The Korea Herald


Spotlight on Kim Whanki

Pioneer of abstract art highlighted in exhibition, auction this month

By 이우영

Published : Dec. 9, 2015 - 18:20

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Artist Kim Whanki’s (1913-1974) oil painting of small patches of blue repeated endlessly along diagonal lines fetched the highest price ever for a work by a Korean artist when it went on the block in October.

The 1971 painting “19-VII-71 #209” sold at the record price of $4 million at a Hong Kong auction.

The pioneer of abstract art is one of the best-known Korean artists in the international art market. His large abstract paintings, featuring blue dots and lines, have taken a prominent place in Asian modern and contemporary art sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions in Hong Kong and have been the centerpieces of two major auction houses -- Seoul Auction and K Auction -- in Seoul. 
Kim Whanki at his New York studio in 1971 (Gallery Hyundai) Kim Whanki at his New York studio in 1971 (Gallery Hyundai)

Following the recent competitive sales in Hong Kong, a gallery exhibition and an art auction this month in Seoul are expected to put the late artist back in the limelight here.

Twenty-two works by Kim created during his final years in New York are on exhibition at Gallery Hyundai through Jan. 10. 

The artist, born in Korea and educated in Japan, moved to New York in 1963 when he was 51, right after the seventh Sao Paulo Biennale, where he participated as a Korean commissioner and artist. Kim decided not to return to Korea and headed straight to New York to develop his craft further in the very center of the modern art scene.

Kim began transforming his use of natural motifs, such as moon jars, birds, apricot flowers and mountains -- reminiscent of Korean landscapes -- into abstract compositions with simplified lines, dots and surfaces.

“Figurative images disappeared. There was a notable change on the surface, from thick matiere to thin layers of colors. Simplified compositions made of lines, points and planes started to appear,” wrote Oh Gwang-su, art critic and former director of the Whanki Museum in Seoul, in the exhibition catalogue.

The exhibition is Gallery Hyundai’s 11th solo exhibition of Kim’s works since 1977 -- three years after his death in New York.  
“Where, in What Form, Shall We Meet Again, 16-IV-70 #166” by Kim Whanki (Gallery Hyundai) “Where, in What Form, Shall We Meet Again, 16-IV-70 #166” by Kim Whanki (Gallery Hyundai)

The gallery says the exhibition was organized with the aim of introducing Kim to the growing number of foreign museum officials visiting Seoul to view several ongoing exhibitions of Korean monochrome painting, or dansaekhwa.

“We are seeking opportunities to present Kim at renowned foreign museums,” said Kim Sung-eun, exhibition team director at Gallery Hyundai.
Eight paintings by Kim -- dating from the 1930s to the 1970s -- to go on auction at K Auction on Dec. 15 trace the evolution of his style from semifigurative to abstract art.
“Island Sketches” by Kim Whanki (K Auction) “Island Sketches” by Kim Whanki (K Auction)

Kim’s style slowly changed from the colorful 1930s “Flower,” which juxtaposes square color blocks with flowers, and 1940s oil painting “Island Sketches,” featuring women in simplified silhouettes carrying jars on their heads, to the 1960s “Mountain” depicting mountains in simple curved lines against a blue background. The artist’s experimentation in transforming natural motifs into abstract compositions is completed in “Sky 1” (1968), featuring dots and lines. 

The starting prices range from $254,900 to $492,987. The price for “Island Sketches” is to be provided upon request. 

“Kim’s works have been selling well steadily, but since the end of last year, they have been doing exceptionally well in Hong Kong,” said Sohn Yee-chun, an auctioneer at K Auction. “International audiences connect readily with his abstract compositions and images,” she said.

For more information about the Kim Whanki exhibition at Gallery Hyundai, visit For information on the upcoming Kim Whanki auction at K Auction, call (02) 3479-8888.

By Lee Woo-young  (