A Painter Who Merged Korean Art Traditions with Abstract Expressionism

Po Kim at 417 Lafayette (courtesy The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery)

There is a curious oasis on the eighth floor of 417 Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village that was once the residence of Po Kim, a Korean painter who came to the US in the 1950s and joined the Abstract Expressionists in New York. The apartment’s only occupants are a royal blue Macaw named Charlie and a baby-pink cockatoo named Jumble, both of whom are fed a handful of cracked nuts each morning by a woman named Pema. According to Kim’s friends, as many as 50 birds formerly filled the space with song.

For three years, since Kim’s death, this 4,000-square-foot apartment — with its potential monthly rent of $18,000 dollars — has had only avian occupants. It is kept as a shrine to its former owner, who the New York Times described as “an artist with exceptional technical ability and authoritative notions about his visions of the world.” The art critic and curator Lilly Wei once deemed Kim’s apartment “a microcosm of his entire universe.” Indeed, it is a crossroads of Eastern and Western sensibilities. His orchids still bask in the mezzanine greenhouse. The rooftop garden, with stunning views of downtown Manhattan, was once lush with rose bushes, magnolia trees, Japanese maples, and cacti. His bedroom holds a collection of personal photographs, Asian antiques, delicate figurines, and books about birds and art. The room’s most striking object is his four-poster, carved wood bed, still covered with a yellow silk comforter. No one seems to know where the bed came from — maybe China, maybe Indonesia. Near the living area, a lounger topped with Japanese tatami mats provides a broad view of Kim’s studio across the northern wall. His pieces have been moved to storage, but flecks of dried paint outline where the canvases once hung.

Po Kim, “Abstract 124” (1961 – 62), oil on paper, 13 x 10.25 inches (courtesy Seho Kim, Korea Society)

Despite his mastery of painting, Kim’s name remains lost to time. In his attempt to marry Korean and American techniques, he wound up caught between two cultures. Many of his Abstract Expressionist works integrated calligraphy and free-flowing brush strokes stirred by his emotions, similar to the Eastern concept of qi, or eternal energy. In an essay, the art critic Robert C. Morgan contrasted Kim’s sensitive style with Western “action painters” and described Kim’s paintings as an “inward aura relating to karma.” Though…

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