Korea’s post-war abstraction giants: Dansaekhwa

Yesterday at the 2017 LA Art Show was the first time I ever heard an artist distinctly define his aesthetic, philosophical, religious and political artistic principals, motivations and intellectual program that drew sharp, bright, distinct and clear differences between the tenets and desires of Western High Modernist abstraction in Europe and later New York and that of the art of the Korean Post-War artistic group to which he belongs, Korea’s rising artistic circle known as Dansaekhwa. Their works make make no attempt to enter into the Western world art historical canon. Though abstract, they are representations of a completely different set of cultural, historical and material conditions.

Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles





Posted : 2015-08-19 17:02

Updated : 2015-08-19 17:02

Half-truths about ‘Dansaekhwa’


By Kate Lim

“Dansaekhwa,” an abstract movement in contemporary Korean art, is currently enjoying global fame and attention. Tributes to it are coming from all camps of the art world. It is a seminal development that an exhibition featuring seven artists, including Kim Whan-Ki, Kwon Young-Woo and Park Seo-bo, was organized as a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale this year.

Paintings of Dansaekhwa artists are now eagerly collected by museums and art foundations across the globe. Many cosmopolitan art lovers, who hardly knew anything about contemporary Korean art, are also admiring the aesthetic beauty. This global recognition naturally had a huge impact on the commercial value of art works, their prices increasing on average as much as 10 times in the last two years.

Dansaekhwa refers to abstract paintings executed in off-white, black, blue or earth-toned colors often with “hanji,” traditional Korean paper. Artists accomplish this effect using diverse techniques, for example through methodical repetition of strokes, accumulation of layers, or pushing thick oil paint through from the back of the canvas. Embodying rigorous and traditional workmanship, this genre beautifully betrays each artist’s personalized facture, eliciting an abundance of emotions.

Its popularity is a refreshing comeback of paintings in the contemporary art scene that has been dominated by installations and video arts. Compared to other genres, art lovers normally feel more intimate with paintings, of which they recently have been encountering less and less. Moreover, it has its own appeal to global art lovers because it embodies Asian-esque intricacies and a sense of austere tranquility that are not easy to find in most contemporary Western arts. The success can be understood as a welcome outlet of their longing for simple yet rich aesthetic experiences.

Strangely, the current vogue in interpreting the art has had a heavy sociopolitical weight. The current vogue departs from the artists’ pure motivation in creating their works and also departs from those who love art for the creative feelings that art imparts into life. For example, Park Seo-Bo, a protagonist of the Dansaekhwa movement, had been heavily criticized by proponents of “Minjung Art” (literally meaning ‘people’s art’ in Korean, a type of social realism movement in Korea), for creating his abstraction as an “escape” from the authoritarian political reality in the 1970s and the 1980s.

In the Venice Biennale, the sociopolitical perspective made a U-turn: the works of Dansaekhwa artists were suddenly portrayed as an artistic form of political resistance during Korea’s “darkest days.” Lee Young-Woo, the curator of the Dansaekhwa exhibition in Venice, wrote in his curatorial essay, “The cultural suppression caused by military dictatorship…can be seen as a social, historical measurement…to understand the development process. Dansaekwha, including many other art tendencies, were ubiquitous, fragmented and oppositional political strategies, regardless of their sincerity and experimental contexts.” Foreign curators also echoed this new sociopolitical interpretation. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrathasserted in Frieze Magazine said, “By choosing to abandon figuration, Dansaekhwa artists made it more challenging for the Park Chung-hee regime to coerce their work into clearly discernible visuals of political propaganda.”

For Dansaekhwa artists and art lovers, this kind of socio-politico-centric and contradictory interpretations of the same art is dismaying. In a series of personal interviews with the author, Park Seo-bo unambiguously said, “It had nothing to do with political resistance; it had no purpose” (Park Seo-bo: From Avant-Garde to Ecriture, 2013). For Park, it emerged in complete disconnection from any possible sociopolitical interpretation. The artist was simply struck with a pure desire to repeatedly draw rows of curvy lines on a wet coat of gesso. Another artist, Kwon Young-Woo’s breakthrough evolved from an off-chance discovery of the sensorial quality ofhanji. It led him to create a sea of abstract patterns through tearing, ripping, or piercing hanji. The viewers are invited to abstract and find meaning in a deep intimacy formed through the artist’s intensely repetitive and bodily engagement with the material.

It is a dangerous trend in the art world that critics always feel obliged to tightly connect artworks to the sociopolitical context and maintain a deterministic view to prioritize the sociopolitical reality over the formal and material content of the art, and the actual intention of artists. In this milieu, artists and galleries hardly resist this tyranny of critics, fear of angering them, and sometimes they aim to promote artworks by readily accepting the critics’ hegemony, regardless of the full truth of the artworks.

It is definitely a new development worth celebrating that the global art world has finally acknowledged the authentic beauty and art-historical value. It would have been a lot better, however, if it were portrayed by putting them in the broader and consistent context of the global art world, without negating the pure desire of the artists’ creativity.

Kate Lim is director of Art Platform Asia, an independent curator and art writer.


Alida Sayer / INTERVIEWS

Blog by British artist Alida Sayer, documenting her Spring 2015 residency at INTERVIEWS studio and AiR programme / Andong, Republic of Korea / 19th March to 14th June / http://www.interviews.kr / 영국미술작가 알리다 세이어 블로그 – 인터뷰스 레지던시에서의 기록 / 안동 / 2015년 3월 19일 – 6월 14일

May 12, 2015 at 1:46am


On Dansaekhwa*

Extract from Tactile ‘seeing’ and Dansaekhwa by Simon Morley, a paper read at the AICA Annual Conference, South Korea, October 2014

By being a-compositional or unitary surfaces, Dansaekhwa works are rendered frontal and all-over, so that they are less an affair of visual perception, and more of tactile ‘seeing.’ By avoiding the division of the surface into figure and ground, Dansaekhwa artists engage the whole field equally. Normally, a surface is divided into fields of attention (‘figure’) and fields of inattention (‘ground’), an organization of the gestalt according to loci of attention and inattention. But these works entail a homogeneity or continuum of surface, and this counters the optical sense’s intimate connection to the cognitive, and draws the works into the realm of the more embodied haptic sense. In Dansaekhwa a painting unfolds within a different cognitive paradigm to the West.  The – to Westerners – unusual uses of the discipline of painting makes it clear that  these artists were aiming to evolve a practice in relation to traditional East Asian art as well as Western modern art.

A pronounced emphasis on physical engagement  – on the studied use of the hand and measured control of the movements of the body in harmony with thought, suggests an alignment with an artisanal activity such as pottery making. This provided a context within which to shift Korean painting away from both the traditions of East Asian ‘literati’ painting and also traditional Western  art’s preoccupation with mimesis while at the same time serving to  parallel  certain aspects of the modernist Western formalism that was becoming increasingly known to Korean artists. They were working from within a consciousness bound closely to a more positive evaluation of the relationship between the synaesthesic body and cognitive processes, and the substrates of Dansaekhwa paintings communicate more subjective, ‘dark’, empathetic and transient cognitive processes grounded in greater awareness of sensory-motor experience –  tactile or haptic qualities derived from the holistic dialecticism central to traditional Korean and East Asian culture. As a consequence,  Dansaekhwa artists devised ways of manipulating materials and employing surfaces that have no real  precedents amongst Western artists, while their practices  intersect with Western art through being played out on a common art world stage which was becoming globally hegemonic during this period.

As the philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue, “human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (1980/2003, p.6) and while these metaphors are fundamentally motivated by sensory-motor experience, the bias is conditioned by recursive cultural norms. In the West the dominant conceptual metaphors regarding the experience and meaning of paintings pertain to vision, while in Dansaekhwa these are supplemented by those pertaining to touch or kneading. This is an art that is more about doing than seeing.

Another way of framing the distinction I have made is suggested by one of the Dansaekhwa artists themselves –  Lee Ufan, The concept of ‘encounter’, for Lee means an interface or dialogue taking place in the animated space between the beholder and the work. Lee writes: “Rather than my work defining me or the other way round, something different grows in the mutual interaction and response and suddenly comes into existence.”(1996, p.120). Such an ‘encounter’ is encouraged by the tactile sense, as it brings the two parties into more intimate contact.

The  art of Dansaekhwa can be regarded as a hybrid that borrows traits of Western modernism and detour them via traditional East Asian – and specifically Korean  – concepts. Within the context of globalised modern art, the specific focus of Dansaekhwa artists on the markedly material, tactile object, and on the performative dimension, can be interpreted as aiming to produce points of resistance from which to both revitalise traditional East Asian conventions and also to deconstruct the Western world-view. Multi-sensory intimacy, conveyed by the notion of a ‘tactile’ relationship to the world, one in which there is greater awareness of the embodied nature of mind, lies at the heart of the traditional East Asian thought upon which Dansaekhwa artists drew.

The emergence of Dansaekhwa in the 1970’s, and in South Korea in particular, suggests a context within which some Korean artists encountered the liberating example of Western modernism and sought to break with their own heritage and to assimilate and emulate Western modernism’s styles. In this sense, Korean monochrome painting is one of the many symptoms, manifested globally according to different time-frames in different countries, that signal the end of indigenous art and culture characterised by harmonious evolution – by repetitions, emulations and incremental departures from the norm – and by a sense of holistic embodiedness. But while Dansaekhwa artists adopted procedures and underlying assumptions from the ‘analytic’ Western tradition –  such as seeing art in terms of artistic autonomy, as highly subjectivized, and as characterized by  overt demonstrations of the freedom of expression –  they also sought  to cleave to key characteristics of the traditional ‘holistic’ Korean culture which were fast disappearing. The raw, earthy quality of Dansaekhwa evokes the experience of an agrarian society in which immersion in nature and tending the land is central. It is here also that we should seek the origins of Bachelard’s ‘cogito of kneading’ – in the awareness of the mind as something embodied in the ‘flesh’ of the physical world.


* Dansaekwha literally means ‘monochrome painting’ in Korean, and the term refers to the style of painting that arose during the second half of the 1970s in South Korea.

Visually, Dansaekhwa ruptures from tradition and the past, becoming a new stylistic tendency in a significant period of time in Korean socio-political history. Superficially, its characteristics seem to point towards an assimilation and emulation of Western modernism, and a ‘liberation’ from the strict traditions of Korea’s artistic heritage. Yet, an analysis and reading of Dansaekhwa according to influence and appropriation from Western models is not accurate, as British art historian Simon Morley writes in his article “Dansaekhwa. Korean Monochrome Painting” (Third Text,Vol. 27, Issue 2, 2013): […] a reading of Dansaekhwa in terms of influence and appropriation from Western models involves superficial stylistic comparisons and the assumption of a single master chronology. It fails to take into account the differentials within the temporality of modernity as it impacted on, and unfolded within East Asia itself and South Korea in particular.

In her book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013), Joan Kee, curator and Professor of Art History at the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor, wrote that the experimental painting that emerged in the early 1960s was both a refusal of the earlier colonial legacy as well as a response to Western modes of abstraction. However, it is important to recognise Dansaekhwa’s uniqueness as distinct from the Western canon of art history. The book is the first in-depth examination of the movement in the English language.

(description sourced from artradarjournal.com)


It’s Not About You: Does Korean Abstract Painting Have Any Relation to Western Art?

Two Dansaekhwa and one post-Dansaekhwa artist talk Confucianism, artistic colonialism and death

Detail on an untitled TK hanging in his studio.

