Artist to Know: Kim Whan-ki

Liz Catalano
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Vallot Auctioneers Brings Work From the “Godfather of Korean Monochrome Art”

While the European art market focused on Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Mark Rothko, South Korean visual artist Kim Whan-ki was building a fresh interpretation of Modernism. Inspired by the Color Field painters, Kim forged a strong connection with the geography and culture of his own country. He eventually set the stage for a new wave of Korean abstraction in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Vallot Auctioneers’ upcoming Art/ Design From Estates and Collections sale, held on December 22nd, 2020, will feature an untitled painting by Kim. Bidding will start at 2:00 PM EST. Before the sale begins, get to know Kim Whan-ki and his role in Korean Modern art.

Kim Whan-ki in 1957. Image from The Wall Street Journal/ The Whan-ki Museum.
Kim Whan-ki in 1957. Image from The Wall Street Journal/ The Whan-ki Museum.

By the early 20th century, Korean art began to feel the cultural influence of both Japan and Europe. Realism was on the rise, as was interest in the new art movements that embraced self-expression in all its forms. Kim Whan-ki, the child of wealthy landowners, came of age during this time of transition. He received his artistic education at Nihon University in Japan.

There, he encountered the work of Henri Matisse and Picasso. Fascinated with their use of color and abstraction, Kim returned to Seoul with a solid background in painting and a strong love for his country.

Kim’s entrance into Modern art was put on hold by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. He spent years living in a Busan refugee camp before moving to Paris. In many ways, the artist’s Paris period continued what he had already started in Seoul. Kim collaborated with other Korean expatriates and honed his skills. A distinctly Korean style arose from his palette even while he lived beyond his native borders. “Do the lines I draw go beyond the limit of the sky?” he wrote while developing his mature style. “Do the dots shine as brightly as the stars? When I close my eyes, I see the rivers and mountains of my country more clearly than the rainbows.”

Kim Whan-ki, untitled painting, 1957. Image from Vallot Auctioneers.
Kim Whan-ki, untitled painting, 1957. Image from Vallot Auctioneers.

The upcoming Vallot Auctioneers sale will feature an untitled Kim painting from this phase in his life. Completed in 1957, the piece layers rust orange and slate gray to form four distinct rectangles. Its composition is not unlike Rothko’s hazy color blocks. The available work was created shortly before Kim chose blue as his favored shade. It has a presale estimate of USD 3,000 to $5,000. 

Kim eventually moved to New York, where he spent the rest of his career. He began to focus his love for lines and dots, developing a unique language of abstraction that conjured the hills and islands of South Korea. Kim painted many of his most coveted works while in New York, where he also turned his gaze to the stars. 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), for example, is the artist’s only diptych. Its creation was highly labor-intensive as Kim painted hundreds of tiny blue dots to represent the night sky. The paintings sold for HKD 101,955,000 (USD 13,152,800) at Christie’s in 2019, setting a record for the most expensive piece of Korean art sold at auction.

Kim Whan-ki, 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), 1971. Image from Christie’s.
Kim Whan-ki, 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), 1971. Image from Christie’s.

Kim is now recognized as a key leader in early Korean Modernism. His career-long efforts readied the market for the Dansaekhwa monochrome art movement of the 1970s. The movement advocated a form of Modernism that embraced Korean culture and a deep connection to nature. Kim did not live to see Dansaekhwa at its zenith, passing away from spinal complications in 1974. 

Public attention for Kim’s paintings has skyrocketed since 2013, when Dansaekhwa began to receive international scholarly attention. Collectors and auctioneers have started to trace the path of Kim’s career, as well as the influence he continues to exert on contemporary South Korean art. 

Prices for the artist’s works have risen alongside a growing global awareness of the country’s abstract art. Before 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe), Kim still held the record for the most expensive Korean artist on the market. Recent years have seen Kim’s works beating his own records. A painting titled Moon and Plum Blossom reached USD 663,750 in March of 2013, a price that was repeatedly topped over the next seven years. Yunah Jung of Christie’s explained this trend: “He is the godfather of Korean monochrome art. Without him, Dansaekhwa might never have happened.” 

Vallot Auctioneers will bring Kim Whan-ki’s untitled 1957 painting to auction on December 22nd, 2020 at 2:00 PM EST. Visit Bidsquare for more information or to place a bid.

Interested in more auction world news? Auction Daily recently analyzed the results of Phillips’ Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which set market records for many other 20th-century Modernists.