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Threshold: Byron Kim 1990–2004

September 15, 2004 - December 12, 2004

Byron Kim with Grunion Run, 2001. Photo: Dennis Cowley.

I first met Byron Kim in 2000 in Seoul, South Korea. We were there at the invitation of Artsonje, a contemporary art museum that was presenting, for the first time in Korea, an exhibition that featured Korean American artists. Titled "Koreamericakorea," it included works by Kim and by the late Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose meditation on cultural displacement Exilée, on loan from BAM/PFA, served as a touchstone for the exhibition.

I had been an admirer of Kim's work for some years, since seeing his unforgettable painting Synecdoche (1991–present) for the first time in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Synecdoche is a grid of hundreds of small panels, each a different shade, ranging from light tan or pink to dark brown. Was this a riff on Minimal painting? I wondered. Well, as it turned out, yes and no. Upon reading the wall text, I learned that Kim had matched each panel to the color of a different person's skin—over 200 sitters, and counting. Each modular unit, then, is in essence a portrait and, as the title suggests, also stands for the larger issues of race and community. At the same time, Kim pays homage to older abstract artists—from Ad Reinhardt to Brice Marden—whose work informs his. This unlikely blend of abstraction and representation, of conceptualism and sensuality, is what makes Kim's work so compelling.

Kim would be identified with that one powerful work for years to come. In the ten years since Synecdoche premiered, however, his painting has taken a number of different turns. He has created small canvases whose colors pinpoint particular events and places in his childhood, such as Miss Mushinski (First Big Crush), 1996, and 1984 Dodge Wagon, 1994; a series based on celadon pottery that refers to his Asian heritage (Koryo Green Glaze #1, 1995–96), and wall-size landscapes inspired by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, 1997). He has added texts to the surface of his recent Sunday Paintings—sky studies à la John Constable—that form a personal journal. As works from all of these series included in the exhibition demonstrate, Kim's simple geometric or monochrome compositions continue to exist at the threshold between reductive form and meaning that goes beyond the aesthetic enjoyment offered by traditional abstraction.

Kim was born in La Jolla, California, in 1961, and studied art at Yale and at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. As guest curator Eugenie Tsai writes in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Kim, who today lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, "came of age as an artist in the early 1990s, a moment when buzzwords like 'multiculturalism' and 'identity politics' ruled the day, and artists and institutions attempted to come to terms with the thorny relationship between power in the art world and the politics of race." Kim was thus in tune with other young artists who were investing Minimalist strategies with issues such as ethnic and racial identity, as well as with personal biography. Two such artists, Glenn Ligon and Janine Antoni, have remained close friends and confidants, and in the exhibition catalog the three engage in a wide-ranging conversation about art and the theme of generosity.

Color in its various aspects—as fact, as signifier, and as metaphor—continues to dominate Kim's work. For the viewer, the exhibition can evoke the pure pleasure of color's material presence and what Anoka Faruqee in her catalog essay calls "the pleasure of provocation"—Kim's factual approach to color that acknowledges the ultimate absurdity of such an endeavor. In his own words, Kim admits to doubt: "What can I do to change the color blue?"

Threshold: Byron Kim 1990–2004, the first major museum retrospective of Byron Kim, was conceived by independent curator Eugenie Tsai. Following its run in Berkeley, the exhibition will tour to Seoul, South Korea, and museums across the United States.

Constance Lewallen
Senior Curator for Exhibitions