Detail of a painting by Ha Chong-Hyun, from the “Conjunction” series, hanging in his studio. Guelda Voien

In recent years, the Dansaekhwa movement in Korea has been having a moment, to say the least. The abstract painting practice has drawn abrupt appreciation both in its home country and abroad; some of the avant-garde works have grabbed seven-figure bids at auction.

Of course, sometimes distinct cultures, with little direct interaction, come upon the same idea, and even execute it similarly. Like opera—both in the East and the West, this form arose separately.

Similarly, Korean painters independently developed an abstract practice similar to the abstract expressionism that took hold in Post-war U.S., but reflecting a more Confucian approach to the sort of meaninglessness such work is thought to convey, following the Korean war.

With strong emphasis on materiality and in earthy, muted tones, Dansaekhwa painting in many ways resembled the work of Barnett Newman or Agnes Martin in the West, though such comparisons might be impolitic—or unnecessary.

In 2014 an exhibit at Kukje Gallery—Korea’s toniest by far—shed a spotlight on the once-forgotten Dansaekhwa movement, and the art world took notice. A 2015 auction at Christie’s augmented the focus on Dansaekhwa; The New Yorker ran a feature.

But at least some of the Dansaekhwa artists are tired of being compared to Western painters and analyzed by Western standards. They’re seizing the movement’s moment in the sun to talk about Korea, Korean-ness, the post-war era in their home and the future of art and politics (to name just a few minor subjects). Of course, there are also fissures in the perception of Dansaekhwa, undeniably the most-exported fine art from Korea, among Koreans. A later movement, Minjung, or “people’s art,” confronted violence and repression in the 1980s in the country. It receives far less international attention and is surely less marketable internationally, raising some questions about why the most palatable painting has also had the most institutional muscle behind it.

The Observer recently met with three artists in or near Seoul who made at least some of their work in the Dansaekhwa mode. Here’s what they had to say.

Ha Chong-Hyun

Chong-Hyun’s works, in earth tones and grays, for the most part, often feature his distinct process: pushing the paint through the back of the canvas. In his studio in Ilsan, Korea, he welcomed western journalists in August with a strong admonition: don’t compare me to Western painters. (Too late, and we’re sorry.)

The technique, though, may have been one way to make his work distinct when he did not have all the resources other painters did. “Livelihood was difficult,” he said. “Even getting the proper oil paints or canvases,” was often not possible.

He used things he had, such as barbed wire, which was plentiful in post-war Korea. But these items are employed as true materials, not as found objects, to create abstract textures and surfaces.

“Western journalists would always try to pinpoint references,” he said, “which was very difficult for me.” He was not educated in the West and rejects the idea that even the barbed wire is a symbol. “Barbed wire was easy to get,” he said. His works are usually simply about “the action between hemp and oil paint.”

Detail on a Chong-Hyun in his studio.

Detail of one of Chong-Hyun’s pieces from “Conjunction,” in his studio. Guelda Voien

In his eighties, Chong-Hyun has finally achieved a comfortable life. But it was not always the case. For years, when he had to move, schlepping his massive canvases laden with inches of thick oil paint was a huge logistical issue. He endured, though, and “they become more meaningful to me each year.”

Ha Chong-Hyun’s solo show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles goes up November 12. 

Park Seo-bo

Seo-bo’s first solo New York gallery show was earlier this year at Galerie Perrotin; he also turned 84. His textured, disciplined squares are not “conceptual,” he insists, in another rejection of the Western imposition of its vocabulary and ideas on this movement.

In his work space in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood, paintings are stored all around him but there is none of the paint splatters or disorganization one might associate with a typical artist’s studio. Perhaps this relates to his concept of Dansaekhwa painting, which is as a discipline: the end deposit of the Confucian process of self-purification is the painting.

He spoke of “painting as chanting,” and called art “the scum of emptying oneself.” So the West doesn’t have a monopoly on dramatic descriptions by artists of their work, either.

The deep veins in his almost geographical works are the result of a months-long process of soaking and layering paper. Many are in monochrome.

He’s also quick to resist the Western assumptions about what artists’ choices mean. “Monochrome is not the same as in Western art,” he said. “The burning stove creates a black… different from pitch black”; it’s more restrained.

“Ecriture, Black and White” by Park Seo-bo opens at Tina Kim Gallery in New York November 11.

Kim Yong-Ik

Yong-Ik, younger than the core Dansaekhwa artists, began his career making abstract work, but moved away from what he saw as a sort of amorality linked with abstraction in the 1980s, after a political awakening, he said. His works fill two floors at the Ilmin Museum currently and his evolution from monochrome painter to conceptual artist and politically irreverent provocateur is evident in that show.

One of his criteria for a good piece of art is the very practical stipulation that it be mobile, and therefore easy to get from the studio to the gallery. Pointing to a large assemblage of found items—his recent work—he says “this is not a good work. It’s hard to carry this.” Is he having us on? Serious? Winking, at the least? Via a translator it’s hard to tell, but with his broad smile and inviting gestures, it’s clear he’s enjoying himself either way.

Kim Yong-Ik's Triptych.

Kim Yong-Ik’s Triptych. Guelda Voien

He tells the tale of his abrupt shift towards work more rooted in the world we inhabit thusly: he was sick, and could not find a cure. Nothing was medically wrong with him, but he couldn’t leave the house. Eventually, he figured it out. He “was so sick… because of modernism.”

Looking at an early, abstract work of his, he says “these polka dots are just meaningless signs.” But the 1980s in Korea, when citizens could not leave and government paratroopers were massacring left-leaning students, was not a time for meaningless art. So he abandoned it.

Many of Yong-Ik’s later work deals with his death and his body. His later, found assemblage-type works are awash in blood-like colors, footprints, bits of trash.

Yong-Ik is not precious about his work, or his life. He worked to receive a doctorate, but when he’d completed his thesis, he simply printed the pages and went to a remote southern part of the Korean countryside, where he buried the entire dissertation in a hole in the ground. He became a very productive artist later, while an academian, he said, only because he needed more money.

The wall text next to the upper floor at Ilmin describes his latest pieces, while also perfectly illustrating the artist’s current approach to his work.

“… the ‘coffin series’ was inaugurated in 2015. As if washing and dressing his own corpse, it was through this series that the artist started to humbly embrace the fate of the modernist. Collecting his work inside coarsely built wooden boxes with texts and images of the Kristigarbha, the coffins seem to be the inevitable conclusion of the artist perceiving his footsteps—from modernist experimentations, to voicing against political situations or the self-reflection and struggle with his own ethics—in a historical context, and organizing a funeral for his works.”

“Closer…Come Closer” is up until November 6 at the Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea, and Kim Yong-Ik’s solo exhibition at Kukje Gallery opens November 22.


Interviews were conducted with the aid of a translator.


[Herald Interview] ‘Dansaekhwa is a miracle’o

he Korea Herald > Entertainment > Arts

 Published : 2014-10-16 20:31

Updated : 2014-10-16 20:31

LONDON ― From a Western viewpoint, Dansaekhwa paintings may seem confusing. They don’t fit into familiar key art movements in Western art history.

First created in the 1960s, Dansaekhwa paintings may be in line with minimalism. But behind their simple imagery is much more complex meaning. They resulted from the suppressed freedom of expression that Korean artists experienced under authoritarian governments of the past.

Artist Ha Chong-hyun, 80, recalls his selection of materials, looking at his 1973 work featuring barbed wires.

“I used wires and hemp fabrics a lot for my work. They were two of the most common materials you could find during the time. Barbed wires were frequently used after the Korean War to lock up war prisoners in jail facilities and later to imprison pro-democracy activists. Soldiers put sand in hemp cloth bags to build walls around the military stations,” Ha said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday.



Artist Ha Chong-hyun poses in front of his painting at the Frieze Masters in London. (Lee Woo-young/The Korea Herald)

Some artists expressed anger at the suppression in society through explicitly satirical paintings. But artists like Ha chose to stay muted. Instead, he went bold in the gesture of painting. He pushed thick paint through the back of the canvas ― an expression of anger against military dictatorship and of regret for traditional culture disappearing in the process of state-led rapid economic development and modernization.

It was not just Ha who made a rebellious gesture in the form of painting methods. Several other artists such as Lee U-fan, Chung Sung-hwa and Park Seo-bo took a similar approach to paintings. They applied monochromatic paints all over the canvas repetitively or drew pencil lines freely. Some let the paints flow down the canvas while some cut paper or canvas and covered them with paint.

“We didn’t know each other’s work processes at the time. But when we gathered the works from the period later, we found similarities in methods and expressions,” said Ha.

“Dansaekhwa is a miracle, like South Korea’s miraculous economic development.”

Throughout his art career, Ha has sought to try unprecedented practices in art.

He chose materials that others hadn’t thought of and came up with ways to set his paintings apart from others.

Ha has also been at the forefront of changes in the Korean art world.

He led the avant-garde art movement from 1969 to 1973 in Korea. As the head of the Korean Fine Arts Association, he struggled to revamp the then-conservative national art award, which was at the time the only path for artists to debut on the art scene.

“They (established artists) inherited the most conservative concept in art. They weren’t open to new ideas and expressions,” said Ha.

Ha was also an educator who taught arts as a professor of the nation’s prestigious art college Hongik University for 35 years. He served as director of the Seoul Museum of Art for six years.

Ha has been prolific for the past decade, devoting himself to his “Conjunction” and “Post-Conjunction” series ― a milestone series in his Dansaekhwa paintings.

“I will devote myself to promoting the unique Dansaekhwa art movement in Korea and its importance in the world’s art history. That is my last mission as an artist,” said Ha.

By Lee Woo-young, Korea Herald correspondent



The Koreans at the Top of the Art World

Next week, when V.I.P.s and special guests shuffle through Christie’s new West Galleries, in Rockefeller Center, they will alight on a series of abstract paintings by a group of relatively unknown artists. These pieces reflect a recent market craze for attractive, anodyne work with an emphasis on process and materials. But the artists at the West Galleries are not young painters from Brooklyn, Berlin, or Los Angeles. They are a group of Korean octogenarians who comprise a movement known as Tansaekhwa (or “Dansaekhwa”) and have been producing in this style since the nineteen-seventies.

Tansaekhwa will receive the red-carpet treatment from Christie’s, with a sumptuous, hundred-and-thirty-six-page catalogue, a lavish exhibition split between New York and Hong Kong, and prices to match: a million dollars for a work by Park Seo-Bo, $1.5 million for a Chung Sang-Hwa. By the standards of today’s frothy art market, the prices are far from eye-watering, but for the artists, who until now were mostly forgotten even within Korea, they are almost unfathomable. “I am unbelievably happy,” the artist Ha Chong-Hyun said on the phone from Korea. “I’m eighty-one years old. Back in the day, Koreans didn’t live this long. I shouldn’t be here. But to have this happen in my lifetime, I can’t be more thankful.”

After four decades of languishing, with occasional exhibitions in regional galleries around Korea and Japan, Ha has, within the last year, landed his first solo show in New York, seen his work enter the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, attended the opening of a highly lauded Tansaekhwa show in Venice, and watched forty-five of his paintings go on the auction block, with nine selling for more than a hundred thousand dollars. Prior to 2014, his auction record was a mere $13,303, and, in the six years from 2007 through 2013, when eight works of his went to auction, half went unsold. “To be honest, it was not possible to make a living making this kind of work in Korea,” Ha said. “I was so tired and it’s such welcome news.”

