Byron Kim by Adam Simon

A courtside conversation about portraiture and how to find something in nothing.

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company

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Byron Kim at Northeast Conference Division 1 Championship Game. Photo by Adam Simon.

I’ve been a fan of Byron Kim’s work since I first included it in a show at Four Walls back in 1992 called Sleeping With the Enemy. The show presented artists who were using the vernacular of modernism in ways that contradicted its insistence on autonomy. We lost touch for a bunch of years and then reconnected at a party. Going to basketball games was a way to extend our friendship outside of the art context. Conducting this interview at one was an insane idea that struck me as irresistible.

Adam Simon Okay. This is going to be really hard to hear. We’re at the Northeast Conference championship game: college basketball. LIU Blackbirds against Mt. St. Mary’s Mountaineers. Byron’s looking over some questions that I wrote, and, uh, I’ll give you some background. We started coming to the LIU Blackbirds games around 2012 when somebody gave Michele [Araujo] two free tickets to the quarterfinals. And we’ve been going to a bunch of games, Michele and I and various friends. Uh-oh. Mt. St. Mary’s just scored the first basket. Byron and I have gone to about three of these games. That looks good. That looks good. Oh, yeah! That’s a foul. All right, after two minutes of play Mt. St. Mary’s has 5 points, LIU has 2. But Jamal Olasawere is shooting two, fouled on his way to the basket. Byron’s looking over the questions I wrote down. Maybe we should just concentrate on the game first.

Byron Kim Okay.

AS And then maybe it’ll quiet down. It’s incredibly noisy in here. The place is packed.

BK LIU. Uh-oh.

AS The two things to note are that LIU lost it’s star player halfway through the season, and it never looked like they would make it to the playoffs, but they kept winning their home games and somehow got to the championship.

BK What do you mean by question number two?

AS All right. I’m going to read the question. I can think of your project with flesh colored portrait panels, Synecdoche, which is installed at the National Gallery, and the Sunday Paintings series, where you’ve made a painting of the sky every Sunday. Do you see them as life-long projects or ones that will end at some point?

AS I see the Sunday Paintings as a life-long project, which will end, you know, the last Sunday of my life. Synecdoche, the skin paintings, I’m still making somewhat sporadically. Actually, I’m not sure about that one. I suspect that that series will have an end point.

AS The Sunday Paintings require that you have to see the sky, right?

BK Right. So if there’s a Sunday that, well, yeah. I can’t imagine an instance where I can’t see the sky. If I’m some sort of prisoner and can’t see the sky for a whole week or more, then it’ll have to stop. That never even occurred to me. Wow! What a pass!

AS That’s what he does! That’s what Jason Brickman does. And the thing about this team is that they play so well together that he can make the most improbable passes and they’re ready and waiting for them. He’s got like four players on the team that can sense when he’s going to throw the ball to them, incredibly hard and fast.

BK I can’t believe he has the most assists in the country, because this is Division 1.

AS Yeah. No, not just Division 1. It’s in the whole country. So—

BK Oh oh oh! Okay. All right, then we have to tackle this second question, otherwise…

AS Wait, I have one more question about the first one, though. Can the Sunday Paintings be done from indoors, looking out a window?

BK Yeah, I’ve done as many looking out windows as I have outside; however, when I do it from indoors, I almost always open the window and the screen, so I have an unobstructed view of the sky.

AS Conceivably, you could be on your deathbed.

BK I could be on my deathbed! (laughter) Somebody else could be mixing the color for me. Um. Yeah. Somebody else could be transcribing the words.

AS I heard a rumor, maybe started by you, that Lisa actually painted one of them.

BK Oh, yeah. Lisa did one. I think I was really sick. So, yeah, there’s a precedent for what you’re talking about. Do you have one of these?

AS A Sunday Painting? No, I’d love to have one. I mean, we can trade or something.

BK I have to get you one. Uh … Uh-oh. You’ve got to ask me question number two unless you think of other—

AS Okay. I just wanted to know if you needed to be outdoors. Number two is: Are some of the individual pieces in either of these series, the skin paintings or the Sunday Paintings, better than others?

