Kim Tschang-Yeul: The Stillness of Water

Installation view of The Stillness of Water by Kim Tschang-Yeul at Tina Kim Gallery, 9 Sep - 16 Oct, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Tina Kim Gallery. Photo © Hyunjung Rhee.

Kim Tschang-Yeul: The Stillness of Water

Tina Kim Gallery

September 19 through October 30, 2021

By ROBERT C. MORGAN, October 2021 

One of the most singular and fascinating exhibitions of paintings in recent months has been the work of the late Korean painter, Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929 – 2021).  Largely known for his pervasive “waterdrop” theme, Kim’s initial reputation began to evolve in Paris, where he chose to live and work in the early 1970s.  As made clear in this exhibition, his paintings were not intended as literal manifestations of water, but as metaphors of the artist’s need to relinquish the concept of the persuasive self. He felt that his paintings should not dwell on expressing the ego. Rather they should relinquish the persistent need to focus on the problems of oneself, whether social or political, and pursue the direction of the mystical.  Through searching in time and space, painters open themselves to the discovery of the mystical, and therefore, discover a way to live in the world with others. 

Initially Kim chose to work with air brush techniques before turning to the development of pictorial forms In the 1980s. This was a turning point if his career and the beginning of the paintings on display in the current exhibition. At this point in his development, he felt that his imagery was becoming more complete and ultimately more open and diverse. Examples would be such paintings as the penetrating mural Waterdrops (1980) and black-painted Waterdrops (1983), each of which gives evidence of the artist’s sense of a renewal as his paintings were coming closer to the aura of translucency between light and darkness.

Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929-2021), Waterdrops, 1986. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 8.66 x 12.99 inches.

As Kim’s career progressed, his paintings began to achieve a more accurate sense of tactile presence as shown in his allusions towards calligraphy in paintings, such as Waterdrops (1986), a composite of India ink, oil, and acrylic on canvas. This becomes visible again more than two decades later in such paintings as Waterdrops (2009), painted on sand over linen, and Waterdrops (2015), an oil painted directly on canvas.  Being an exorbitant reader of philosophy and a practicing Taoist, the spiritual and intellectual influence became clear in his references to One Thousand Characters as a source for many of the paintings beginning in the later 1990s. 

Despite his European life-style as a painter, Kim Tschang-Yeul’s Korean background played an important role throughout his career. Born in 1929 in Maengsan, where he was raised, Kim was always clear about his Korean heritage.  From the beginning, he wanted to pursue his life as a painter. His brilliant enthusiasm came to the foreground upon his acceptance in the Fine Art Department at the prestigious Seoul National University. There were several exhibitions and important affiliations that followed his graduation, including his role as a co-founder of the Modern Art Society (Actuel).  Kim’s decision to pursue a career as a painter in Paris continued to reveal new steps in his development. It was here that his focus became more consistent relative to the artist’s opposition to the Ego, which ultimately encouraged him to develop to clarify his role as a non-expressionist painter. 

Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929-2021), Waterdrops, 1995. Acrylic and oil on rice paper mounted on canvas, 63.78 x 51.18 inches. Photo Credit Daniel Terna.

The paintings included in the current exhibition, titled “The Stillness of Water,” are worth studying in some depth. The intentional desire and spatial intensity found in some of the earlier works, such as  Deconstruction (1983) and Genesis (1986) constitute a remarkable affect. They are paintings that hold the viewer’s attention over time. They are not meant for a hurried glance. They are works that require the attention of the viewer and, in return, give way to the viewer’s reciprocity. Given the necessary focus and concentration, these paintings will offer a life-changing perspective on how we think and feel.  They are not paintings that move away from us. Rather they are works of art that hold us together, that give forth new possibilities as to how we accept who we are in our attempts to achieve a meaningful way of life. 

Whether such popular paintings as the single water drop in Waterdrops (2017) – an acrylic and oil on canvas – can guarantee a mystical experience is something else. This is not what Kim’s work is about.

The important aspect of such paintings is their reality as paintings, of what they are, and how we see them. In a sense, one could argue they are paintings about paintings; but this is too easy. They are much more. Like any significant work of art, we have to address the temporality of painting as being as much a reality as its space.  But time in art is more often than not, an indirect phenomenon, in which we have yet to discover the patience in the process of learning to perceive. WM


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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