Although he was the dean at Korea’s most prestigious art school, Hongik University, for many years, Park Seo-Bo, who is eighty-four, had a negligible market as well. Park’s 1982 piece “Ecriture 3-82” was sold in November, 2013, for $56,750 and then resold in May of this year for $631,972. In the nineteen-eighties, Park said, he couldn’t sell this kind of work for even three million Korean won, which, at the time, was equivalent to less than four thousand dollars.

This sudden attention has blindsided the Tansaekhwa artists, but it coincides with a new global focus in the art world. Galleries are opening outposts; collectors from emerging economies are increasing their influence; and museums are revising the art-historical narrative to include under-recognized artists and movements. Tansaekhwa has found itself at the nexus of a number of changes. Alexandra Munroe, the curator of the 2011 Guggenheim Museum retrospective of Lee Ufan, an artist associated with Tansaekhwa and its most prominent exponent, describes it as a “perfect storm.”


The powerful art adviser Allan Schwartzman, who has taken a keen interest in Tansaekhwa, said, “I’ve never seen this amount of widening interest in a particular circle of non-contemporary artists, in historical material before.” The number of upcoming exhibitions associated with the group this fall supports Schwartzman’s observation. In New York alone, the blue-chip galleries Blum & Poe, Galerie Perrotin, and Tina Kim will open shows of Yun Hyong-Keun, Chung Chang-Sup, and Ha Chong-Hyun respectively, within a week of each other, starting on October 30th. In London during Frieze week, in mid-October, no fewer than three exhibitors—Axel Vervoordt, Kukje Gallery / Tina Kim, and Hakgojae—will be showing Tansaekhwa works at Frieze Masters. South of the fair, in a tony gallery space next to the Royal Academy of Art, the global mega gallery Pace will host a retrospective of Lee Ufan’s paintings from the Tansaekhwa period.

What started the market phenomenon? It can be traced to two shows of major historical works: one, at Kukje Gallery in Seoul, in August, 2014, and, less than a month later, a show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, which was curated by Joan Kee, an art historian who authored “Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method,” the first book on the movement in English. (The artists credit her for spurring international interest in their work.) Following the two exhibitions, a number of institutions acquired Tansaekhwa works, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Centre Pompidou, in Paris; the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Abu Dhabi; the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art, in New York; and M+, a new museum currently under construction in Hong Kong. Important American collectors, such as Howard Rachofsky, who, with his wife, Cindy, has promised their entire collection to the Dallas Museum of Art, also bought from these shows, under Schwartzman’s guidance.

As collectors took their cue from these influential tastemakers, auction prices went up. Since the Blum & Poe and Kukje shows last year, seventy-two works by Chung Sang-Hwa, Park Seo-Bo, Ha Chong-Hyun, and Yun Hyong-Keun have sold for more than a hundred thousand dollars each at auction. Prior to that, only four works had surpassed a hundred thousand dollars, ever. Although the sales took place in Asia, more than half of the bidders were Western collectors and new clients, Jihyun Lee, a specialist at K Auction, which holds auctions in Korea and Hong Kong, said. Seoul-based Yunah Jung, who is organizing the Christie’s selling exhibition, concurs that Western interest is driving the market.

Joan Kee, the art historian, says that Tansaekhwa has that “extra oomph factor” from its association to Lee Ufan, who was acclaimed in the late nineteen-sixties as the main theorist behind the Japanese postwar movement Mono-Ha. But she cautions that Tansaekhwa was not an official movement; there was no manifesto, nor a clearly defined group of members. The term, meaning, literally, “monochrome painting,” appeared in the mid-nineteen-seventies to describe work that shared a spare palette and an innovative approach to process, which differed from artist to artist. Lee Ufan created works consisting of lines, made by dragging his brush down the length of the canvas until the pigment disappeared, and points, made by repeatedly pressing the tip of the brush against the canvas until the paint was used up. Park Seo-Bo used pencil to draw dense scribbles, wispy lines, and sinuous loops into the still-wet surface of the painted canvas. Chung Sang-Hwa covered the canvas in a layer of zinc-based paint, laboriously stripped away sections and then repainted those areas with a slightly glossier acrylic paint. Ha Chong-Hyun used a burlap woven fabric as a support and pushed paint from the reverse side, allowing it to seep through to the front.

Works from Lee Ufan’s “From Point” series, currently on view at Pace London.
Works from Lee Ufan’s “From Point” series, currently on view at Pace London. Lee Ufan, Courtesy Pace Gallery

The resultant works had a strong, if superficial, affinity to paintings by Cy Twombly, the ZERO artists, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Niele Toroni and other exponents of postwar abstraction, but came out of a period of economic deprivation and political upheaval. In 1972, South Korean President Park Chung Hee declared martial law and instituted a new constitution that greatly expanded executive power, effectively rendering the state a dictatorship. Although political repression was met with some disaffection and resistance, the Tansaekhwa artists remained silent. “Young artists unknown to the public or with no prestigious position had nothing else to do than to repeat non-expressive expressions with no distinctive image using minimal materials,” Lee Ufan said. Park Seo-Bo described his intentions in a similar way: “I didn’t want to express anything, it was about emptying myself. The monk empties himself by ritual, by repetition. So I did the same thing.”

The artists’ choice of materials also reflected these conditions. Ha Chong-Hyun began using burlap, a material sent by the U.S. to aid South Korea and which was readily and cheaply available at Seoul’s Namdaemun Market. Specific to the Korean context yet resonant with Western abstraction, Tansaekhwa came to dominate international shows of Korean contemporary art by the late nineteen-seventies. Over time, the movement gradually fell out of favor; only its most celebrated artist, Lee Ufan, who mainly split his time between Tokyo and Paris, maintained a successful career both at home and abroad.

The response to the Kukje and Blum & Poe shows was immediate, but not entirely surprising given that it came soon after a market boom for Gutai, another rediscovered movement that was both non-Western and abstract. Founded in Japan in 1954, Gutai challenged the conventions of art in an astounding array of mediums, including painting, performance, installation, and participatory art. In recent years, the market has taken particular interest in one member, Kazuo Shiraga, who created violently expressive works by painting with his feet. Since 2009, the average price of Shiraga’s work has risen more than sixfold. This spring, the market reached a fever pitch when two of New York’s most important galleries—Dominique Lévy and Mnuchin Gallery—mounted Shiraga shows concurrently and a third gallery, Fergus McCaffrey, which has represented the Shiraga family since 2009, held a show shortly thereafter.

Tansaekhwa has several advantages over Gutai, including abundance. According to Schwartzman, who has acquired, with his clients, works by Gutai and Tansaekhwa artists, “there was never meaningful supply of Gutai.” The supply that did exist was widely dispersed. Shiraga, for instance, was represented for decades by galleries in Paris, Berlin, and London, so many of his works ended up in European collections. Because most of the Tansaekhwa artists had few market outlets prior to 2014, most of them are sitting on vast resources of material. Ha Chong-Hyun estimates that he still possesses roughly a thousand works, though he has promised a portion to a municipal museum in Korea.

As the big galleries become bigger, through larger spaces and multiple locations in cities around the world, and as the proliferation of art fairs continues unabated, more programming is needed than ever before. Tansaekhwa is particularly appealing, because, in addition to their considerable inventories of historical material, most of the artists continue to make new work. Plus, their oeuvre is almost exclusively painting, which remains the market’s most saleable medium. “Painting is painting,” the dealer Tim Blum said. “It’s a kind of a no-brainer in terms of how that gets marketed, collected and contextualized.”

Another advantage is its relative affordability, especially in comparison to its Western cognates. “For eleven million dollars I could have a Ryman, or I could build a whole history of Tansaekhwa,” one curator explained. By 2014, the market for abstract, neutral-colored, process-based painting reached its peak; works by young artists like David Ostrowski and Lucien Smith were selling at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite the fact that many of these works were created only a year or two prior. “When you look at the work of young artists, by their third show they get two to three hundred thousand dollars,” a collector said. “It fulfills the consumer’s desire for something that looks nice, but it’s a little premature. None of it’s significant art-historically.”

Tansaekhwa’s built-in historical import distinguishes it from this recent boom. The young artists, without institutional support or art-historical validation, were ultimately undone by over-supplying a market that provided thin support once the faddish exuberance dissipated. Although the market for emerging art has cooled, abstraction continues to resonate. “Clearly we’re at a moment when an audience can see this historical work through a contemporary lens,” Schwartzman said. “There’s so much interest from younger artists in abstraction. We’re well-framed to be able to look at it.” Jihyun Lee says that Western collectors bidding on Tansaekhwa feel “more comfortable” and “familiar” with the works, “because [Tansaekhwa works] are abstract, so they don’t need to understand the culture or need to study it. It comes more easily.”

The facile appeal of abstraction, coupled with the spectacular market rise—the Christie’s prices reflect a fourfold increase since the Kukje and Blum & Poe shows last fall—prompts the question of whether the frenzy over Tansaekhwa indicates a speculative-market bubble. Despite numerous institutional acquisitions, Tansaekhwa has yet to receive a major museum show, and the work may soon get too expensive for continued museum interest. “When you jump from two hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars, that’s going to kick the museums out of the market,” Schwartzman said, adding that, with the new price levels, “Markets always have a certain plateau level. It needs a next group of collectors.”

Dealers are prepared. “We’re committed to push it to another level,” Tina Kim, one of the New York gallerists, said. 2016 promises a fresh crop of Tansaekhwa exhibitions. The global juggernaut White Cube, known for its longtime representation of Damien Hirst and his Y.B.A. cohorts, will open the year with a solo show of Park Seo-Bo in London in January. Blum & Poe has three shows in the works, notably a group show in L.A. juxtaposing Tansaekhwa artists with western counterparts such as Brice Marden and Robert Ryman which will make an emphatic case for Tansaekhwa in the postwar art-historical canon. Dominique Lévy, whose show of Shiraga was integral in catapulting him to mainstream prominence, is organizing a joint show of Chung Sang-Hwa with the Chelsea gallery Greene Naftali.

There may indeed be room yet for more growth. Tina Kim recalled a recent meeting with a Chinese collector who was suspicious of these relatively low price levels. “Why is it so cheap? Why is it not half a million?” the collector asked, wondering if there was something wrong with the work.

Park, who has described himself as the best artist in Asia, is confident. “I think it should go up tenfold to reflect the right price,” he said, before predicting a price of ten million dollars for his works. “It will happen. You’ll see.”


