Byron Kim

Synecdoche [Whitney Artists]

Not on view



Oil and wax on wood, forty parts

Dimensions variable, each panel 10 x 8 in.

Accession number

Synecdoche project, 1991-present

Credit line
Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation

Rights and reproductions
© artist or artist’s estate

On first glance, Byron Kim’s Synecdoche appears wholly abstract, comprising a grid of small panel paintings whose format alludes to the monochrome works of Ad Reinhardt and Brice Marden. However, the creamy beiges, warm browns, and blush pinks have their roots in reality: every one represents a portrait of an individual’s skin color. Each subject would sit for fifteen to twenty minutes for the artist, who closely examined a patch of his or her skin before blending an assortment of paints to replicate the exact shade. The panels are ordered alphabetically according to the sitters’ surnames, rendering Synecdoche a sort of abstracted group portrait. Kim is a Korean-American artist, and part of the strategy of this work is to invite us to consider what, exactly, skin color signifies—in this context and others (his title is that figure of speech in which a part stands in for a whole). In imparting a representational dimension to the modernist form of the abstract monochrome, Kim is also engaging a word play whereby two meanings of the term “skin,” the coating on a canvas and human epidermis, collide.


  • Human Interest

    Byron Kim, Synecdoche [Whitney Artists], 1999–2001

    Byron Kim, Synecdoche [Whitney Artists], 1999–2001


    Byron Kim: I remember at the Whitney during the '93 Biennial, I did a lot of things with the education department around the installation of this work. There was a group of school children. They were around kindergarten. First thing I thought to ask them was, "What do you think these are? What do you think this looks like?" It took them a long time. At first they said, "Oh, it looks like bathroom tiles." I think I had to hint around, and finally we got around to it, because these are just flat colors. They have really very little to do with a person. In a way, that was closer to what I probably wanted to say in the beginning.

  • Human Interest

    Byron Kim, Synecdoche [Whitney Artists], 1999–2001

    Byron Kim, Synecdoche [Whitney Artists], 1999–2001


    Narrator: The canvases on view here are, in a sense, “portraits” of artists in the Whitney’s permanent collection.

    Byron Kim: Each one is meant to represent an actual person's skin color.

    Narrator: Byron Kim.

    Byron Kim: They're arranged on the wall in alphabetical order from left to right by first name. Synecdoche, the title of the piece, the work, the painting, is a term of grammar that is a metaphor which means a part standing for the whole. Such as, in the Navy when they say, "All hands on deck." They don't literally mean just the sailor's hands, they mean the whole person. So, in this case, the skin color is standing for the person.

    In my mind originally, it just was a way to make a modernist painting or a modern looking painting and give it some other kind of meaning. But it quickly came to mean something having to do with race and possibly even race relations in this country, which isn’t exactly what I meant. But it wasn’t something that I denied once it was noticed.

    Narrator: To hear Kim reflect further on the reactions to his work, please tap your screen.

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