BK No, none of the individual panels or elements of Synecdoche or the Sunday Paintings is better than any of the others. However, there are some Sunday Paintings that I’m keeping for sentimental value.

AS But what about, like, the painting that was at the New Museum last year, which seems to have come out of special circumstances. That’s a skin tone painting, but it’s not a small panel painting, so where does that fit?

BK Oh, shit!

AS Oh my God, I just realized how far behind LIU is.

BK Uh. Eight points is nothing in a game like this. What, uh—

AS Alright! Jamal!

BK The question you just asked has an incredibly long and involved answer, do you want me to really—

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Jason Brickman. Photo by Adam Simon.

AS Oh! They stole it! That was C.J. Garner!

BK Nice move!

AS He is the most athletic player on LIU. If he were six inches taller, he’d be headed for the NBA. That guy can get so far up into the air—and he’s only like … he’s less than six feet tall. Oh, shit! This is definitely the best team they’ve gone up against so far.

BK This is a great game.

AS They got it down to six points.

BK That show last year at the New Museum, NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, was about 1993. It so happens that in 1993 I did a painting of my own skin color on the wall at the New Museum, for a show called Skin Deep. They wanted me to redo that for the show in 2013. I didn’t want to do that because it seemed like a really boring subject to me at this point, so I said, “I’ll do a similar painting if you allow me to change the content to my friend Alice Yang’s skin color.” She was the curator who put me in the original show. Alice was killed by a hit-and-run driver four years after that original show. They didn’t know who Alice was, even though she was a fellow New Museum curator.

AS They didn’t know who she was?

BK No, the only person whom I found who knew who she was was one of the security guards.

AS Are you serious? But she was a curator at the New Museum.

BK Yeah, but twenty years ago. So they said fine, and then, “How are you going to do it?” I told them not to worry; I’d figure out some way. I could try to remember her skin color or talk to Alice’s mom. A couple of weeks later, while I was procrastinating one morning, I sat straight up in bed and realized that back in the early ’90s I had painted all my friends’ skin colors, plus, you know, many other people’s.

AS Right, so she was in there.

BK So I went to Washington, where that piece is. I went to the conservation department and copied the panel. I guess the only other thing I have to say about it is that I’m much happier with the piece that I made in 2013 than I was with the piece that I made in 1993. I expected it to be a very emotional experience.

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Byron Kim, Sunday Painting 11/25/12 2012, acrylic and pen on canvas mounted on panel, 14 x 14 inches. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.

AS Yeah, that’s what I was wondering about.

BK The show itself was somewhat emotional, but painting Alice’s skin color turns out not to have been very emotional for me at all. It’s just a color. My thoughts about Alice are very strong, and it’s that whole situation is very difficult for me to think about, but redoing the painting confirmed in my mind that color in itself is basically meaningless.

AS Well, but is it possible … Yes! Brandon Thompson just made a great steal and pass to C.J. Garner. Whoa!

BK Oh, nice!

AS Look, they just took the lead!

BK I told you that eight points was nothing in a game like this.

AS Not with a team with this much heart. I love the way this team plays, with each other. The way they play with each other is just incredible. Oh! Mt. St. Mary’s is hitting a lot of three-pointers, though.

BK The other team is really talented.

AS They’re really talented. They’re getting all the outside shots. Your reaction is really interesting because the thing about the original project is that there’s a kind of detachment, a kind of, um, sameness built into the whole project. But when you try to actually make a skin tone painting of a friend who died prematurely, that is charged with emotion. Maybe there’s a contradiction at work there. You know, it’s not what the project started out to be, right?

BK Yeah, that’s possible. I think that’s pretty much right.

AS It’s like making it into an expressionist painting or something.

BK The thing is, I mean, the painting that was at the New Museum is slightly expressive, compared to those tiny eight-by-ten-inch panels.

AS That’s true, actually.

