press release

Byron Kim belongs to a generation of artists striving to revitalize the practice of abstract painting and to make it relevant for contemporary times. Whereas the first, heroic generation of American abstract painters working after World War II brought international esteem to American art for the first time, they also adopted a grandiose, universalistic vision. In contrast, Kim infuses abstraction with humility and a down-to-earth objectivity that is quite a contrast to the flagrant subjectivity and egotism of his artistic forefathers. The honesty and freshness Kim brings to abstract painting distinguish him as one of the most important artists of his generation—and one of the first to transcend didactic definitions of “multiculturalism.”

Although pure abstract painting has been around for the better part of a century, it remains perhaps the hardest work for the general public to grasp—akin for some to the “emperor’s new clothes.” Kim brings to this most-difficult of genre autobiographical references, cross-cultural critique and a firm belief in the ability of art to transcend the mundane material world. His first landmark work, included in this exhibition, is Synecdoche, 1991-92, a grid of 400 monochromatic rectangles each based on the skin color of various people. The painting is simultaneously a composite portrait of the “body politic,” a commentary on definitions of race and a minimalist grid newly imbued with real-world meaning. Visually, it is a subtle and exquisitely elegant spectrum of entirely another sort. Here, Kim redefines the traditions of portraiture and figurative painting, yet he also paints a pun on the formalist’s preoccupation with the painting’s surface, or “skin.”

Threshold, Kim’s first one-person museum exhibition, is overview of the past decade of his career. Kim continually critiques the preciousness and elitist myths of painting: he simultaneously revels in the seductive magic of the medium. This love-hate relationship gives his work its humorous edge. Kim is also a masterful colorist, in the lineage of Mark Rothko and other New York School painters of the abstract sublime. When he paints a 84 x 60 inch square canvas uniformly with the luscious celadon green of a Koryo dynasty Korean tea cup that was a family heirloom, he creates a deeply contemplative field of color—an ocean of timelessness and meditative transposition, if one allows oneself.

Byron Kim was born in 1961 in La Jolla, California, and was raised in Connecticut and southern California. Kim received his B.A. in English literature from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, in 1983, after which he was an assistant to the realist painter Philip Pearlstein, in New York. Kim moved to Oakland to become a poet, yet soon returning to the visual arts and attended Skowhegan School of painting in 1986 (where he serves on the Board of Governors). Kim moved to New York in 1987. His work has been exhibited across the United States, Asia and Europe.

Organized by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. The exhibition travels to the Samsung Museum of Modern Art, Seoul, Korea; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, California; Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro and the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle.


Byron Kim 1990-2004