Installation view of Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris at Tina Kim Gallery, New York (all images courtesy of Tina Kim Gallery)

Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929), a towering figure of Korean modern art, is best known for his trompe l’oeil depictions of pristine water drops beaded on either a monochromatic surface or raw linen. As Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris, at Tina Kim, underscores, it was while he was living in New York that his work began to change, leading eventually to the motif that gained him international attention after he moved to Paris in 1969.

While the exhibition contains many important works — 27 in all — done between 1968 and ’86, I think including a few works that Kim made shortly after he came to New York in 1965 might have made a strong case even stronger. Absorbing inspiration from painters as different as Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, and Kenneth Noland, as well as sculptor Robert Grosvenor, who worked with Plexiglas, Kim both painted on canvas and incorporated painted Plexiglas into wall-constructions. In its limitation to paintings, the exhibition does not fully convey how adventuresome Kim was in his use of materials.

Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929), “Waterdrops” (1980), oil on canvas 23.62 x 23.62 in.

I don’t think it is too much of a leap to say that while in New York (1965-69), Kim’s work underwent radical, yet purposeful, changes related to his experiences as a North Korean soldier during the Korean War (1950-53). In the monograph Tschang Yeul Kim (1993) by Ronny Cohen, Kim is quoted as saying: “Once I came to New York, I was able to subdue the agony, the anxiety and fear left from the war.”

If we go by the visual evidence, Kim was a quick study who rapidly absorbed possibilities from Op Art, Hard Edge painting, and Pop Art without becoming derivative. This is notable in a group of paintings collectively titled Composition, and done in acrylic and cellulose lacquer on canvas between 1968 and ’70. On a black, ochre, or white monochromatic ground, Kim painted an emblematic form made of concentric bands, whose outward shape recalls an aerial view of a blossom. The outermost band is done in a single color, while the interior concentric bands are off-white, edged in black, to suggest a receding space. Within the central space are forms bisected by bands of gradated color. The Composition paintings alternate between two- and three-dimensionality, which distinguishes them from those of their American counterparts, who were largely preoccupied with flatness.

Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929), “Procession #4” (1971), acrylic and cellulose lacquer on canvas, 19.69 x 19.69 in.

For the numbered series Procession, Kim combines the rigidity of geometry with opaque, liquid-like forms. In “Procession #4” (1971), rounded white forms ooze out of the spaces between bright yellow squares within squares. With these and the related paintings that preceded them, Kim is clearly transforming the formal vocabulary of American abstraction into a symbolic possibility. He was not interested in making a pure painting.

One can connect the Procession paintings to bodily wounds, or link them to the stitched, burned, and hammered surfaces of Alberto Burri’s work. The difference is that Kim embraced the optical, while Burri rejected it in favor of materiality. Perhaps, by rejecting materiality — which was central to the paintings inspired by Art Informel that Kim made before coming to New York — he was able to disengage himself from his wartime experiences to the extent that he could move on.

Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929), “Water drop” (1976), oil on canvas, 12.99 x 18.11 in.

Moving to Paris in 1970 seems to have enabled Kim to move beyond both the war and the influence of American painting into a territory all his own. Two equally sized square paintings, one white (“Water drop,” dated 1970) and one black (“Événement de la nuit,” dated 1972), reveal the change that Kim underwent after leaving New York. In the 1970 painting, he has depicted a large opaque drop running down the middle of the painting’s lower half. In the 1972 painting, he portrays an oversized, perfectly spherical, transparent drop of water, with a blue tinge around its outer edges, floating in front of a black ground. Representational, abstract, theatrical, and imagined, this is Kim’s breakthrough painting, unlike anything else being done contemporaneously.

At the same time, it is clear that he recognized that the breakthrough was not enough, and he needed to make further changes, the most obvious being the scale of his subject. By 1973, Kim had changed his approach. In “Water drops” (1973), the drops occupy the upper third of the painting. They are irregular transparent forms “resting” on the brown surface of the unbleached, unpainted canvas support, limned by the shadows they cast.

Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929), “Water drops” (1980), oil on canvas, 63.78 x 51.18 in.

At once believable and unbelievable, “Water drops” is beguiling. First, the drops appear to sit on the canvas’s porous surface without dissolving. Second, they defy gravity, which makes this and other work outliers in the trompe l’oeil tradition, where fooling the eye is key. Additionally, the viewer is apt to marvel at Kim’s attention to each uniquely shaped drop. Mark-making has been slowed down to a repeated process in which each water drop is fresh and plausible.

I look at the painting and I see myself looking at it. With Jasper Johns’s “flag” paintings, we see that they are and aren’t flags, which opens a space for speculation and reflection. With Kim’s water drops, the gap between what is and what isn’t also opens a space of introspective consideration. A drop of water — a moist, transparent, and susceptible form — becomes a fixed shape that remains on a surface without dissolving or running down it. What I am looking at is only possible in painting; that’s what is marvelous about Kim’s pieces and why they have not lost their freshness. By suspending time and gravity, they unlock a conjectural space that is particular to these works.

Installation view of Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris at Tina Kim Gallery, New York

In the gallery press release, Kim addresses his choice of subject matter:

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.

One can write about Kim’s connection to Minimalism, trompe l’oeil painting, and his collapsing together of abstraction and representation, but, in the end, these considerations are lesser than the encounter between viewer and work. Stop and look closely at one of the water drop paintings in this exhibition and you will likely be reminded that you too are, in your own way, a drop of water, at once wonderful and ordinary, vulnerable and adaptable.

Kim Tschang-Yeul: New York to Paris continues at Tina Kim Gallery (525 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 7.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...