Although 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.

Few 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.

As 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.

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