Kim Ku-lim

Three Circles


Not on display

Kim Ku-lim born 1936
Oil paint and steel on plywood
Frame: 1848 × 937 × 41 mm
Presented by the artist 2019


Three Circles 1964 is a monochromatic oil painting on a vertical wood panel. The panel is bisected diagonally, the upper half black whilst the lower half is a dull white. Each of these two sections is overlaid with a large circle of the opposing colour. As the title indicates, a third circle is also present and appears in the middle of the composition, articulated by a thin red line and from the centre of which spiral several short, dark, curved brushstrokes. The uneven edges of each of the circles indicate the artist’s hand in the making of work. The artist’s stylised signature in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is inscribed in the bottom left-hand corner of the panel along with the year the work was made.

The painting was made in the same year as some of Kim Ku-lim’s earliest works, a series of black paintings – such as Death of Sun I 1964 (Tate T14359) – which he made not long after completing his military service in his native Korea. These early paintings were the result of the artist’s performative action of burning sheets of vinyl on wooden panels to create charred, blackened surfaces of a nihilistic nature. At this time, in an era of limited access to fine art materials, the juxtaposition of oil paint, which was then considered a luxury, against the crude material of a wooden support in Three Circles was significant. The art historian Joan Kee, in describing artworks made by Kim Ku-lim and his contemporaries following the Korean War of 1950–3, has argued for the link between the rise of everyday materials in art and the Korean government’s drive towards industrialisation in the 1960s (Kee, ‘Introduction’, in Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, Minnesota 2013). The breakdown between ostensibly high and low cultures is revealed in the work of Korean artists in the post-war period, reflecting the rapid changes in society wrought by country-wide economic policies. The fact that Kim was charged with managing a textile factory in the 1960s suggests a heightened awareness of the value and formal properties of the materials with which he was working.

The curator and historian Damian Lentini has proposed that this particular painting operates as a form of philosophical treatise:

Kim Kulims [sic] Three Circles (1964) is concerned with the continual cycle of creation through negation, wherein objects come into being from nothingness, then return to nothingness. Kim chose to signify the opposing polarities of destruction/creation, life/death as two achromatic circles located on either side of the panel. Like the interplay of yin and yang prevalent throughout Eastern philosophy, the interdependence of these two binaries is highlighted by a third circle overlapping the two others in the center [sic.] of the composition, with its swirling vortex representing the dynamic movement of the universe.
(Lentini, ‘Kim Kulim: Three Circles’,, accessed 05 November 2018.)

As such, the painting is thematically consistent with other of the artist’s works that explore themes of time, the elements and the endless cycle of life and death. With a diverse practice encompassing performance, painting, video and sculpture, Kim Ku-lim occupies a unique position within Korean contemporary art as a pioneer in each of these disciplines. His performance work is visually represented and recorded in archival newspaper clippings, three examples of which are held in Tate Library’s Special Collections: Body Painting 1969, From Phenomenon to Traces 1970 and Tying the Art Museum 1970. Each of these happenings were collective actions that expressed Kim’s desire to break down the supposed hierarchy between the artistic sphere and lived experience, setting up an interplay between reality and fiction, nature and civilisation. These are significant strands in Kim Ku-lim’s practice which has persisted in challenging the viewer’s fundamental assumptions about art-making and contexts for viewing.

Further reading
Sook-Kyung Lee, ‘Subversion and Enunciation in Ku-Lim Kim’s Performance’, in Kim Ku-Lim: Like You Know It All, exhibition catalogue, Seoul Museum of Art 2013, pp.6–19.

Katy Wan
November 2018

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