The Storied Space of Korean Dansaekhwa: The 1992 and 2012 Exhibitions


Yeon Shim Chung

Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Theory, Hongik University, Seoul, South Korea

fig 1 Danseakhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting,
March 17-May 13, 2012. Catalogue Cover
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

This paper looks at the way two exhibitions of Dansaekhwa — at the Tate gallery, Liverpool, in 1992 and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul in 2012 — created a storied space and narrative of “non-artificial nature” and modernist Korean aesthetics.1

Dansaekhwa is known as postwar Korean abstract painting, which is also referred to as monochrome painting, Dansaekjo. Although numerous terms have been used to describe Korean abstract paintings, the recent retrospective exhibition curated by Yoon Jin Sup in 2012 in Korea clarified the current terms that I deploy in this paper. Dansaekhwa, widespread in the 1970s, marked a concrete contribution to the history of modern and contemporary Korean art, with several landmark exhibitions in Korea garnering critical attention. We shall look at two exhibitions: one outside Korea and the other in Korea, marking a twenty-year interval. Taken together, I want to create embedded stories pertaining to Dansaekhwa, which is said to be non-objective art without any narrative or subject matter. My aim will be to approach this work from a contextual vantage point while replying to the critical writing of Lee Yil (1932-1997), Dansaekhwa’s main protagonist critic. It is my hope to reconsider Dansaekhwa as a site or a storied “pictorial and social” space, thus fortifying its salient critical stories and formal innovations.

fig 2 Spirit of Korean Abstract Painting from the Ho-Am Art Museum Collection, May 15-June 30, 1996. Ho-Am Art Gallery, Seoul, Korea. Cover Image: Kwon Young-woo, Untitled. Gouache on paper, 224.5 x 170 cm

fig 3 Park Seo-bo, Eriture No. 41-78. Pencil, oil on hempen cloth, 194 x 300 cm. Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Korea

fig 4 Danseakhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting, March 17-May 13, 2012. Exhibition View at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. Left to Right: Yun Hyong-Keun, Burnt & Ultramarine Blue, 2004. Oil on linen, 259.1×162.1 cm, Private Collection; Lee Ufan, From Line, 1974. Glue and stone pigment on canvas, 194x259cm, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea; Park Seo-bo, Ecriture No. 101104, 2011. Mixed media with Korean hanji paper on canvas, 180x300cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

1. Dansaekhwa: Lee Yil’s “Hwanwon” and “Hwaksan”

Dansaekhwa, postwar abstract art in Korea, was loosely formed in the 1970s and continues to exist in the work of artists of the younger generation. Yet, interestingly enough, this style of work is not a painterly movement or school, but rather a tendency to create work that is “monochromatic,” dansaekjo, as its manifestation. This manifestation has never disappeared and has become generationally interlocked.

The 1992 exhibition entitled “Working with Nature: Contemporary Art from Korea,” consisted of the first generation of Dansaekhwa artists such as Chung Chang-Sup, Yun Hyong-Keun, Kim Tschang-Yeul, Park Seo-bo, Lee Ufan, and Lee Kang-So. Lee Yil who wrote in the exhibition catalogue defines the work as “post-minimal abstraction that is both post-formalist and post-materialist.” This implies the “limiting of the ego in the intellectual sense and a curbing of involvement in the act of painting.”2 This first important exhibition of Dansaekhwa for foreign viewers encapsulated the twin forces within its “nature,” which appeared in writings by both Lewis Biggs and Lee Yil. “Nature” was also a typical East Asian metaphor, often distinguished from any western counterpart. Nevertheless, Lee Yil did not attempt to radically depart from modernist understandings of abstraction in this exhibition, and this is what I want to discuss here.

fig 5 Critic Lee Yil and Dansaekhwa artists
(Left to Right: Choi Myung-young, Park Seo-bo, Lee Yil, Ha Chong Hyun)
Photo Archives: Lee Yujin

fig 6 Lee Yil, “The Dynamics of Hwanwon and Hwaksan,” AG, 1970.
Kim Daljin Archives, Seoul, Korea

fig 7 Chosunilbo (October 7, 1973)

fig 8 indépendants de Séoul 1974 & 1975

As Dansaekhwa was making its formation, Lee coined the terms “hwanwon” (還原, reduction) and “hwaksan” (擴散, expansion), in the catalogue preface of AG [Abbreviation of Avant-Garde] Association’s exhibition.3 In his essay, Lee defines “Hwanwon” as “[the] Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction” for the 1970 AG exhibition:

From the most rudimentary forms to the events that happen along the prolongation of the everyday, or from the most fundamental and direct experiences to the material as the coagulation of concept, today’s act of art is an all-out challenge against art itself and throws away all coxcombry. The significance of art at its most primary state lies not in it being “art.” but in it being a confirmation of life. Today’s art aims at that primitive significance…4

In this writing, Lee emphasizes today’s act of art as “rudimentary forms,” a “primary state,” and a “confirmation of life.” He continues to define “hwanwon” and “hwaksan” with the following:

Art as a “declaration of anonymity” is in itself naked art. Art reduces to the most fundamental self and at the same time expands into a state of life before art was art. What is in between such expansion and reduction is neither a certain history nor a dialectic. What lies there is a complete and true dynamic of existence. It is because a true creation lies in the awakening of this existence.5

This exhibition of AG configured the essential idea of Korean modernist criticism and pictorial traces. According to the article entitled “AG in [19]71 in the eye of the Japanese painter,” printed in Hongdaehakbo,6 Suzuki Yoshinori (鈴木慶則) responded to the AG exhibition in Seoul, noting that:

On my stay in Korea, I could see one aspect of contemporary Korean art which, without exaggeration, is never known in Japan, and, in particular, it was fortunate to see ‘AG 71[1971]’ under the title of “Reality (現實) and Realization (實現)” at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Kyeongbokgung). I assume that, considering the theme of the previous AG exhibition in 1970 as “the dynamics of hwaksan and hwanwon,” AG notices the rudimentary state of nature, and parallels its structure with the confirmation of life.… I could realize, to a certain degree, that it was similar to the feeling that I drank Coca Cola with its Korean trademark. The emerging white text of Korean [Hangeul] seemed to be fresh and new, something disparate from the taste of Coca Cola.7

By interpreting “hwanwon” as an art that reduces to the most fundamental self, Lee and the Dansaekhwa artists would later create a critical site for modernist practices of abstraction in Korea. Modernist “Reduction” as the rudimentary form of art and life is also evoked in the Park Seo-bo one-man show at Myong-Dong Gallery, which ran from October 3 to 10, 1973. In an interview with a daily Korean newspaper, Park said, “my work is an action, not an expression.”8 In this early solo exhibition, Park noted that only a “pulse” operates in his work and in a way it is “far niente (無爲).” Interestingly enough, in Park’s remarks, “being modern is the crisis of image,” of the artist in “negation” to tradition. This negation speaks elegantly to the auratic impulse of the avant-garde and it works as a modernist claim à la Clement Greenberg. In the accounts of Lee and Park in the early 1970s, there is also the coincidence of encouraging artists to return to the Zero point in art. First let’s look at Lee’s text:

In other words, art converges toward the most fundamental and singular state, while at the same time permeating into the complex cells of scientific civilization, or transposing into an unfamiliar material, or expanding into an act of no-contemplation in a pure sense. Has art already ceased to be art? No. If we were to in any context talk of “anti-art,” it would still be under the name of art. The task presented before us today is to give new meaning of life to the art that has returned to its Zero degree [point].9

In this Zero degree of art, Park elaborates his own line as being original and singular, noting that the copious retroaction on canvas enables us to feel its resistance, and its impulsive sensation leads us to the interior of canvas. This process recalls the road to reach Tao.10

On Park’s exhibition in 1973, critic Yoo Jun-Sang also expressed the idea of Park’s work returning to Zero point,11 as Park criticized Euro-centered art as a result of the Western perspective of having humans at the center of a composition looking at a thing (事物). In the interplay of negation to tradition, Western (and Modern Japanese) aesthetic values and practice, these Dansaekhwa critics and artists expand their art as an anti-art form, struggling to create the utopian Esperanto of abstraction in Korea. It was Park Seo-bo who was committed to promoting possible changes to the Korean cultural economy for art and wished to show the work of these artists abroad. Apart from his solo exhibition at Myong-Dong gallery in Seoul and Muramatsu gallery in Tokyo, the Indépendant de Séoul in 1974 was fruitful in disseminating the practice and formal concentration into abstraction known as Dansaekhwa.12 A series of exhibitions and criticism began to establish the legacy of Dansaekhwa, resulting in modernist myth of Dansaekwha in Korea and culminating in the 1992 exhibition at Tate Liverpool.

2. Korean Modernism’s Double Fate: Modernist Negation vs. Modernist Nostalgia

From the beginning of Dansaekhwa to the 1992 exhibition in the UK and the 2012 exhibition in Korea, there were no serious studies on the paradox of Lee Yil’s “hwanwon” and “hwaksan” concepts, except for a few scholarly articles by Chung Moojeong.13 There was, however, revisionist condemnation of Lee Yil’s critical perspective and other Dansaekwha critics, targeting them as descendants of colonial historicism, in particular in their critical defense of white color and monochromatic verisimilitude in their exhibition titles and articles.14 In other words, the modernist painterly practice coexists with modernist nostalgia returning to the origin and the past, unlike the Western concept. Once Lee’s “Hwanwon” (還元) designates modernist abstract practice in the same way as Western abstraction; it also plays its double, ambivalent role in designating the return to the origin in the context of nostalgia. Here, I want to bring up the double-fate of “hwanwon” and discuss the calling of “returning to the origin,” the literal meaning of “hwanwon.”15

As a backdrop to Dansaekwha, Lee Ufan’s recent interview with Yoon Jin Sup is worth quoting.16 Lee, both as witness in Korea and observer in Japan, recalls the era:

It was the time when everyone’s life was frozen up in extreme poverty; it was the era of [the] abstraction. This was the background of the monochrome. With the destitute minimality in impoverished life in one hand [and] the oppressive military government on the other hand, the monochrome appeal was an ideal fit. Employing single color or the technique of repetition was chosen as an effective collective style for the purpose of expressing the will to resist.17

This statement leads us to think of the sociopolitical and economic conditions of Korea in the late 1960s and 1970s. Political opinions were easily censored, and the ideological debates of the Right and Left were fierce. At the same time, President Park Chung-hee focused all his efforts on modernizing South Korea, effacing, to some degree, the genealogy of tradition.

Beneath this landscape, what makes “hwanwon” intriguing and polemical, even problematic is to think of what “the origin, the original or the original condition” means. To return where? And what is the Zero point, and how does it differ in the Korean context? The former is the symbolic place or site to return to and the latter is a pictorial condition to return to.18 My intention here, unlike revisionist art historians, is not to criticize why Dansaekwha artists turned toward political abstention and formal experimentation. Rather, by looking at original sources, I want to bring up the concepts of “hwanwon” and “the Zero point” within the identity of Korean abstraction.

fig 9 Five Hinseku White, May 1975, Tokyo Gallery

fig 10 Chung Sang-hwa, Untitled 73-12-11, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 227.3×181.8cm
Courtesy of Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, Korea

fig 11 Suh Seung-Won, Simultaneity 70-26, 1970. Oil on canvas
130 x 162 cm

fig 12 Lee Kang-So, Untitled – 91182, 1991. Reproduced in Working with Nature. Exhibition Catalogue (Tate Liverpool, April 8 – June 21, 1992), p. 111.

Lee Yil wrote his essay on “white thinks of” in the exhibition catalogue of “Five Hinseku White,” viewed in May, 1975 in Tokyo Gallery, with works by Lee Dong-youb, Suh Seung-won, Park Seo-bo, Huh Hwang, and Kwon Yungwoo. To the critic, “the white” is not the limitation in the use of the color of white as its literal meaning; rather, it operates in the “imaginary field” of all possibilities. Lee Yil also notes that, “To our artists, the white monochrome is rather a proposal of spiritual vision accepting the world,” unlike Western monochrome painters in search of new possibilities of painting.19 Monochrome, the literal meaning of a single color, is being used from this moment, although these artists did not employ one color at all. To the critic, the return to the original condition was evoking the Koreanness in the state of Zero degree in writing and in art making.20 In struggling to formulate the Zero point in art, Park also attempted to create the locality or singularity of abstraction, in the emphasis of physical and repetitive performativity. To the critic and painter, the type of Dansaekhwa was not a simple painting, but a “field” of performative involvement. In other words, the act of “a painting is a painting is a painting is a painting…” Thus, the painters accumulate their anti-art form or informe in the gestures of their hands and bodies.

