THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGINARY, curated by Vincent Johnson. Nan Rae Gallery. Woodbury University. Los Angeles – INSTALLATION AND OPENING PHOTOS

UPDATED 3/19/2017

Photographs from the opening of
Nine Approaches to Photography Today
Nan Rae Gallery
Woodbury University
Curated by Vincent Johnson

Adrienne DeVine
Buena Johnson
Derrick Maddox
George Porcari
Glen Wilson
Jessica Wimbley
Isabelle Lutterodt
Kathie Foley-Meyer
Salvatore Reda
Toni Scott
Vincent Johnson


This exhibition features an artist who has won a Tiffany in photography and who is publishing a book on the films of Antonioni. It features an artist who is on the short list of the next Shanghai Biennial. This artist has already had one person shows in China. It features artists who are also award winners in Hollywood and the commercial arts. It features painters, photographers, filmmakers and video artists. It features the works of an artist who is also a rising star independent curator. It features an artist born in England who is a photographer and videomaker and who is also an institutional curator in Los Angeles. It features a photographer who studied at Yale. All but one artist in the exhibition has an MFA from a prominent Southern California art school or university. That artist studied in New York. It features six African American women artists. It features an award winning artist and designer based in Portland. It features three Art Center College of Design MFAs. The exhibition catalog and zine are in progress. It will feature something I’ve never seen in Los Angeles, a collection of interviews of artists in the exhibition, almost all of whom are artists of color. The interviews trace each artist’s creative life from their first recollections to the present. It features an artist from Lima, Peru. The exhibition catalog will of course document the exhibition, but it will also contain an essay on Photography and Time and a piece on how certain animals and birds perception of time is different than humans. The zine will contain the responses to the artist questionnaire. This too is something I’ve never seen in a publication of Los Angeles artists. It’s something that happened often in Europe and was used by curators in New York as a tool to help understand the artist’s work and unnveiled the philosophical positions on how they see their art. The exhibition will have a selection of additional works in an online only show. Up the road I plan on doing more interviews and inviting more artists to answer the questionnaire on photography and a new one I’m developing for art. The opening was well attended and included dealers, collectors and art writers amidst the many art lovers who spent last Sunday afternoon seeing so much new and great photo-based work. The show looks really great. Everyone who wants to see what an older generation of sharp, gifted and talented Los Angeles Artists is up to should come check out this amazing show. Thanks. Vincent Johnson.

Kathie Foley- Meyer 25. Citizen\Soldier. 2017 Mixed media installation, vellum photos printed on acrylic, electrical components,particle hah d board, video. 95” x 73.5”

Isabelle Lutterodt 19. Meditation on Stillness. 2017 Video.

George Porcari 26. Softinstant 9 Transit Exit. 2017 Archival digital print (red car on bottom). 38” x 32” 27. Softinstant 6 (painting for tourist). 2017 Archival digital print (red cones on top). 38” x 32”

Buena Johnson 20. Rain Carnivale’. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20” 21. “Ride On” by BUENA. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20” 22. Downtown Shuffle. 2016 Photograph on Metal 16” x 20” 23. Neon Symphony. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20” 24. Eighth Note. 2016 Photo on Metal. 16” x 20”

Salvatore Reda m. 1.The Ship. 2017 Wood, color inkjet prints, metal hardware. 38” x 20”

Glen Wilson 18. Mpanjono, Ambina sy Bahary (Morondava) version 1. 1997-2017 Archival Ink-Jet Prints (on Hahnemuhle), mounted on sintra 69” x 53”

Toni Scott 9. Scream One. 2017 Mixed Media 48” x 72” 10. Scream Two. 2017 Mixed Media 48” x 72”

Derrick Maddox n, 2. for whom the son sets free. 2017 Large handmade paper sheet with composite image photo of my neighborhood torn it bbsections and embedded within the paper itself, smaller handmade paper sheets, acrylic bbpaint, house paint, oil stick, sharpie, latex glove, photo clipping, from 1950’s to 1960’s bboriginal (Life and Time) magazine articles on black life in America. bb bb18.5” x 33.5” x .25” 3. Stuc. 2017 Mixed media collage, digital composite transfer on found cardboard, oil stick, acrylic paint, nbdirt. b30” x 27” 4. Aaah! S.W.I.L.A. (Some Where In Los Angeles). 2017 Mixed media photo sculpture, a photo of random stain on sidewalk, photo transferred on hhMDF, Oil stick, acrylic paint, plastic baby foot, found object (toy flag), mounted on “The nbPerfect Pineapple” fruit box found in my neighborhood, filled with bread slicked. b b15.375” x 13.25” x 9” 5. Oh Say (that you can sang). 2017 Mixed media photo sculpture, photo, found object, acrylic paint, original floor jack from my 1968 Ranchero. 40” x 24.5”

