All or nothing: The art of Byron Kim

“If you’re not a student, you’re not an artist.” Byron Kim, artist In 1996, Byron Kim bowed 108 times in front of a painting of Sakyamuni Buddhas at the Metropolitan Museum while his friend conversed with the museum guard. His performance mocked the status of fine art as a dogma that can be separated from religious experience.

“If you’re not a student, you’re not an artist.”Byron Kim, artist

In 1996, Byron Kim bowed 108 times in front of a painting of Sakyamuni Buddhas at the Metropolitan Museum while his friend conversed with the museum guard. His performance mocked the status of fine art as a dogma that can be separated from religious experience.

Known primarily as a conceptual painter, Kim’s works reference personal ties to Korean culture through ceramics and reveal the contemplative aspects of the sky, as well as memories from his childhood.

Unafraid to experiment with new media and delve into politicized issues such as race and identity, Kim has been working since 2004 on a series inspired by the Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu. His Sunday Paintings consist of a sky tone with a journal entry written on their surface. One reads, “Emmet and I are at the studio working on his science fair project, which involves stretching rubber bands until they break. I am working on restoring some damaged paintings and trying to damage some new ones in interesting ways.”

The everydayness of Kim’s work makes it easy to understand on one level, but on a deeper level he is using the details of real life as a departure point for philosophical investigation. Paintings that appear monotonous at first are replete with subtle variations that reveal the touch of his brush. By distilling the emotional density of diverse experiences into a precise moment, Kim gives us a brief glimpse into the unknown.

You once stated, “I worry I have lost all ambition.” What did you mean by that?

The issue of ambition gets harder and easier as I get older. When I was young I wanted to get ahead and seek recognition. That’s what was driving me. My goal orientation disappeared in a way as I began achieving my goals. I wasn’t sure if the goals were meaningful.

That reminds me of Wittgenstein, a German philosopher who once said, “Ambition is the death of thought.”

That makes a lot of sense. I’ve read a little Wittgenstein. The goal of coming to my studio every day and making a painting, or making a painting look a little better has changed to just sitting there and looking at things. Now wondering about them is enough. That’s enough of a goal, even though it’s not really a goal.

It’s interesting to hear you speak about a loss of purpose, because I felt just the opposite when I heard about the performance you did at the Met, “Practicing Religion in a Fine Art Institution.”

When I did that I wasn’t trying to get attention, and I certainly wasn’t making an object. My friend Tom Finkelpearl and I just had an idea so we did it. He talked with the museum guard while I was bowing, pretending not to know me, asking the guard all sorts of things.

Does that piece relate to your recent work where you are copying master paintings?

I joined the copyist program at the Met a few years ago. I did it because I just wanted to know what it was like to be a certain kind of student at the age of 40. At my age, I’m not supposed to be a student anymore, but I’m especially not supposed to be a student of art. If you’re not a student, then you’re not an artist, to me. It’s all about learning to think, or growing. Bowing in front of a Buddha is related to copying a painting because in both cases you have to remain open to the unknown.

Early in your career you wrote an essay titled, “An Attempt at Dogma” that was a reaction to Reinhardt’s methodical approach to fine art as something entirely separate from everything else. It seems like you’re trying to look at his paintings from the backside of the canvas. Does he still influence your work?

Even though I’ve been trying to shake his influence all along, he is still a strong influence on me. Early on I found his philosophy attractive. As lucrative as it is for art to be so pure, I knew I couldn’t ascribe to his philosophy because I couldn’t help but relate it to my life. Agnes Martin also saw spirituality as something separate from everything else. To the layperson there isn’t much difference between our artwork. I find that really interesting. Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman would be identical artists to most ordinary people.

Is monochromatic painting a spiritual endeavor?

Not directly, but maybe it is. We have to define what spiritual means. If we define it as having to do with life, then I think monochromatic painting might be spiritual. If it has to do with something greater than life, I can’t ascribe to it. That is what separates monochromatic painting from other forms of abstract art-it has that little bit of something beyond life. If they didn’t then they would be just what they are! Nothing… really nothing.

Just pure pigment on a canvas.

Even that seems a little bit elevated. Just paint on fabric.

The way you paint a wall in a house!

Exactly, how is that any different? It’s just as intentional, people spend so much time and effort choosing the right color for their wall, but why isn’t that as spiritual as what you have in your studio?

So much of your artwork is inspired by real life-focusing on things like race, memory and human relationships. What is the importance of the original reference once you finish the painting?

It’s all-important and it doesn’t matter at all. If I made a painting of a striped shirt I wore in kindergarten, if you take away that meaning, the painting isn’t really interesting. It’s a green and black stripe painting, they are a dime a dozen. Who cares? I mean, who else cares? I don’t really care that much, they’re my little precious memories about my little precious life. Why should it be meaningful to anyone else? There is something in between that makes it meaningful to a few other people, for whatever strange reason. It’s all or nothing.

Byron Kim LectureMonday, Feb. 12, 8:15 p.m.Fifth Avenue Cinema