Artists on Diaries: Notes from a Sunday Painter

By the Archives
March 27, 2015

This is the next installment in the Artists on Diaries series curated by artist Mary Temple, in which guest authors will comment on contemporary diary practices.

— Archives of American Art Blog editors

Appointment book of Bernarda Bryson Shahn
Bernarda Bryson Shahn appointment book, 1972-2002. Bernarda Bryson Shahn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


It’s coming toward the 15th. Question––? Will I go to Skowhegan as I have gone each year? ––– I am now 99 ––– I’m perfectly well, although the general belief is – or seems to be ––– that I am well on my way to the –––grave–––? Well maybe not ––– I could really like to live a long long time. Who knows? What non–sense!

Bernarda Bryson Shahn lived nearly two more years after writing this feisty diary entry in 2002. Her life and that of her late husband’s, Ben Shahn, were inextricably woven into the rich history of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in rural Maine. Ben Shahn had been a faculty artist in Skowhegan’s early years (1954–55, 1961, 1963–1965), and there is still a beautiful cottage on the grounds that the couple shared—the one that Bernarda is considering in the entry above.

In 1999, I had the honor of attending the residency and although I didn’t get to meet Bernarda, I had the privilege of working with many incredible artists, both faculty and participants. The conceptual painter, Byron Kim was an artist faculty member that year; his generous critiques, intelligence, and kindness infuse all my memories of that seminal residency. Byron Kim’s Sunday Paintings series comprises small paintings—each a patch of sky, and each inscribed with handwritten notes about recent personal events. The series is a quintessential take on the contemporary artists’ diary, and one that fits well into the context of the exhibition A Day in the Life: Artists’ Diaries from the Archives of American Art.

— Mary Temple, Artists on Diaries series curator


Byron Kim, Sunday Painting 07/07/13, acrylic and pen on canvas on panel, 14 x14 in., image courtesy Byron Kim and James Cohan Gallery, NYC. Used with permission.
Byron Kim, Sunday Painting 07/07/13, acrylic and pen on canvas on panel, 14"x14", image courtesy Byron Kim and James Cohan Gallery, NYC. Used with permission.


It’s been so long since I have tried to keep a journal that I can't even remember why I attempted it. I’m guessing that it was during my adolescence or early adulthood, and it probably had to do with my desire to be a writer. I can’t imagine it ever lasted more than a week, but I do vaguely remember making several attempts. On the other hand, I’ve managed to make a small painting of the sky every week since January 7, 2001. That’s more than 700 paintings of the sky. The reason I mention this endeavor in the context of journals is that I inscribe each of these paintings with a few sentences having to do with my life at that particular moment. I have honestly never thought about why I was unable to keep a conventional journal for more than a week, but I have created a series of paintings routinely over the course of fourteen years projected into the rest of my life.

I think there are several reasons that my first attempts at consistent writing failed and these entries on little paintings of the sky continue. Although I put a little thought into where to place the words on the painting, almost no thought goes into the composition of the words themselves. They are simply offhand remarks related to my life at the moment, or, perhaps, the weather. In other words, I don’t really consider this “writing,” so none of the expectation attached to “writing” goes into it. I had thought that it is because I’m older now and have more discipline than when I was younger, but, actually, I don’t think that’s true. I think the oddness of writing on a painting is more to the point. It seems notational, amateurish. I make these paintings on Sunday and call them “Sunday Paintings,” so that I’m literally and figuratively a Sunday painter. In this work, I am embracing the amateur, partly in the aforementioned sense of lacking expectation, but mainly to connect with the root meaning of the word which has to do with being motivated by love.

Words make this series of works diaristic, but, really, it’s consistency over time that matters. One could still think of this as a diary if there were no words.

Byron Kim, Palms, 2014, two panels, 3x3 in. each, oil on canvas on panel, image courtesy Byron Kim and James Cohan Gallery, NYC. Used with permission.
Byron Kim, Palms, 2014, two panels, 3"x3" each, oil on canvas on panel, image courtesy Byron Kim and James Cohan Gallery, NYC. Used with permission.

This brings me to another series. These are little brushy oil paintings of the palms of my hands, just a few inches in width and length, actual size. I started them recently because I have an unusual horizontal line across my right palm that I wanted to respond to. I continued them because they are so incredibly challenging. I’ve been working on a bunch of different projects in my studio lately, most of which I consider to be much more ambitious and interesting. When certain artists walk in and notice these palm paintings, it’s what they like the most. I’d like to continue making them. I don’t know if there should be a set interval of time involved or whether they should be more realistic or more abstract.


Byron Kim often works in an area one might call the abstract sublime. His work sits at the threshold of abstraction and representation, between conceptualism and pure painting. Kim’s best known work, Synecdoche, was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Comprising a grid of hundreds of panels depicting human skin color, the painting is both an abstract monochrome and a group portrait. Once a week since 2001, Kim has made a small painting of the sky on which he inscribes a few momentary thoughts. These Sunday Paintings have become a personal cosmology which contrasts the everyday against the everything.

Kim, born in 1961, is a Senior Critic at the Yale School of Art. He received a BA from Yale University in 1983 and attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1986. His work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA; the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.; the M+ Museum, Hong Kong; the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA; the Norton Family Collection, Santa Monica, CA; the Pérez Art Museum, Miami; the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; and the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. Byron Kim lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

The exhibition A Day in the Life: Artists’ Diaries from the Archives of American Art is on view through February 28, 2015 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.). Admission is free.