In interpreting the color of white literally, however, Joseph Love, one critic of this exhibition wrote in the Japan Times, Sunday, May 18, 1975: “Despite geographical nearness, it is rare to see a full scale exhibition of Korean art in Japan. There is a sense of isolation, almost sadness in it after the Koryo Period and one can still detect it in contemporary art.” At the end of this article, however, his tone is calmer: “The main interest in contemporary Korean art is not in symbol, figuration or space, but in exploring textures… [the] thing which the artist makes becomes a symbol of itself and each textural incident takes on weight more than in other abstract style… an art that falls into no trap of false nationalist traditionalism while preserving its roots—i.e., a true radicalism.”21 The true radicalism is challenged by avant-garde artists whom the government pressed into service to create “minjok girokhwa (民族記錄畫)”, documenting the progress of Korea. These types of figurative paintings, following the realist style preferred by the Korean government, lessened their reputation as avant-garde modernists.22 However, Korean abstract painting still lingers in works by the next generations after Park in artists such as Kim Tae-Ho and others. (fig 13) 23 Still the performative act of painting and physical resistance is visible in their laboring with layers of paints. The modernist practice and nostalgia were completely obliterated in the 1992 exhibition in UK, under the umbrella of “[Dansaekhwa] Korean artists working with the nature.”

fig 13 Kim Tae-Ho, Internal Rhythm 95-30, 1995, Mixed media on wood panel, 162 x 131 cm

3. Unfinished Project of Dansaekhwa: The hidden voice of Dansaekhwa artists and after their stories

The 2012 exhibition of Dansaekhwa was a curatorial attempt to “stir the ashes of Modernism and rekindle the embers” to contemplate the span of forty years of the art in Korea. In terms of museographical sense, the exhibition was successful in bringing Modernist issues in Korea but its exhibition design itself silenced the sociopolitical frame and failed to create “the storied space” of Korean modernism’s double fate, as I noted above.

fig 14 Ha Chong Hyun, Counter-Phase, 1971. Newspaper and paper, dimension variable

fig 15 Ha Chong Hyun, Work 74-06, 1974. Oil on hemp cloth, 153 x 116 cm

In relation to a political voice, Ha Chong Hyun’s early works, especially Work 71-11, Counter – Phase (對位) of 1971, consists of newspaper stacks on one side and paper on the other side. The use of a newspaper stack on the floor is very new in the sense that this medium of books and newspapers corresponds to the age of the art of the [modern] city. Ha employed books and newspapers, media disseminating information when he was actively involved in AG period (1969-1973) as well. At that time, Korean newspapers were highly censored and the censored sections were covered with white spots. Any article by a political voice criticizing the Korean government and the president was completely obliterated line by line. In 1972 and 1973, the artist produced the barbed wire on a panel in which the reverse part of the canvas is knotted with wires. Ha’s use of wire, newspaper stacks etc. lies in his artistic credo, stating:

The art of this century compared to the one preceding it unravels itself in city environments. Challenging factors such as mass production, quickened flow of information, urban rationalism and its indifferent attitude, various geometric forms of city architecture, stacks of gas tanks and towering presence of chimneys, all of which remind in their anonymous realm of monuments, proved to be decisive in subverting the established order of artistic concepts. … a process of synthesizing different modes of artistic expression, from painting, sculpture to architecture and design, will experience a serious field expansion.24

By placing contemporary aesthetics in the changing city environments, Ha expands the medium of tableau to other materials and installation pieces, signaling subdued yet discernable political voices. Although this kind of experiment was short-lived in his AG period, “experimental art” in the late 1960s and 1970s produced Lee’s terms of “hwaksan” [expansion] of modernist and postmodernist thoughts in art and life. These two terms coexist in the “vernacular” development of Korean modernism and postmodernism from 1960s to 1990s.

fig 16 Ko Young Hun, This Is a Stone, 1974; Reproduced in Joseph Love, “The Roots of Korean Avant-Garde Art,” Art International, volume XIX, (June 15, 1975).

fig 17 Ju Tae Seok, Railroad, oil on canvas, 193.9×112.1cm, Private Collection

In considering Dansaekhwa critically, we also need to explore the work of the students of several Dansaekhwa artists, acolytes who went on to develop the next generation of Korean abstract painting, as well as the New Realist Painting, the so-called New Image Painting (Neo-Imagism in Lee’s words), preferring the return of images in their paintings. Often painters of the latter, preferring images in their paintings, were openly criticized by the first generation Dansaekhwa artists. In a recent colloquium with Ko Young Hoon, Ju Tae Seok, and Kim Gang-Yong, figurative artists in their late 50s and early 60s, that were taught by Park Seo-bo and Ha Chong Hyun, Kim recalled that “when I painted a brick, endless brick, it was not a real object of brick… Thinking of Dansaekhwa mentors, my brick was an object that led me to think in an abstract way. The brick was not the real one, although viewers tried to connect with the real things.”25

As thick as the surfaces Dansaekhwa artists created, their works revealed layered, storied narratives of pictorial and social space in relation to “hwanwon” and “hwaksan.” Lee’s critical terms and Dansaekhwa grew out of great social upheaval and repression as well as urbanization in Korea in the 1970s. In the paper, I discussed the double fate of “hwanwon” as the modernist negation toward abstraction and modernist nostalgia returning to the origin, which I call “vernacular” Modernism in Korea.26



Why South Korea’s monochrome painting movement is the art world’s latest obsession

Dansaekhwa, which includes painters such as Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo and Chung Chang-Sup, is capturing attention

By Margot Mottaz

12 Dec 2016

Think of South Korea today – K-pop, karaoke and plastic surgery will surely come to mind, followed by images of Seoul’s cutting-edge districts, where the latest trends in food, fashion and art are being cooked up and served to a public hungry for the new.

It’s almost hard to imagine that 40 years earlier, the avant-garde was embodied by a loose group of artists, among them Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo, Chung Chang-Sup and Kim Whan-ki, whose meditative monochrome paintings were inspired by processes, materials and nature.

And perhaps even harder to understand why they have recently emerged as some of the hottest and most desirable names on the art market. Now referred to as part of the Dansaekhwa movement (literally translated as “monochrome painting”), these painters have created something of a storm in the art world in the space of only two and a half years.

It all started with a book. In 2013, Joan Kee, associate professor of history of art at the University of Michigan, introduced Dansaekhwa to the West with Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, the first publication on the topic written in English. Shortly thereafter, in late 2014, three major shows with Dansaekhwa artists opened in Seoul, Paris and Los Angeles, at Kukje Gallery, Galerie Perrotin and Blum & Poe, respectively, the latter curated by Kee. Still going strong and with five shows by Korean artists under its belt since, Galerie Perrotin is currently showcasing works by Chung in its Hong Kong branch.

Chung Chang-Sup, Untitled. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli, courtesy of Galerie Perrotin

World-renowned museums like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Paris’s Centre Pompidou and Hong Kong’s very own M+ soon began to acquire works for their permanent collections, further cementing the group’s already strong global presence.

Line between traditional and controversial art blurs as radical artists seek ways to voice dissent

In response to such institutional success, Kukje Gallery, in collaboration with Tina Kim, New York and Boghossian Foundation, Brussels, mounted the highly-praised group exhibition “Dansaekhwa” as part of the official Collateral Event programme of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Describing this show as “strikingly memorable”, Jonathan Crockett, Phillips Asia’s deputy chairman and head of 20th century and contemporary art, cites it as a personal favourite and one of the strongest presentations that year.

According to Kee, much of Korean art’s commercial and critical popularity is, in fact, the result of a more general “turn to art history,” or in other words “the commitment to think more broadly about histories of modernism and abstraction”. Similar to the Gutai movement in Japan, Dansaekhwa rose to attention due to a desire to explore significant movements, which were previously overlooked in the grand, usually Western, art historical narrative.

Kwon Young-Woo, Untitled, 1984, Gouache, Chinese ink on Korean paper. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery

Despite their often-mentioned resemblance to American abstraction of the same period, these works are profoundly Korean. “They are original modes of expression discovered autonomously by a post-war generation of artists who grew up experiencing the Japanese occupation and military dictatorship without the privilege of freedom of expression,” explains Kukje Gallery founder and chairwoman Hyun-Sook Lee.

They are original modes of expression discovered autonomously by a post-war generation of artists who grew up experiencing the Japanese occupation and military dictatorship without the privilege of freedom of expression
Hyun-Sook Lee

In their own way, these artists looked to nature as a reaction to their disappointment in, or perhaps disillusionment with, humanity under such political conditions. Materials were central to their works and it is their raw, earthly qualities that these artists extracted and highlighted in a simple and restrained aesthetic. Chung used traditional Korean paper Hanji instead of canvas, while Ha Chong-Hyun worked with coarse, plain-woven hemp on the back of which he applied a thick layer of paint that he then pushed through the holes. Park scribbled with a pencil on freshly-painted canvases and Lee painted lines down canvases until his brush ran dry.

DO HO SUH, Doorknobs, Wieland Strasse, 18, 12159 Berlin, Germany, 2011 polyester fabric and stainless steel wire, 19.25 x 21.61 x 3.35 inches, 48.9 x 54.9 x 8.5 cm, Edition of 3. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

For now, this wave has not lost any of its momentum. According to the Blouin Art Sales Index, no less than 250 works by these artists went under the hammer in 2016 alone, a steep increase from the 80 works sold in 2013. This year also saw the record of the highest price achieved for any Korean artist break when Kim Whan-ki’s 1970 painting Untitled fetched a solid US$4.2 million at Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong sale in April.

Park Seo-Bo, Écriture No. 960406, 1996, 
Hanji paper on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of Phillips

Sotheby’s, leveraging Korea’s incredibly popular music industry, invited K-pop icon and avid collector T.O.P to curate #TTTOP, an evening sale of Western and Asian contemporary art. Though the social media buzz it created could have sufficed to measure its success among a new, younger generation of collectors, the exercise also proved fruitful as it earned the house a total of US$17.4 million for 28 lots, with a work by Lee selling for US$1.403 million and another by Park for US$830,502.

This winter, Phillips Asia also offered works by these same artists in its inaugural sale in Hong Kong, after witnessing strong demand by both established and emerging collectors in its New York and London sales.

New generation of experimental Chinese artists reflect a globalising world

If the last two years have seen Korean artists showcased outside their home country, recent developments suggest that galleries are looking to make their way in to build strong relationships with local collectors. Taking the lead in April was Galerie Perrotin which opened a space in Seoul on the ground floor of the building that also houses Christie’s’ decade-old outpost.

When asked if Seoul was on its way to becoming a global contemporary art hub, Alice Lung, the co-director of the gallery in Hong Kong and Seoul, said she was confident in the city’s commitment to diversifying its artistic programme through international shows, adding that South Korea in fact counts the world’s greatest number of private art museums. Following this lead, fellow blue chip dealer Pace Gallery, already present across the United States, Europe and Asia, announced its plan to expand by opening an office in the capital.

Lee Ufan, From Winds, 1986, oil on canvas. Photos: Courtesy of Phillips

Could Dansaekhwa’s popularity eventually be dismissed as yet another commercial fad? It’s unlikely, Lee says, because “the overwhelming consensus is that Dansaekhwa is still underappreciated.”

With critical acclaim and prices soaring, a fresh crop of collectors will have to take over for the market not to plateau. And it could very well be found soon in China, where the first Dansaekhwa exhibition will take place at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai next year.

