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Jan 06 2021

Obituary: Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929–2021)

by Ophelia Lai

Portrait of KIM TSCHANG-YEUL in front of one his paintings. Courtesy Tina Kim Gallery, New York.

The renowned Korean painter Kim Tschang-Yeul, who spent five decades exploring representations of water drops, passed away on January 5, less than two weeks after his 91st birthday.

Born in 1929 in Maengsan, now part of North Korea, Kim was among the generation of artists at the vanguard of postwar Korean modernism. Graduating from the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University in 1950, Kim established the Modern Artists’ Association, later renamed Actuel, in 1958, creating abstract paintings throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He joined the likes of Ha Chong-hyun and Chang Chung-sup in breaking away from traditional Korean painting as part of the Art Informel movement, producing colorful, non-figurative pieces that paralleled postwar Euro-American developments in abstraction.

In 1965, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Kim relocated to the United States to study at the Art Students’ League of New York, interacting with figures from Pop Art, Minimalism, and other concurrent radical movements. His works from this period, such as Untitled and Composition (Bubbles) (both 1969), depict clusters of perfectly circular globules within rainbow-hued concentric bands that are a far cry from the more restrained palettes and hyperreal approach to his famed water-drop paintings, yet these early compositions illustrate an attention to the formal properties of liquids and their interplay with light that defines his later oeuvre.

Kim moved in 1969 to Paris, where the sight of glistening droplets on a canvas one morning inspired him to dedicate his career to reinterpreting the motif. Among the earliest from this series is the oil-on-canvas Événement de la nuit (1970), of a single magnified tear suspended against a deep charcoal background. He went on to produce canvases of water drops in a variety of forms and configurations, from splotches that appear to have seeped into an unprimed canvas to crystalline beads on textured backgrounds dense with Chinese characters. Kim said of his practice: “The process of painting the water drops is to filter, to dissolve all the impurities out of them and return them to a clear state of nothing. When all the rage, anxiety, and fear come to the moment of nothing, we reach a state of peace and comfort.”

A globally acclaimed artist, Kim was awarded the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1996, and a National Order of Cultural Merits of South Korea in 2012. In 2016, the Kim Tschang-Yeul Museum opened in his honor in Jeju.

He is survived by his wife, Martine, and his three children.

Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.

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