Kim Art Gallery, which occupies the building’s fourth floor. It’s an ambitious space that brings in established Asian artists, many of them Korean, who have shown at major venues like the Venice Biennale, the British Museum, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, yet have received relatively less recognition in the US. A recent group exhibition at the gallery called Paper Revelation showcased exquisite works created with hanji, a thin, handmade Korean paper pulled from tree bark.

Po Kim at 417 Lafayette with his bird, Charlie

One of Cho’s biggest hurdles in promoting Kim’s work is that the artist was out of step, both culturally and stylistically, for most of his career. “They were good paintings, but they were not in the fashion of the time,” Barbara London, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, told me. She contrasted Jean-Michel Basquiat’s drug-fueled, club-going lifestyle to Kim’s quiet, solitary demeanor, and noted the art world’s tendency to move on quickly. “Other people were in vogue and well promoted.”

The exhibition at the Korea Society, the first large-scale US Po Kim show outside 417 Lafayette since the artist’s death, is an attempt to demonstrate that Kim and Korean art can prevail in New York. Curated by Cho’s wife, Odelette Cho, it features 18 pieces spanning Kim’s decades in New York. The latest work in the show is a polychromatic, acrylic painting overlaid with neon tape from 2013, the year before he died.

Po Kim: In Search of Arcadia continues at the Korea Society (350 Madison Avenue, 24th Floor, Midtown, Manhattan) through December 1.

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