BK But the reason why all of those little panels don’t amount to something more expressive, I think, is that I came to that project through modernism. Not through race, personal contact, friendship, or anything like that, although in some ways I’d say I was certainly closer to personal contact than something like race. I remember thinking after completing about a couple hundred of them … Wow!

AS This is such a close game.

BK I remembered every single person whose skin color I had copied, and I had some sort of emotional attachment to not the painting, but the encounter.

AS Because they’re all done as portraits, sitting with the person.

BK Right. When the piece is shown it always has the title Synecdoche, but the real title of the painting is Synecdoche, colon, and then all the sitters’ names. The signage was always more, let’s say, dear to me than the painting itself.

AS You say that your interest in the project didn’t have to do with race or skin color in its social sense, but the reason it’s at the National Gallery has more to do with that than anything else. Don’t you think?

BK I guess so. There are realities of human skin color that become apparent immediately upon executing a project like this. I realized that there are so many people who are considered white who are blacker than people who are considered black, and so on. The whole thing, on racial terms, is meaningless.

AS That’s what I meant. The reason it’s at the National Gallery is that it makes a mockery—okay, not a mockery—but it shows how ridiculous the concept of race is in this country, as something that divides people, because there are not black people or white people or yellow people or red people. You know, when we went to see it in Washington, my brother who has been involved with grass-roots politics his whole life looked at it and said, “This is a very political artwork.” Of course he’s right, you know?

BK That’s interesting.

AS Yeah, I think he meant that it made a significant statement about race as a dividing factor in this country.

BK Yeah, I wasn’t sure what he meant exactly. When people say that, I sometimes think they’re just skimming the surface. You know, this looks like it’s about race, so it’s inherently political. But knowing Mark, I’m sure you’re right. He was thinking on a more subtle level.

AS I’d give him that. That gets me to something else that’s on this sheet, which is, uh …

BK We can also take a break, you know?

AS Yeah, this game is gonna get too exciting and we’re gonna have to take a break. Let’s take a break and continue at halftime. LIU’s up by one! *Part Two*

BK What happened?

AS I called you at 6:40 PM. We were supposed to meet at 6:30, and you were still in your studio.

BK I have these two clocks in my studio that say almost the same time—like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Perfect Lovers. They’re battery operated—I think I got them at Ikea or something—they’re exactly the same clock except the picture on the face is different. One of them has Kurt Cobain and the dates of his life, and then the other one has Curious George on it. I was actually meditating, and I thought I had plenty of time. I thought, Why is Adam calling me? I got an hour left! I decided to answer the phone luckily. You went, “Where the hell are you?” I look up at the clock and I go, Oh shit, daylight savings time! (laughter) So, shall we continue?

AS Yeah. We can continue while we watch the LIU dance team, which I actually got a picture of. Okay, so, wait, Oh shit, now I forget what my question was.

BK We were talking about the word obvious.

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Installation view of Byron Kim, Synecdoche,1991–present, oil and wax on wood, each panel: 10 x 8 inches, overall installed: 120 1/4 x 350 1/4 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo by Dennis Cowley. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.

AS It just reminded of something that you told me once—that a college roommate once called you the master of the obvious. Is that the right wording?

BK Yeah.

AS So, I was wondering why he said that. Do you remember what made him say that?

BK I don’t remember the exact context but I remember that he meant it pejoratively. I mean, he didn’t always have bad things to say about me. He also once called me the Henry James of parallel of parking.

AS Ha! What does that mean?

BK I’m not exactly sure.

AS I think I know! Henry James is known for having these incredibly long-winded, endless sentences that go on for about a paragraph, and have so many different elements in them, so—

BK How does that relate to parking? Was he trying to say that I was a good parker?

AS Well, I don’t know. I would think that it would mean that you would have, like, a lot of twists and turns getting into a parking space.

BK No, no, I think he meant that I was precise. Is that possible?

AS Yeah, I, um … I guess Henry James is very precise in his use of the English language, but he’s long-winded.

