Koreans have been in the U.S. since the early 1900s when plantation
owners in Hawaii began to import Korean laborers, Korean American
art has a comparatively short history. Compared to other ethnic groups,
relatively few Koreans emigrated to the U.S. before the late 1960s
and as a result, the bulk of Korean American artistic production
began with the move towards multiculturalism in the early 1980s.
The first notable Korean artists in the U.S. were Whanki Kim (b.
1913), who lived in New York City from 1963 until his death in 1970.
His thick, gouache paintings consisted of series of tiny, brilliantly
colored Mondrian-like squares. The dazzling primary colors that
Kim incorporated in his works bore a resemblance to French Abstract
Expressionist works such as Roger Bissiˇre's color fields. Despite
such similarity, the color palette of Kim's works came from the
saturated reds and greens of traditional Korean paints used for
temples rather than from European color theories or works. During
Kim's lifetime, critics focused on the inscrutable "Oriental" or
"mysterious" quality of the works.
Korean artists lived in the United States during this period and
the other major Korean American artist to surface in the 1970s and
early 1980s was conceptual and performance artist Nam June Paik
(b. 1932) who periodically lived in the United States after 1963.
Yet Paik was less "Korean American" than an internationalist, as
he worked primarily in Europe and Japan. In his video "sculptures"
or installations, Paik often juxtaposed the idea of the passive
television audience with allusions or images of the sexual act.
In one of his many collaborations with cellist Charlotte Moorman,
Paik attached two small television sets to Moorman's breasts while
having Moorman perform a striptease as she played the cello. Relative
to Whanki Kim, Paik made comparatively less overt reference to his
Korean heritage until the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
the 1980s began, a handful of 1.5 and second generation Korean American
artists emerged. These artists were the first generation Koreans
who emigrated to the U.S. immediately following the Korean War in
the early 1960s after the implementation of the McCarran-Walter
Act in 1952. They differed from the expatriates like Paik and Kim
in identifying themselves as Korean Americans. Raised and educated
in the U.S., these artists, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (b. 1951)
and Yong Soon Min (b. 1953) incorporated their ethnic background
into the politically charged atmosphere of the 1980s as manifested
by such artists as Leon Golub and Barbara Kruger. Cha and Min became
particularly concerned with feminist approaches. The self-photograph
of Min and the short, terse, statements in Min's Make Me (1989)
parallels Barbara Kruger's use of photgraphy and snappy-one liners
in Kruger's advertisement-like mixed media works.