On a Monday afternoon in mid-June, Byron Kim’s most recent Sunday Painting hung still wet on his Brooklyn studio wall. Kim had traveled to Washington DC the previous day, and though he fussed about bringing all the necessary materials for his weekly project, in the end he forgot to bring along the panel. In the seven years since he began the series it’s only happened a few times before, he admits, and the date inscribed on the canvas faithfully records his oversight.
This self-deprecating transparency persists as Kim discusses his work. The “Sunday Paintings” (2001- ), square canvases recording a swatch of the sky wherever the artist may be each Sunday, refer to amateur artists who paint for only a few hours each week. Though undoubtedly a professional—Kim showed in the Whitney Biennial in 1993, won a National Endowment for the Arts Award and has two paintings in September’s Gwangju Biennale—he nonetheless is still anxious about his decision to become an artist after finishing an undergraduate degree in English at Yale in 1983. Kim continued to toy with the idea of attending medical school up until about five years ago. Now he recognizes this uncertainty as the seat of his creativity.
His studio time embodies this tension between commitment and, as he calls it, “fruitful procrastination mode.” Kim goes to his street-level studio on the loud, exhaust-choked Third Avenue in the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus every weekday, beginning the morning with 30 minutes of meditation. A quick look around his studio reveals that he often works on multiple, divergent series at once. With a sheepish smile, Kim quotes his long-time dealer, Max Protetch, as saying he had never seen an artist sustain a career on so little artwork.
At the moment, Kim is at work on a series reproducing New York’s light-polluted night sky and has tried out a few still-life paintings without objects, early versions of which are currently stacked in a corner. Started because he is a self-declared “bad draftsman,” the paintings consist of two horizontal blocks of color and are evocative of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. “I’m still not sure if they are any good,” he comments.
When asked about his other preoccupations, Kim names three: to learn more about New York City (he is on the Art Commission of the City of New York); to learn to throw pots; and to teach himself Chinese by reading Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters.
Kim’s side pursuits begin without any clear idea of the outcome. Kim once visited the Coney Island Aquarium with Protetch, where they encountered a tank of jellyfish. “That looks like a better version of my work,” Kim remarked at the time. For his 2005 show at Max Protetch, “Oddly Flowing,” Kim laminated a fish tank’s exterior glass with a one-way mirror, preventing viewers from looking at the exotic fish inside. He placed the piece, When Beavers Were the Size of Bears (2005), in the center of the show, creating distorted replicas of the other works on display. Now, the fish are still alive at home, and the empty tank stands at one end of his studio, where it reflects a blue Belly Painting (1990) that Max Protetch discovered for sale on eBay and bought back for Kim.
Kim’s art is one of a few select priorities in his life along with his wife, the painter Lisa Sigal, and their two kids but not the single driving force. Kim believes balance makes for a happier, more fulfilling life. “I am exactly the kind of artist I want to be.”