BK This is Tom Perrotta, by the way, who’s a famous novelist now. So, by calling me “master of the obvious” I think he was making fun of me, basically. The funny thing is that Tom, in his own writing, has become a master of the everyday too.

AS Oh, really? So you rubbed off on each other.

BK Possibly, although our work is really different.

AS To me, the significant thing about that anecdote is that you repeated it to me, and you did so because, obviously, it connects to your work. You know, we were talking about skin color … It’s so obvious that there is no black, no white, etcetera. Or the fact that we look up at the sky all the time in this city, but we don’t really see it, which connects to your last show of paintings inspired by the night sky at James Cohan Gallery. It’s the quotidian aspect that’s being addressed. That’s what it means to be the master of the obvious. You’re elucidating the things that everybody else takes for granted.

BK Yeah. I’ve always sought to find meaning in a really tight area, where there doesn’t seem to be any meaning left. Why would anybody in this day and age want to make abstract monochrome paintings, for instance? I can’t believe that I’ve been doing that for this long. Who cares? When you think about that original 1993 show, Skin Deep, which of course had some relation to the Whitney Biennial of that year, there were a lot of people trying to say something in that show—they were doing it in a really vocal, provocative way.

AS There wasn’t much understated work in that show.

BK That sort of goes along with what you’re saying about just trying to find something in nothing. I tend to be constantly looking for that.

AS There’s another anecdote that comes to mind. This one’s complicated, I’m not really sure how it relates. Maybe we can figure it out. It’s the story about another roommate, after college.

BK Same roommate, by the way, Tom Perrotta.

AS Oh, interesting.

BK We lived with each other in Oakland for a while.

AS So you would have these nightly debates, and you felt like he was sort of beating up on you. He was always winning the debates, and after a certain amount of time, you just said to him, “I don’t want to have conversations anymore.” His reply was, “Well, what do you want to do instead?” You proposed that you play chess, so you started having a nightly chess game instead. Did I get that right?

BK The only thing that’s slightly inaccurate is that he didn’t suggest an alternative. I was kind of fed up and I said, “Look, let’s play chess instead ’cause I really can’t do this anymore. It just makes me feel really defeated.” He didn’t think we were arguing, and thought that I held my own all the time, you know? But if you had been there, you would agree with me that I lost every night.

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Long Island University Dancers. Photo by Adam Simon.

AS (laughter) Again, the fact that this is an anecdote that you told me ends up being significant. There aren’t that many people whom I know who would tell me about a time in their life when they felt like they were being repeatedly defeated in conversation. Anyway, that’s an aside. What I was thinking is that you took something—whatever the content of your arguments was—uh, I’m assuming it was kind of complicated and emotional and contentious. Then you deflected it into something structured, repetitive, and with discreet elements—in other words, a chess game. Chess is always being used as a metaphor for art, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m just saying—

BK I like to write, for instance, but part of the reason why I’m a visual artist—and maybe a lot of us are—is that, in the end, words are not completely adequate. It’s kind of a cliché, but a lot of what I end up trying to do is because I can’t say it. As far as playing chess goes, I wasn’t very conscious of why I suggested it. I realized we were both pretty bad at chess—we were both novices—and therefore we were both pretty unattached to whether we won or lost. It turned out to be perfect, because we were pretty equally matched. We did have conversations while we were playing, and the chess diffused the contentious part of the relationship.

AS All right, halftime is over.

BK Do you feel comfortable with a four-point lead at halftime?

AS Yeah because the last game I was at—which was the quarterfinals—they were behind by about twelve points at halftime.

BK You’re crazy, man, four points in a game like this is nothing.

AS I didn’t mean that I know they’re gonna win, I just mean that—

BK You feel better than if they were down by twelve, is what you’re saying.

AS Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, master of the obvious.

BK I have no idea who’s gonna win this game. It might come down to getting fouled out.

AS LIU’s gonna win because they have the home court advantage. They tend to win on home court. Their record on home court is so much better than their away record.

BK I’m looking for number 20 to get hot at some point.