DO HO SUH, Reflection, 2004, polyester fabric and stainless steel. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York / Hong Kong

New Dansaekhwa artists to look out for

Our experts tell us which contemporary Korean artists they believe will be the next big thing, following in the footsteps of the Dansaekhwa painters who have paved the way to international opportunities and recognition.

Jonathan Crockett:
“There is certainly a selection of up-and-coming Korean artists who are starting to receive recognition on the world stage, including mid-career artist Suh Do-ho, Suh whose monumental welcome mat created from hundreds of tiny figures featured in our inaugural sale in Asia.”

Hyun-Sook Lee:
“I would like to point to Haegue Yang and Kyungah Ham. Yang recently held exhibitions at the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, while Ham received terrific attention in response to her exhibitions at the Encounters sector of Art Basel, Hong Kong and the Taipei Biennial, both in 2016.”

Alice Lung:
“Anicka Yi is arguably one of the most noteworthy contemporary Korean artists. She is known for her works that stimulate the olfactory senses, which is a fairly rare concept in the dominantly visual world of conceptual art. She was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize in October, and as a result, her works will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum next year.”


Korean abstract art 5 artists exciting the international art market

Korean abstract art: 5 artists exciting the international art market

Ahead of the private selling exhibition Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art at Christie’s Hong Kong galleries this month, specialist Yunah Jung profiles the modern and contemporary Korean abstract artists making waves on the international art scene

Translating as ‘monochrome’, the Dansaekhwa movement was created in post-war Korea by artists wishing to reject the conservative and corrupt National Exhibition. Their style was simple and austere, inspired by traditional Asian ink painting and the beauty of nature.

In recent years, figures from the Dansaekhwa movement and Korean abstract art have been at the forefront of the Asian modern and contemporary art market. This is in part thanks to a comprehensive book about the movement, Dansaekhwa (The Greenfell Press), being published in English for the first time as well as a growing interest among museum curators and scholars in reviving art movements that have been overlooked by history.

But, as Christie’s specialist Yunah Jung explains, perhaps most importantly, the new interest in Korean abstract art comes from ‘the recognition that the works are philosophically profound, visually beautiful, and conceptually unique.’


Park Seo-Bo (b. 1931)

Park Seo-Bo, Écriture No. 41-75, 1975. Oil and pencil on canvas. 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in. (130 x 162 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Park Seo-Bo is one of the most important artists from the Dansaekhwa movement and he played a significant role in liberating artists from the institutional conservatism that prevailed in mid-century Korea. This exhibition features works by Park spanning the early 1970s to the present that epitomise his intense attention to detail. This characteristic can be particularly seen in the tightly repetitive markings of his Ecriture, Myobup series from the 1970s and beyond which evoke the elegance of the eastern tradition of calligraphy painting.

Eastern calligraphy was thought to reveal the universal life force of ‘qi’, transmitting the essence of our being and bringing unity between the artist and his true self. Here Park plays with the infinite aesthetic possibilities of black and white, weaving elegant loops in pencil and transcending the mark on the page to present a universal experience to the viewer.

During the 1980s, Park began working with Hanji — traditional Korean paper. For these works he applied multiple layers of Hanji to the canvas, overlaid with sheets of paper soaked in acrylic paint and ink. Korean art critic Kim Bok-Young said of Park, ‘He does not simply see a piece of paper as something to draw on, but as a solemn object he has to confront.’

Main image at top: Park Seo-Bo, Écriture No. 93-75, 1975. Oil and pencil on canvas. Signed, titled, inscribed in Hanja calligraphy; signed in English ‘PARK SEO-BO’; titled ‘Écriture No. 93-75’; dated ‘1975’ (on the reverse). 51 1/8 x 63 5/8 in. (130 x 162 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art


Chung Sang-Hwa (b. 1932)

Chung Sang Hwa, Untitled (10-15), 2005. This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Chung Sang Hwa, Untitled (90-3)-7), 1990. This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

After studying western painting in Paris in the 1960s Chung Sang-Hwa settled in Kobe, Japan, where he developed his ‘rip’ and ‘fill’ paintings, creating complicated grids of horizontal, diagonal and vertical lines and adding depth to the flat surface of the canvas.

Chung first spreads the mixture of kaolin clay, water and glue evenly on the canvas and waits until it is completely dry. He removes the canvas from the wood stretcher and draws grids of horizontal and vertical lines on the reverse. He then carefully folds it along the lines and rips off the paint from the chosen sections. The bare grid underneath is filled with multiple layers of acrylic paint. Chung repeats the actions of ‘rip’ and ‘fill’ until he finds a perfect harmony of reduction and addition, claiming that, ‘The final result is not the target of my work but to present the process of how it is done.’

In this way, French critic Philippe Piguet believes, ‘The paintings of Chung Sang-Hwa are produced in such a way that they offer themselves to sight like screens on which the painter attempts to reveal a double presence, that of the world at its most essential, and his own presence, in all its intensity.’


Yun Hyong-Keun (1928 – 2007)

Yun Hyong Keun, Umber-Blue, 1979-1987. Oil on linen. 51 3/8 x 31 1/2 in. (130.5 x 80 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Yun Hyong-Keun is widely known for his simple yet highly meditative paintings, evoking the concept of nature in art, an idea that has been at the core of traditional Asian ink painting for centuries. Yun’s work appears to be a part of nature, completely unified with it, without any hint of artifice.

Carol Vogel of The New York Times points out that one of Yun’s Umber-Blue paintings bears a distinct resemblance to Richard Serra and Barnett Newman’s work while other critics comment that a trace of Mark Rothko is also apparent. However, Yun’s works are not influenced by these Western painters; Korean art critic Hong Gai emphasises the fact that Yun found his creative inspiration in the work of 18th century Korean painter and scholar Kim Jeong-Hui who is known for developing a unique style of calligraphy.

As early as 1973, Yun started experimenting with his signature colours; Burnt Umber represents earth, and Light Ultramarine the ocean. As this 1979-1987 masterpiece exemplifies, the unique mixture of two pigments allows a colour of great range and depth, which Yun preferred to call ‘the colour of rotted leaves’.


Chung Chang-Sup (1927-2011)

Chung Chang-Sup (1927-2011), Meditation No.93102, 1993. Best fiber on cotton. 88 1/4 x 48 in. (244 x 122 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Chung Chang-Sup (1927-2011), Meditation No.97407, 1997. Best fiber on canvas. 88 1/4 x 48 in. (244 x 122 cm.) This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Chung Chang-Sup is known as the master of ‘Hanji’ due to his extensive use of the traditional Korean paper for his enquiries into meditation. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Chung rigorously explored the possibilities of Western oil paint, displaying a certain affinity in style to the Art Informel movement that prevailed in Paris at that time.

He and his peers became leading figures in the Dansaekhwa movement in the 1970s and shared a desire to create their own style rooted in their cultural identity, while also looking to Western abstract art. Beginning with a thick oil painting technique in the 1950s to the early 1960s, Chung gradually thinned the oil in his work to maximise the incidental effect and explore the spontaneous permeation of paint onto the canvas, recalling the Asian ink painting technique.

In his ongoing search for his own visual language, Chung encountered Tak, a main component of Hanji used in the 1970s. Hanji is also called ‘hundred paper’ due to the 99 steps involved in the complex production process required to make just one sheet. It is extremely strong and widely used in traditional Korean architecture as wallpaper, a window or even a door.

Chung stated that his rediscovery of Tak was inevitable: ‘When I was young, the first thing I saw as soon as I woke up in the morning was soft sunlight penetrating through a Tak paper window… I felt a strong intimacy when reencountering the paper and I was immediately absorbed in experimenting with it for my art.’ During the 1980s, Chung’s Tak series began to lose form completely. The production process and material itself become his art work.

Lewis Biggs, in the curatorial essay for an exhibition entitled Working Nature: Contemporary Art from Korea at Tate Liverpool in 1992, interpreted Chung’s painting as ‘not images but analogies, lyrical recreations of the experience of life, with all its formlessness, its decay and change. It is the paper, not the artist, speaking to us.’


Ha Chong-Hyun (B. 1935)

Ha Chong-Hyun, Conjunction No. 97-035. Oil on hemp cloth. 86 5/8 x 47 1/4 in. (220 x 120 cm.). This work is offered for private sale in our exhibition, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art

Like his peers, Ha started his artistic career as a painter, associating himself with the style of Art Informel in the early 1960s. Through various experimentations with everyday materials such as flour, paper and wire in the early 1970s, Ha finally encountered the coarse, plain-woven hemp which was widely used as a material for rice bags in Korea at the time.

As soon as he employed it in his art, Ha realised it was the perfect material with which to connect his inner self to the outside world. In order to accentuate its material properties, he applies a thick layer of paint on the reverse of a canvas and presses it until it penetrates to the other side — he repeats the process throughout his Conjunction series of paintings.

Showcased in the exhibition, these works epitomise the evolution of his style throughout the 1980s and 2000s and clearly manifest the idea of painting as a tool for meditation as well as a bodily process. This idea was explained by Phippe Dagen who said that Ha’s limited materials and colours lead to simplicity of composition resulting in a meditative repetition and visual neutrality that work to eliminate the ego and reduce the painting to silence.

It is crucial to understand that the elimination of the artist from the painting is key to Ha’s works; they are an effort to have a sincere conversation with nature, at odds with the ego behind Western Abstract Expressionism.

Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art is on view 6 November — 4 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong




Skin & Surface

What is Dansaekhwa and what is its legacy today?

Dansaekhwa, or ‘Korean Monochrome Painting’, is the name ascribed to a style of painting practiced by a loosely affiliated set of Korean artists who came to prominence in the 1970s. Three recent exhibitions — at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Alexander Gray Associates, New York, and Kukje Gallery, Seoul — have, for the first time in a generation, brought this work to an audience outside of Korea, while a presentation of Dansaekhwa will be shown as part of the 56th Venice Biennale in May this year. We asked the curators of these exhibitions — Sam Bardaouil, Till Fellrath, Joan Kee and Yoon Jin Sup — to reflect on the key factors that led to the development of Dansaekhwa’s unique aesthetic and what its legacy is today.

Yoon Jin Sup

It is difficult to define the Korean monochrome painting style known as Dansaekhwa (or Tansaekhwa, depending on which Roman­ization system is used). Many would argue that it wasn’t even a movement. It certainly didn’t have a manifesto, a core group of artists with shared ideas or a publication through which to disseminate those artists’ opinions. In terms of a Korean Avant-garde, groups such as Space & Time and Avant-Garde, who were active before the Dansaekhwa artists, should be seen as more closely fitting that description. It’s also important to remember that the leading Dansaekhwa artists – including Park Seobo, Yun Hyong-keun, Chung Sang-Hwa, Chung Chang-Sup and Kwon Young-woo – were primarily seen as practicing Informel, which held sway from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. During the troubled period following the Korean War (1950–53), these artists tried to express the calamity of the conflict by taking an existential perspective and by using material forms. By the mid-1960s, however, their activities – which centred around the Hyundae Mihyup (Association of Modern Artists) – had become disorganized both ideologically and practically. It was out of this disordered context that the Avant-Garde and Space & Time groups forged a new philosophy, which would go on to influence Dansaekhwa.

