Friday, February 21st, 2014

A Gentle Giant: Po Kim (1917-2014)

Pohyun Kim, who died on February 7, 2014 at the age of ninety-six, was a gentle force and an inspiring presence to all who met him, particularly among the Korean and Korean-American art community of New York. In the fall of 2011, Po Kim’s previously remarkable good health deteriorated and he underwent kidney dialysis. Earlier that year, Sylvia Wald (1915—2011), his wife of forty-three years and an artist in her own right, had passed away at the age of ninety-five, likely a contributing factor in Kim’s decline.

Po Kim, Untitled, 2007.  Tape on canvas, 180 x 304 cm. Courtesy of The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery
Po Kim, Untitled, 2007. Tape on canvas, 180 x 304 cm. Courtesy of The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery

While it is extraordinary to live a life nearly a century long, it was how Kim lived as an artist that was most extraordinary, always striving for something original, unafraid to surrender a familiar style for a new challenge. He was among the first of a generation of Korean artists who immigrated to the United States in the 1950’s. Kim left Korea as a political exile and struggled to establish himself as a painter in the heart of the contemporary art world. Underappreciated by the mainstream until a decade ago, Kim maintained an independent presence without belonging to any school or even promoting his work.

Born poor, Kim was an excellent student who studied art and law in Tokyo between 1937 and 1946, after which he returned to Korea to establish the Department of Fine Arts at Chosun University where he taught for nine years until immigrating to the United States. In 2000, Kim donated more than three hundred of his and his wife’s artwork to Chosun University where a gallery is now dedicated to them.

During his early years in Korea, Kim pursued a busy life as an artist and teacher, exhibiting his work with other important Korean artists and forming clubs, but during the Korean War (1950-53), he became a target of political suspicions on both sides of the conflict. He endured arrest and torture and constant surveillance. Eventually, Kim succeeded in getting a U.S. Visa through the United States Information Service to be a fellow at University of Illinois in 1955. From there, Kim moved to New York in 1957. With only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he worked at a necktie factory and designed shop window displays.

Po Kim, Untitled, 1961.  Oil on canvas, 214 x 183 cm. Courtesy of The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery
Po Kim, Untitled, 1961. Oil on canvas, 214 x 183 cm. Courtesy of The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery

Living in Lower Manhattan, Kim absorbed the exuberant air of the art world, interacting with artists such as Lenore Tawney and Agnes Martin and attending art parties where he was a quiet presence. Between 1957 and 1965, Kim produced a large number of Abstract Expressionist paintings in a wide range of styles, from gestural to color field, fusing the energetic brushstrokes and depth of Eastern ink painting with the bright, robust, sensuality of New York School paintings.

On a trip to Europe in 1965 and 1966, Kim shifted from his American-inspired Ab-Ex canvases to hard-edged shapes of color blocks, reminiscent of Matisse’s late cut-out works. Kim’s favorite artists remained Matisse and Gauguin. Also around this time, Kim met Sylvia Wald at a party in New York and they were married shortly afterwards.

The 1970s saw a drastic change in Kim’s work from abstraction to realistic figurative work based on direct observation. The scale became more intimate as he shifted to colored pencil on paper. The drawings were populated with images of simply arranged fruits, vegetables, or inanimate objects. While these still-life drawings and paintings were serious works in themselves, they were also preludes to his later grand paintings in which both abstract imagery and figurative representation were orchestrated in late Gauguin-like style rich in narrative. After a brief period producing collages (1979-80), Kim began wild color portraits with crude lines. As Kim told Sukie Park in an interview in the Korean online journal, NYCultureBeat, “I had been painting abstraction for about twenty years. Then one day, it seemed to be too notional. I no longer had the desire to paint in the same way, as if I had reached a dead end, so I went back as if I became a student again, observing objects and drawing realistically.”

During the 1990s and 2000s, his canvases became the largest of his oeuvre, as if he were accumulating artistic styles by orchestrating the elements of his previous work. Rich in narrative, these large canvases contain personal themes and mysterious alternative realities, paradises filled with animals, humans, and nature. Kim said in 2011, “I never painted with specific ideas in mind. Long ago, my life was not very peaceful, so I wanted to forget the pain, and only paint fantasies, things of beauty, things that were devoid of sufferings … you could say that by creating pictures of a fantasy world, I was escaping reality.”

The Po Kim I knew personally was half of an elderly couple with Sylvia Wald, holding hands at exhibition openings in Manhattan. “Po and Sylvia are here!” rang out as younger supporters expressed their affection and admiration. The couple’s mutually supportive relationship was legendary, although Kim said that they kept separate workspaces and preferred not to discuss their art with each other. In 2005, they established the Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Gallery at 417 Lafayette Street, where their respective studios and residences were housed. Kim’s studio residence on the top floor of the building afforded a haven complete with roof garden.

Po Kim with Charlie. Photo: Jinhong Kim
Po Kim with Charlie. Photo: Jinhong Kim