AS Number 20. Oh Booker Hobbs. Yeah, he’s great. Although he hasn’t been hitting a lot of outside shots. That’s what they need to do, they need to get some more outside shots.

BK He’s gonna hit two or three three-pointers in a row, and he’s gonna crack this game open.

AS What actually happens in the second half with this team—a lot is Jamal Olasawere, number 1, he gets really geared up and starts raging through the middle and taking it to the hoop and gets fouled a lot by people trying to stop him.

BK Well, I think if he controls the boards, that’s gonna be key. Such a fast-paced game.

AS Yeah. They got two incredibly athletic players, Jamal Olasawere and C.J. Garner. And they can just weave their way through the defense better than anybody whom I’ve seen out there.

BK I have to say though, St. Mary’s has so much size, compared to LIU.

AS But every team they’ve played against has had more size than they have.

BK That’s true. But the last team we saw them play was pathetic. They had no athleticism, no talent.

AS Yeah, also, all of St. Mary’s biggest players have been sitting on the bench except one, I think.

BK Right.

AS You know what I was just thinking? If this works, maybe it will start a trend of interviews with artists at some of their outside activities. Someone should interview Rochelle Feinstein at a boxing match, for instance.

BK You’d be the person to do that. It’s interesting that they’re running a play at half court, when LIU’s—

AS What’s that all about? It looks ceremonial.

BK They’re well-coached.

AS Well, Mt. St Mary’s has won their last nine games. Oh, oh, he stripped him! Both teams are having a little trouble getting going after the half-time break.

BK This game has two exceptional point guards, I have to say.

AS Yeah, that’s right ref! You don’t have to call that. He flopped! Both teams are going to start flopping now.

BK I’m not so sure about Jason Brickman’s kicks.

AS His kicks?

BK Sneakers.

AS The orange sneakers? It’s kind of a trademark. He always has them.

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LIU Blackbirds against Mt. St. Mary’s Mountaineers. Photo by Adam Simon.

BK So if he takes care of the board, and they send in Booker and he hits a couple of threes, that’s it.

AS C.J. Garner! That guy flies through the air! You know whom I would have loved to have interviewed? In the early ’90s I met this Austrian artist in Vienna—Hans Wiegand—who was supporting his whole family by gambling. He would go to casinos and gamble and was making really good money. I was just thinking about the time when you came to my studio and looked at my paintings and told me I should have ten of each painting. Which I understood not as you giving me marketing advice, but more that it would be a way to fully explicate what was in each of the works. I understood that, but still, to have the capacity to do that is still confounding to me. It’s something you do well, but I don’t.

BK You just told me that you met an artist in the early ’90s who was supporting his family gambling, right? I don’t know if that’s related, but what made you think that I wasn’t giving you marketing advice?

AS That’s what you said at the time. You said, “I know this sounds like I’m giving you marketing advice, but that’s not what it is.”

BK It’s possible that I was lying to you.

AS I don’t believe that the reason you have, you know, six sky paintings in your studio right now, and had twelve closely aligned paintings in your show, is about marketing.

BK You’re probably ninety percent right about that. I’m not saying that what I was giving you was purely marketing advice but, you know, if we don’t put it in those terms, like you just did, about getting work out there, it’s all about—

AS Whoa! Go Jason. Oh, very nice!

BK This is pretty serious; an eleven-point lead is pretty serious. Anyway, I’m sure you’re right that I wasn’t giving you purely marketing advice. I think I was thinking about getting your work out there, which I don’t necessarily think of as marketing. But in the end, what we do has to communicate something to people and so, you know, it’s not that you’re not communicating to people, but the more people you communicate to without compromising your message, the better.

AS So, doing ten of something communicates better than doing one only?

BK Not always. I’m not sure I said make ten of everything. If I said that in your studio, I must have felt at that moment that a series of these works would communicate what you were trying to say better than one of each.

AS Actually, to me, the real question is—

BK Wait. Finish that thought. You almost said you agreed.

AS I do agree. I agree that it is better to have ten than to have one. But I think that making … I don’t know how you do it. Because, what happens to the element of discovery? Where does that happen?