By the late 1960s, the first signs of Dansaekhwa had begun to emerge and the style slowly began to take root in the early 1970s. Certainly, it is possible to identify a Dansaekhwa approach in the works of Lee Dong-Yeob and Hur Hwang in the first exhibition of ‘Indépendants’ in Seoul in 1972. A close relationship developed between the group of artists who participated in the ‘École de Seoul’, an annual exhibition series founded by Park in 1975, while the artist Lee Ufan’s frequent travels between Korea and Japan had resulted in the dissemination of the ideas of Japanese Mono-ha in Korea, with Lee’s status and popularity ensuring his artistic influence was broad-reaching. By the mid-1970s, Dansaekhwa had become a dominant force in Korea and was prominently promoted in Japan through exhibitions such as ‘Korea Facets of Contemporary Art’, held at the Tokyo Central Museum of Art in 1977, as well as the ‘École de Seoul’ and ‘Seoul Contemporary Art Festival’ exhibition series in the Korean capital.


Ha Chonghyun, Work 74-06, 1974, oil on hemp, 1.5 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Ha Chonghyun, Work 74-06, 1974, oil on hemp, 1.5 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Yet, despite these examples of the style’s official recognition, Dansaekhwa in the 1970s was characterized by diverse formal languages and materials exploring themes of tactility, spirit and performance. For instance, Jin Ok-Sun based her works on the repetition of geometric patterns, Kim Yong-Ik experimented with illusion by emphasizing the material quality of fabrics and Park Jang-Nyun explored the effects of creasing through monochrome paint on canvas. Of all the Dansaekhwa artists, Chung Sang-Hwa’s pioneering work most clearly embraced the style’s core concepts; his repeated application and removal of paint, using the cracks created from the folding of canvas, formed powerfully austere statements. It is in the physicality of his works that I have unexpectedly found the physical analogy of the ‘body’ vitally important in understanding Dansaekhwa.

The surfaces of Chung’s canvases form a kind of skin, created through repetitive actions that combine to build up a highly textured surface akin to a weathered landscape. This interest in the relationship between skin and the surface qualities of painting was shared by other artists: Kim Guiline, for example, repeatedly sprayed dozens of layers of black paint over the surface of his canvases; Choi Byung-So drew lines on newspaper with a ballpoint pen until the content was completely obscured; and Lee Dong-Youb left subtle traces of grey paint on his white canvases.

The use of repetition and the emphasis on the physicality of materials can be seen in the recurring rhythmic lines drawn with pencil on gessoed canvas by Park Seobo, as well as in Ha Chonghyun’s use of loosely woven hessian, or Baeapbub, through which he pushed thick oil paint from the back. It is also identifiable in the work of Yun Hyong-Keun, who spread smooth watery pigments of deep brown and blue onto rough cotton, creating a surface reminiscent of traditional ink-wash painting. The physicality of the painting surface is exaggerated in the work of Chung Chang-Sup, who formed shapes by sculpting thick Korean paper pulp with his hands after pouring it over the canvas. The basics of calligraphy, point and line, which Lee learned as a child, are essential motifs in his practice; Lee’s work also reflects the philosophy of the I Ching, which purports that the universe starts and ends at a single point. Kim Guiline’s black paintings resemble the scorched chimneys found in traditional rural Korean houses while Ha’s obverse style of painting reminds us of the ancient building techniques used in Korean adobe houses. These painting methods originate in the unique cultural traditions of Korea and it is no surprise to find the Dansaekhwa artists adopting approaches that differ from the emphasis on vision which underpinned Western abstraction and Minimalism.

From a Western perspective, the ideas and materials used in Dansaekhwa may seem novel or even radical. But given that the second generation of artists working in this style continues to maintain the group’s original ideas – drawing now on the materials of a post-industrial society – it seems undeniable that Dansaekhwa is still a vitally important school. It is because of this ongoing vitality that I believe it is necessary to explore the historical differences between the relatively short-lived period of Minimalist vocabularies in the West and the very different painting experiments happening in Korea at the same time. Dansaekhwa’s formal vocabularies of austerity and simplicity shouldn’t be viewed as mere curiosities or as evidence of that archaic term ‘Orientalism’. Following a recent spate of Dansaekhwa exhibitions around the globe, the conceptual and formal rigour seen in the historical works of these artists has finally spread to an international audience. I am thrilled about this nascent appreciation, as it crystallizes some important points of East-West contact in the history of postwar visual art.


Yun Hyongkeun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1978, oil on linen, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Yun Hyongkeun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1978, oil on linen, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

In my introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition ‘The Facet of Korean and Japanese Contemporary Art’ at the Gwangju Biennale in 2000, I chose to refer to this school of painting as Dansaekhwa rather than Korean Monochrome Painting. I thought that by evoking the ‘monochrome’, which to me suggests something neutral, I risked losing the distinctive qualities that define Dansaekhwa; nor did I wish simply to assign a local flavour to an international phenomenon. As the school finally achieves wider recognition, this becomes an important distinction and, with many Western art specialists now showing an interest in Dansaekhwa, we find ourselves presented with a momentous opportunity to re-evaluate history.

Translated from Korean by Park Hee-Jin.

Joan Kee

Firstly, it should be stressed that Tansaekhwa was never an official movement; there was no consolidated group of artists who consciously worked together toward actualizing a particular set of ideas. Certainly, the artists to which this rubric was retroactively applied (it’s worth remembering that it was critics like Lee Yil and Nakahara Yusuke who first discussed the idea of a ‘Korean monochrome painting’, not the artists themselves) exhibited in the same shows – such as the ‘École de Seoul’ series – graduated from the same schools, namely Hongik University or Seoul National University, were often friends (Chung Sang-Hwa and Kwon Young-woo had studios in the same building in Paris in the late 1970s, for example) and even occasionally painted together (there is a wonderful shot of Park Seobo and Lee Ufan working side by side in Park’s studio in Seoul in August 1972). But there was no manifesto. If Tansaekhwa was a movement it was one that was largely invented to fulfil various agendas, most of which had very little to do with abstraction – or even painting, for that matter. In fact, what all these very different artists had in common was a commitment to thinking more intensively about the constituent elements of mark, line, frame, surface and space around which they understood the medium of painting.

Many artists now classified under the Tansaekhwa rubric began to exhibit their works publicly in 1973. At that time, there was a profound uncertainty about the country’s social system and how to operate within it; less than a year earlier, South Korean president Park Chung-hee had declared martial law. Aside from what might be described as the terrifying arbitrariness of outright dictatorship, even more fundamental, perhaps, was the resulting societal instability. In whom – or what – could you actually trust?

In the art world, much of this anxiety played itself out in the discussion over what exactly the modern and the contemporary entailed. The wonderfully diverse range of works being produced at the time – including, but not limited to, early examples of Tansaekhwa – could be seen as the result of a lack of consensus about what it actually meant to make art for a present whose goalposts seemed to shift constantly.


 Chung Sang-Hwa, Untitled 73-7, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Chung Sang-Hwa, Untitled 73-7, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

We need only think of the extent to which artists like Kwon Young-woo or Yun Hyongkeun challenged received notions about particular media. As artists who had been educated in the 1940s and ’50s, just after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, they contended with the legacy of a Japanese imperial bureaucracy that very clearly distinguished between media based on their constituent materials – oil painting vs. ink, sculpture vs. printing etc. This taxonomy was not easily ignored. Even well into the 1970s, painting – specifically, oil painting – took pride of place; sculpture still hadn’t shaken its pejorative associations with menial labour. At the same time, by the early ’70s the old arbiters of value such as the Kukjŏn – the annual government salon first held in 1948 and modelled along the lines of the imperial Japanese salon – had lost most of its clout. Also, there was no real viable commercial market in Korea for anything other than figurative ink painting, ceramics and, to a much lesser extent, figurative oil painting. Thus, even in some of the darkest days of Korea’s postwar history, there was a peculiar, and perhaps unexpected, sense of freedom that made it possible for artists to think around and between the distinctions that had been vigorously policed for many decades by institutions like the Kukjŏn.

Tansaekhwa artists regarded themselves as painters, yet their kind of painting had little to do with any pre-existing rhetoric, nor did they believe that painting had to live up to any obligation to be allegorical. This is not to say that representation didn’t matter to them, only that their paintings weren’t legible in the way their most ardent champions wanted them to be. While terms such as ‘naturalism’, ‘Koreanness’ and ‘Minimalism’ are frequently invoked vis-à-vis Tansaekhwa, the works themselves highlight the limitations of verbal description.

Born broadly between the late 1920s and the early 1940s, the Tansaekhwa artists were only too aware of the physical and psychological devastation wreaked by the Korean War, which began in 1950. Their understanding of concepts such as permanence, durability and time is strikingly different from that of the next generation. There’s a specificity to how they manipulate paint and its properties that exceeds the kind of decision-making ascribable to taste or strategy; their mark-making verges on a form of self-commemoration, almost as if they fear they may not live to see their works completed.

That work by artists such as Park Seobo or Ha Chonghyun has now been defined as Tansaekwha implies a shift in the promotion and reception of contemporary Korean art – as though the movement has become a form of branding tool. It also points to the emergence of a discrete body of contemporary Asian art, in which Japan-based critics and institutions have played an enormously important role. Yet, the concerns these paintings raise in and of themselves deflect such considerations by getting us to look long and hard at what actually stands before us.


Chung Sang-Hwa, Work 73-1-9, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Chung Sang-Hwa, Work 73-1-9, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath

Dansaekhwa was the result of an organic process: one of many philosophical, political and artistic negotiations and discussions by a number of artists of a certain generation, who found themselves intertwined within a complex network of conflicted histories, geographies, artistic lineages and, ultimately, loyalties. One of the central issues that the Dansaekhwa artists were facing at the time was the oscillation between national identity and artistic identity. This was probably best illustrated by Lee Ufan’s comments at one of the roundtables that coincided with the 1968 ‘Contemporary Korean Painting’ exhibition, held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and intended to offer a panoramic representation of the latest Korean art. In response to a discussion about what contemporary Asian art could be, triggered by a number of reviews that had accused the artists of following the latest art trends of New York and Paris, Lee expressed his frustration at reconciling the gap between what was expected of him as a Korean and what he aspired to be as an artist.

Discussions around notions of the colour white, monochrome and ‘Koreanness’ became either a deliberate topic for Dansaekhwa artists or an ongoing association foisted on the group. Various exhibitions reinforced this: ‘Modern Art 73’ at Myongdong Gallery, Seoul, in 1973; ‘Five Korean Artists: Five Kinds of White’ at Tokyo Gallery in the Ginza district of Tokyo in 1975; and ‘Korea: Facet of Contemporary Art’ in 1977 at Tokyo’s Central Museum of Art, organized by the prominent critic and curator Nakahara Yusuke. Korea’s participation at the 1978–79 ‘Secondes rencontres internationales d’art contemporain’ (Second International Encounters of Contemporary Art), at the Grand Palais in Paris, also comes to mind. Not only did these essentializing evaluations emanate from local Western critics, but also from some Korean journalists. One denounced the works as derivative of Western trends and as failing to adequately represent a country with thousands of years of artistic tradition. Shows that followed years later – ‘Working with Nature: Traditional Thought in Contemporary Art from Korea’ at Tate Liverpool in 1992 or ‘Les peintres du silence’ (Painters of Silence) at the Musée des Arts Asiatiques in Nice in 1998, for instance – were still somewhat burdened by such associations.

