The Korea Herald


Exhibition ponders a life in art through waterdrops

Artist Kim Tschang-yeul’s retrospective opens Thursday with works spanning his 50-year artistic career

By Lee Woo-young

Published : Aug. 25, 2013 - 20:17

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Artist Kim Tschang-yeul holds a retrospective that looks back on his artistic career, following his grand retrospective held in Taiwan earlier this year.

The exhibition presents some 40 works that cover each stage of the 84-year-old artist’s career, including those from the early 1970s which saw the birth of his signature “Waterdrops” series to the present, shedding light on the transformation of Korean contemporary art as well.

The retrospective at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts featured 51 paintings that spanned the same period, spotlighting the artist in the context of Asian contemporary art. 
Artist Kim Tschang-yeul poses at his retrospective at Gallery Hyundai. (Gallery Hyundai) Artist Kim Tschang-yeul poses at his retrospective at Gallery Hyundai. (Gallery Hyundai)

“The retrospective showcases paintings from different stages of Kim’s artistic career. It’s not just a retrospective of an individual artist, but a chance to examine the origins of Korean painting and history,” stated the gallery’s press release.

Kim, once a cultural crusader in Korea’s turbulent modern history in the 1960s, moved to New York where he set his artistic identity in lyrical abstraction, a movement born in Paris after World War II, amid the predominant trends of pop art and hyperrealism.

His earlier works consisted of darkly atmospheric abstract paintings, far from the soft-touch “Waterdrops” series he is well known for today. His paintings featured expressive colors and strong lines, which was considered a byproduct of the painful memories of the Korean War and his coinciding defection to the South. Kim was born in the North Korean town of Maengsang, South Pyeongan Province, in 1929.

His paintings from the year he moved to Paris in 1971 were characterized by waterdrops. Inspired by the droplets Kim sprayed to remove paint so he could reuse his canvas, he recurrently used waterdrops to add dynamic energy to his Zen minimalist style.

The drops have transformed over time. Sometimes they constituted a small part of a huge canvas or are spread all over it; some were clear like crystals or some were left in stains, and some were gathered in a bunch like grapes and were in motion, expressed as a shadow stretching to a side. 
“Recurrence SH2013016,” 2011 by Kim Tschang-yeul. (Gallery Hyundai) “Recurrence SH2013016,” 2011 by Kim Tschang-yeul. (Gallery Hyundai)

In 1980, Kim accentuated the clarity of the water drops on raw rough cloth, instead of plain canvases. In the 1990s, he started a new series called “Recurrence,” featuring Chinese characters from the “Thousand Character Classic” that are neatly written as in print and waterdrops that are splattered onto the letters. The “Thousand Character Classic” is a traditional poem used for teaching Chinese characters to children.

The works created during the 1970s and 1980s are those most favored by collectors as they feature the most clarity and life in the waterdrops. Ten paintings from these periods will be on display along with his works made before 2000 at the gallery’s main building.

After 2000, his paintings donned bright colors such as pastel yellow and pastel blue, which will be showcased in the new building of the gallery.

Kim does not attribute much meaning to the clear droplets, saying “there isn’t much meaning in the colorless and odorless waterdrops” in the press guided tour for the exhibition last week, but puts much meaning in the act of drawing them.

“The act of painting waterdrops is to dissolve everything inside them and return them to a state of nothing. When everything like anger, anxiety and fear is brought to the point of nothing, we experience a state of peace and comfort,” said Kim in the exhibition catalogue.

The Kim Tschang-yeul retrospective will run from Thursday to Sept. 25 at Gallery Hyundai, Jongno, Seoul. For more information, call (02) 2287-3500.

By Lee Woo-young  (