BK I agree. It’s impossible for me to do anything if that element is missing. Maybe it’s just a matter of scale, because during the ten or even twenty—or even one hundred for that matter—I’m often still finding something in it. I know what you mean about the amount you discover curtailing after the first one but, see, here’s a perfect example. After three years or a little longer of making skin paintings, I ended up kind of avoiding it and shunning it, because people knew me as “the skin guy.” I was a little sick of it. But because of this new work at the New Museum, After Alice, I started to think about it all over again in a completely different light. It’s become really interesting to me again. Twenty years later it’s a completely different situation. I don’t know that I could have gotten to this point without having done so much of it back then. Do you know what I’m saying? That series almost ended at twelve panels, except that Paul Bloodgood came to my studio and sort of demanded that I make 200.

AS Really? Was he the same one who told you to paint duplicates?

BK No, that was Tom Burckhardt. That was purely—I wouldn’t say marketing—but that was a purely sort of pragmatic, even financial concern.

AS Actually, you know, it’s kind of a ridiculous. I’m sort of being a little disingenuous, because I actually have a series of… Uh-oh, LIU is so pumped!

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Adam Simon, Steal This Art #17, 2010, 8 x 6 inches, acrylic on aluminum. Photo by Adam Simon. Courtesy of the artist.

BK By thirteen, they’re up by thirteen.

AS I must have made about forty Steal This Art paintings, so—

BK Only forty? I thought more than that by now.

AS Yeah, around forty. I’m also thinking that repetition is going to figure prominently in my show at Studio 10.

BK When’s the show?

AS Not until February 2014.

BK That’s eleven months away!

AS You know what’s weird about doing this? I just realized that one of the great things about going to a basketball game is that you don’t have to think. You’re just taking it in, just absorbing. It’s actually kind of exhausting to sit here and try to think while watching a basketball game.

BK Yeah, well the problem is multitasking. If you were forcing me to think about whether a zone defense was better than man-to-man, that wouldn’t be very hard. Or whether, you know, how much the inside game is affecting each team.

AS This is highly dissociative.

BK Yeah, well you’re a fucking weirdo, man. I wouldn’t have—

AS I get tired of reading artists’ interviews. I knew I wanted to do one with you, but I just didn’t want to do it the usual way.

BK The problem with this is that no one’s going to get the flavor, how loud it is in here, and how incredibly hard it is to have a real conversation when you’re at a championship basketball game.

AS The mind/body split that we’re kind of having to do here watching the game and having the conversation actually gets me to another question that I had for you, except that it’s kind of a dumb question: What does it mean to be a conceptual painter? I think it’s a ridiculous term, and I don’t really want to be using it. But I did use it, so what about that split? Isn’t it sort of a similar split?

BK For some reason, when you say conceptual painter, it reminds me of Ad Reinhardt. I also disagree a little bit with that term, just because it’s so awkward sounding.

AS It never seems to fit, right?

BK Nevertheless, when you say it, I think of Reinhardt because, for me, his black paintings were so deadly serious, and he was so insistent that they were about nothing essentially. At the same time, I think that they were an incredibly elaborate joke. The only way that I can get there is through his political cartoons.

AS Why do you think they were an elaborate joke? They’re so beautiful.

BK Wow, that was a crazy shot! It hit the bottom of the rim. It was like a weird playground thing. 
So what’s the joke? Here’s the joke: the guy spent the last ten years of his life making sixty-by-sixty-inch square black paintings.

AS Right.

BK That’s totally … serious? It is totally serious!

AS Actually, you know what the real joke was? The real joke was when a museum—I think it was the Guggenheim—tried to send one back because it had been scratched, and he said, “Well, I’ll just give you another one.” They said, “No, we just want that one fixed.” And he said something like, “But I could give you another one; they’re all the same.”

BK One of my favorite quotations by him is, “This is much too serious to be taken seriously.”

AS That’s a great line.

Adam Simon’s Swipe is on view at Studio 10 until March 2.

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