Artistfacts: Byron Kim

byron kim Sunday paintings 2 - 1

Artistsfacts: Byron Kim

Byron Kim is a romantic and poetic social commentator. He makes generally small scale, minimalist, monochromatic- i.e. one color, serial works that are engaging, personal and evocative. Hard to believe that these small panels can be so captivating and thought provoking. .

A contemporary Korean- American artist, born in 1961, Byron Kim received a BA from Yale University in 1983 and attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1986.  He has stated that the most exciting part of his work as an artist is coming up with a good idea,  the second finishing something that has come out well. He claims no allegiance to any one technique or material but is primarily a painter with a strong sense of color.

Until his most recent show at James Cohan Gallery in New York entitled Sunday Paintings, the work by Byron Kim that I knew best was Synecdoche (1991- present) at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum. Synecdoche, the work by Byron Kim, is a grid of oil paint mixed with wax, monochrome, 10x 18 inch panels.  Each panel is a record of the skin color of a sitter. The colors are shades of beige, peach or brown, and each panel is titled the name of the sitter.  As the grid is presented, the names of the sitters are listed alphabetically by first name. Synecdoche, the word, means a figure of speech in which a part stands in for a whole. For Byron Kim this is a work of portraiture. For the viewer, it is a social commentary on race and individuality.  Some are tempted to try to match their skin tone to one of the panels.  Though at first glance the work is completely abstract, in reality it is representational and fiercely evocative.

Synecdoche was first shown at the Whitney Biennial in 1993. It is a work in process and currently there are 400 panels. He has said that he remembers every single person whose skin color he has copied.



Byron Kim, _Synecdoche [left to right, top to bottom: Annette Lemieux, Brice Marden, Byron Kim, Chuck Close, Donald Moffett, Donald Baechler, Ed Baynard, Elizabeth Murray, Fred Tomaselli, Fred Wilson, Glenn Ligon, James Casebere, Jane Hammond, Janine Antoni, Jon Kessler, Joyce Kozloff, Kiki Smith, Lesley Dill, Lois Dodd, Lorna Simpson, Lynne Yamamoto, Mel Bochner, Mel Chin, Merry Alpern, Lee Mingwei, Natvar Bhavsar, Nayland Blake, Oliver Herring, Philip Pearlstein, Polly Apfelbaum, Robert Gober, Robert Rahway Zakanitch, Sam Messer, Sandy Scolnik, Suzanne McClelland, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Vija Celmins, Vito Acconci, William Wegman]

For the series of this work at the National Gallery he added the “portraits” of the employees increasing the sense of inclusiveness, race, community and cultural biases or class. Color here acts a signifier and metaphor for the individual.

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Byron Kim paints the forearm of Jay Krueger at the National Gallery of Art. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

An interesting collaboration at the Smithsonian Institute, entitled Black and White  between Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon, examines the limited range of “flesh-colored” paint available in art stores. Byron Kim painted sixteen panels of the “white” flesh tones and Ligon painted sixteen panels using  black pigments.  Using the same grid as Synecdoche, this work again examines the superficiality of race.


The Sunday Paintings which were recently on view at James Cohan Gallery in New York are each slightly larger in scale, 14″x14″, and are not monochromatic but rather show the sky on the Sunday it was painted. The series was begun on January 7, 2001, when he made a painting of the sky and below wrote: “Clear, snow melting dripped into the painting.  Every Sunday?”.  The Sunday paintings have continued virtually every Sunday since then, the notations at first at the bottom then in the middle of the canvas. A diary of occurrences or thoughts for the day.  The skies are realistic and varied. The blue, grey, clear or cloud-filled skies he sees over Brooklyn or California.

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The paragraphs are autobiographical and often uneventful and mundane,  activities with the kids,  dinner parties, difficulty with work, marital comments,  moods, and from time to time an update on politics. The same short jottings one would expect in a quick diary note. “Today we have a black president” (“1/20/09”); Hurricanes Irene roils New York City (“8/28/11”); “Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States” (“11/14/16”).

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It is a very moving project, making me at least wish I  had the same ability and discipline to beautifully chronicle my life. For Byron Kim this is a life long project and, as it requires that he observes the sky, it combines both observation and introspection. As opposed to On Kawara’s Date Paintings which followed a strict set of rules, with 3,000 made over four decades that only included the date on which they were made, there is a winsomeness to the works by Byron Kim, a willingness to let the viewer into his personal life. You are drawn to read all of the entries and observe the differences in the sky. Yet in common language,  a Sunday painter is an amateur painter who goes out and dabbles at painting  on his day off, not a professional, gallery represented artist.  These works therefore as with much of Byron Kim’s work engage the viewer in an intimate, perhaps  ironic and humorous moment,  one where the artist is painting for the pleasure of painting and making works that may not be as serious as the more weighty topics he takes on when he is pursuing his career as “an important artist”.

Byron Kim is a profound observer of intimate and small wonders that he renders with  poetic and seductive panache. There is often a link to poetry or writing. He has stated:”It’s almost like I don’t know anything except the little things I encounter every day and the relationships I have with people. I can only get at that in art by concentrating on very small things.”


In his Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star Series, Byron Kim painted bruises. These works both attract and repel, seduce and disgust. Without the titles these works could pass as beautiful, abstract,  color field stained canvases. With the titles, they force a questioning of violence versus beauty. They also draw strong parallels to the body as cosmos, to time as they show the evolution of the bruise.

The process used in these works show Byron Kim’s willingness to explore mediums. He boiled and dyed raw canvas and linen with natural dyes before stretching them onto frames, and,  to avoid brushstrokes, painted  with rags soaked in glue or oil.

The idea of painting a bruise came from a poem by Carl Phillips in which the poet observes a bruise on the skin of his sleeping lover. A  bruise is a stain under the skin,  paint is a stain on the canvas.  The titles of this work however comment as much on the event as on the process:  ” Evidence of a Struggle” and  ” Stain, Methylene Blue” for example.



Emphasizing his attention to detail and the way that his monochromatic panels are portraits, Byron Kim has used the format of the grid  to disarmingly document and portray all of the hues on his one year old son’s body.


 or his son at age 10 (not in grid form)

As a wonderful observer and interpreter of the intimacies and intricacies of life and society and an artist who forces the viewer to look deeper, care more, think more, Byron Kim is an artist whose future works and shows I look forward to.