An interesting parallel exists between the political disposition underpinning Dansaekhwa’s emphasis on process (action) and the move away from figuration, and the concurrent political framing of Abstract Expressionism in the US as a distinct American counter-position to the Social Realism that was predominant in most postwar communist nations. At the height of the Cold War, leading American critics and historians such as John Canaday, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Leo Steinberg and, of course, Clement Greenberg, celebrated and promoted Abstract Expressionism as the culmination of a pure art; a marker of rebellion against both political and aesthetic agendas. The CIA’s International Cooperation Department was one of the most active divisions in the agency, playing a leading role in promoting ‘American’ Abstract Expressionism, but also introducing the US public to similar artistic manifestations elsewhere as an indication of a form of ‘Internationalism’, thereby relegating the cultural impact of communism’s Social Realism to the margins. This could not have been truer than in the case of South Korea, with its North Korean communist counterpart right next door. It should come as no surprise that the US State Department’s International Cooperation Administration organized the 1957 University of Minnesota show ‘Contemporary Korean Art’ and many other similar cultural exchanges.

While the US was recruiting the agency of art to counter the cultural impact of communism by promoting Abstract Expressionism, it was also providing military and economic assistance to President Park Chung-hee’s political regime in exchange for sending South Korean troops to help with the war in Vietnam. As such, by choosing to abandon figuration, Dansaekhwa artists made it more challenging for the regime to coerce their work into clearly discernible visuals of political propaganda, while still participating in major national exhibitions: a form of subtle revolution from within, perhaps? This is an aspect of Dansaekhwa that merits further investigation.


Park Seobo, Ecriture No. 881106, 1988, mixed media on hanji paper, 1.3 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: Alexander Gray Associates, New York

Park Seobo, Ecriture No. 881106, 1988, mixed media on hanji paper, 1.3 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: Alexander Gray Associates, New York

Although the term ‘monochrome’ has long been associated with Dansaekhwa, we embarked on an interesting discussion with Lee and Yoon in a symposium at Kukje Gallery last September in which we challenged its relevance. We proposed the term ‘process’ rather than monochrome. From speaking to Dansaekhwa artists, or referring to what they have left behind in their writings and other accounts, none of them seems to have been primarily concerned with colour, but rather with the process of a physical action that occupied a period of time and took place in a set space; one that centred on repetition, rhythm and an uncompromising acknowledgment of the materiality and act of painting. It would be interesting to explore the validity of such a term, if not as a substitute then as an equally indicative expression of what Dansaekhwa attempts to do. Questioning the term ‘monochrome’ provides us with a platform for critical reflection on the association of Dansaekhwa with abstraction. We see abstraction as, arguably, a consequence of the artists’ approach to painting and not a primary formalistic concern or end. Painting to these artists is an act of physical movement and interaction with the canvas and materials rather than a gradual process towards the abstract representation of physical things.

Our interest in Dansaekhwa stems from our ongoing investigation into Modernity and the negotiation of its premises and foundations in different parts of the world. Modernity cannot be viewed simply as a Western construct that was imported to other places only to be simulated to a less successful extent. If European Modernism owes the regeneration of its pictorial and stylistic language at least in part to the influx of the cultural objects of the Other (against a contested colonial backdrop), why can it not be argued that Dansaekhwa is an example of a similar act of negotiation and appropriation? In other words, if European Modernism’s adaptations and reformulations of aesthetics different to their own have been hailed as Avant-garde, why is any discussion about a similar, non-European counterpart almost always framed within a rhetoric of imitation and nationalism? This is a critical question to be explored further when contemplating new avenues or frameworks for how to speak or write about Dansaekhwa.

Yoon Jin Sup is a freelance curator, art critic and artist who lives in Seoul, Korea. He curated ‘Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting’ for the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in 2012, and ‘The Art of Dansaekhwa’ at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, in 2014. He is currently President of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) International Congress, Korea.

Joan Kee is Associate Professor of History of Art at the University of Michigan, USA, specializing in Modern and contemporary art, and the author of over 70 publications on contemporary Asian art, including Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (Minnesota, 2013). In 2014, she curated ‘From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction’, at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, USA, the first major survey of Dansaekhwa outside of Korea.

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath are the co-founders of the curatorial platform Art Reoriented, based in Munich, Germany, and New York, USA. Recent exhibitions in 2014 include ‘Songs of Loss and Songs of Love’ at the Gwangju Museum of Art, Korea, ‘Overcoming the Modern: Dansaekhwa’ at Alexander Gray in New York and ‘Mona Hatoum: Turbulence’ at Mathaf in Doha, Qatar. In 2013, they curated the Lebanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Italy. Their latest book Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring: Conversations with Artists from the Arab World will be published by Skira this spring.



Posted : 2016-11-01 16:43

Updated : 2016-11-01 19:49

Korean art gains more global presence

An installation view of “Dansaekhwa” exhibit at the Palazzo Contarini-Polignac in Venice, Italy in 2015.
/ Courtesy of Kukje Gallery

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Korea’s contemporary art has gained a strong presence on the international art scene, mainly with a rediscovered art movement from the 1970s as well as a new generation of artists making their names globally. The boom breathed life into the art market; according to Artprice.com, the Korean art market has become the 10th largest in the world in terms of art auction turnover as of 2015.

Reflecting increasing interest in Korean art, more international art figures are visiting Korea and providing new insights on the swelling presence of Korean art.

An internationally established gallerist, who believes her role is to bring attention to notable artists, said Korea has become a key player in the international art market.

Art dealer and collector Pearl Lam

Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong-based art dealer and owner of Pearl Lam Galleries, visited Korea last month to see two artists managed by her gallery — Kim Tschang-yeul and Suki Seokyeong Kang.

The two artists are poles apart ― Kim, 87, is an established artist who developed his own water drop painting style over a lifetime, while Kang, 38, explores harmony and balance through installation works based on the backgrounds of Oriental paintings.

Lam praised the spirituality in Kim’s works. “He is very intellectual. Who would you paint just a drop of water? This is really touching. I am studying more about his works and how he thinks. And I think he is a thinker on top of that,” Lam said in an interview with The Korea Times during her stay in Seoul. “For many years, a lot of quiet, meditative art has been out of focus of the art world. In the world with such heavy consumerism, we have to go back and look at things with more spirituality.”

Lam will present Kim’s signature water drop paintings at her Hong Kong gallery next March, which coincides with Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, Asia’s largest contemporary art fair.

“My job is to make him international and make his work known internationally. And that is why we chose the period of Art Basel Hong Kong time with a lot of international collectors coming so that they can see his works, especially early ones from the 1970s,” Lam said.

An installation view of “Foot & Moon,” a solo exhibition of Suki Seokyeong Kang at Pearl Lam Gallery in
Hong Kong

Kang majored in Oriental painting at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, and further studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London. Lam said Kang’s installations are time-consuming, but have an intellectual feeling.

“I visited her studio earlier this year and when I saw her work, I just loved it — for whatever reason, I don’t know. But I think Kang is an amazing artist,” the art dealer said. “I think in Korea you have many fantastic artists.”

Lam does not label Kim and Kang as Korean artists. “They are both good artists and I’m only interested in good artists. Actually, I don’t have problems with (an artist’s) passport,” Lam said. “For me, it’s not about Chinese, Korean, American or whatever. Whether you are a good artist or not is the only thing that matters.”

Lam, a daughter of the late Hong Kong tycoon Lim Por-yen, has been a pioneer in the Chinese art world since the early 1990s, when the world paid little to no attention to Chinese contemporary art.

“I am promoting the Asian perspective, rather than a Western point of view,” Lam said. “The West colonized all Asian culture for a long time until now. Most artists study in the West, learn the Western approach to art and think from the Western perspective with a sprinkle of local context. That’s too easy.”

That is the reason why Lam is interested in artists who deconstruct such a Western approach.

Lam analyzed that the Dansaekhwa phenomenon is a part of the art world’s interest in the postwar period.

“People are always looking at what happened after the World War II. In Europe, it is the beginning of everything ― we have the Zero Movement from Germany and then Arte Povera in Italy. Then it goes to Japan and they discover the Gutai group and Mono-ha Movement,” Lam said. “What happened in Korea after World War II is the Korean War and then the Dansaekhwa. We are always looking at the first art movement after the war and all of today’s contemporary art rises from that moment.

“It is interesting that people don’t see the world. I think they should see the world’s context,” Lam said.

Lam said if Korea didn’t impose an import tax on artworks, the art capital of Asia would be here.

“Hong Kong is a tax-free port and there is no censorship, so it became an art hub of Asia. We are still missing institutions for cultivating art in order to truly become a cultural center,” Lam said. “Korea has become an important market in the global art scene and international galleries all talk about Korea. There are many art museums and collectors in Korea, which constitute the commercial market base.”

Dansaekhwa to make splash in China


Dansaekhwa paintingChung Chang-sup’s “UNTITLED 73-12-11” / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

Dansaekhwa, or Korean monochrome painting, continues to receive market and critical attention internationally. Dansaekhwa is Korea’s first collective and international art movement that bloomed in the 1970s. It reflects Korean sentiments and aesthetics by investigating flatness and materiality through a process of repetition and meditation.

In June, Chung Sang-hwa held his first solo exhibition in the United States, jointly hosted by Dominique Levy Gallery and Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. Levy commented that Chung was singular in his ritualistic and systematic approach. “Chung’s process is so deeply temporal that it becomes an act of contemplation, of meditation, and that is as much his work as the canvas itself,” she said.

Paintings of fellow Dansaekhwa artist Yun Hyong-keun (1928-2007) will be presented in New York’s David Zwirner Gallery from Jan. 13 to Feb. 19, 2017. The artist’s Korean promoter PKM Gallery said, “We will be at the forefront of promoting Yun’s paintings and strengthening his status at David Zwirner Gallery and also in the international art market.”

Yun was one of the earliest Dansaekhwa artists who made his name internationally. American sculptor Donald Judd (1928-1994) noticed the restrained elegance in Yun’s works when he visited Korea and later invited Yun for an exhibit at the Chinati Foundation, his contemporary art museum in Marfa, Texass.

Budi Tek, founder of the Yuz Museum in Shanghai

The Korean art movement got noticed by Chinese as well and will have a major survey in a contemporary art museum in Shanghai next autumn.

Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and chairman of the Yuz Foundation, visited Korea in October to announce the first Dansaekhwa show in China at Yuz Museum in Shanghai.

“It is my way of respecting the originality of those master artists of Dansaekhwa,” Tek said.

Yuz Museum is a contemporary museum that holds exhibitions based on Tek’s extensive collections of Chinese and Western art as well as the world’s top artists such as Yang Fudong, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol.

As a collector, Tek owns Dansaekhwa paintings, but he did not disclose the details of his own collection of Korean monochrome paintings. The Yuz exhibition of Dansaekhwa will be organized in collaboration with several Korean and international art institutions.

“Dansaekhwa is a major achievement for the Korean art scene and it could be the missing link in Asian contemporary art. I congratulate this successful, admirable movement,” Tek said.

Tek said he has great expectations for the upcoming Dansaekhwa exhibit, which will present the art movement in the context of Chinese and international contemporary art.

“The three philosophical tendencies of Chinese contemporary art are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Dansaekhwa is talking about nature, minimalism and emptiness, which are related to Taoism,” he said. “Dansaekhwa is part of the Asian philosophical movement, which is very important in the contemporary art world. We are talking about contemporary art, not country, in terms of art movement.”

The collector-philanthropist said Dansaekhwa has been ignored for many decades, but being rediscovered later rather raised the value of the works, just like a matured wine tastes better.

“Many good artists succeed too early and fail too soon, being corrupted by market forces. Dansaekhwa is so beautiful, simple and spiritual because it was not interfered with by the market too early,” Tek said.

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