Adrienne Devine
14. Hello. 2014 C Print.
24” x 16”
15. Mokeying Around. 2013
C Print.
36” x 24”
16. Progeny. 2013
C Print. NFS
16” x 24”
17. Isaiah59:17. 2014
C Print. 18” x 24”

Vincent Johnson 6. Soviet Space. 2017 Archival digital photographic print in black frame. 43” x 23” 7. Mexican Los Angeles (Dream). 2017 Archival digital photographic print in white frame. 44” x 34” 8. Korean Los Angele(Dream).2017 Archival digital photographic print in white frame. 44” x 34”

Exhibiting Artist Kathie Foley-Meyer with her work and Exhibiting Artist Buena Johnson in foreground.

Exhibiting Artist Toni Scott and Exhibiting Artist Adrienne DeVine

Isabelle Lutterodt 19. Meditation on Stillness. 2017 Video.




The title of the exhibition alludes to the question of what is the photographic imaginary today.

The overarching theme of the photographic imaginary is essentially photography in its myriad manifestations from ideas of photography to conception and print.

This exhibition will explore several forms of the photographic imaginary, from the real to the unreal, from the dream to what appears to be unaltered and direct photographic truth.

The exhibited works are photo-based, not strictly only photography. There is both assemblage sculpture and video onboard.

The photographic imaginary is also the conscious state of having taken a photograph with the mind or the camera, but the image not yet being in the world in print.

The exhibition does not need or even ask for work of that speaks to any particular subject, as it is each artist’s individual contemporary vision is the subject of the exhibition as platform for photographic visions.

 The exhibition takes on Matisse‘s remark “Exactitude is not truth” as a challenge.


The exhibition opens March 12, 2017 at the Nan Rae Gallery at Woodbury University and will be available for viewing from March 10, 2017.

There will be a catalog published by Woodbury University, containing essays by George Porcari on Photography and Time, Glen Wilson on How Time is Perceived and Vincent Johnson on The Photographic Imaginary. The catalog will also contain the transcribed artist’s audio interviews and exhibition documentation photography by Glen Wilson and Vincent Johnson. The catalog design and Social Media presence is designed by exhibiting artist Salvatore Reda.

A zine containing the responses to the artist questionnaire will also be published, with the possibility of a distinct one per artist.

A WordPress website will document the exhibition.

Today is March 6, 2017. Installation day.

This page will be updated starting today with documentation of the installation, by the installation crew from Hauser & Wirth gallery, Los Angeles.

Thanks for reading.

Vincent Johnson, curator, THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGINARY


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 / / 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


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, 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.

Is Albert Oehlen Germany’s Greatest Painter of the 21st century?



Portrait Albert Oehlen

Source Code and Stress Test

Like almost no other artist, Albert Oehlen subjects painting to a stress test. For over 30 years he’s been tinkering with the medium’s source code: colour and paint application, lines and layers, titles and triumphs, disappointments and expectations. These elements are all played against one another and caught off guard. Daniel Baumann leads us through the work.

Networks were invented to facilitate communication between dissimilar systems, the media theorist, artist, and programmer Alexander R. Galloway wrote in Spike #39. One could say that art has an analogous function: it develops its meaning as a network linking thinking and life. What particularly struck me about Galloway’s article, however, was his description of software as existing in three distinct modes: source code, executable code, and interface. This got me thinking that the majority of so-called post-Internet art barely ever goes beyond the interface – that is, beyond a desktop-like appearance. This would explain why such art is always immediately recognizable even though it comes in many different forms: it is an art of the surface. Among the huge array of objects, texts, painted-over prints, and distorted scans, one can indeed find works that deal with source code and contend with the depths it involves. But it’s not so easy to tell them apart from all the rest. Similarly, at the beginning of the 1980s, it wasn’t immediately apparent how and why Albert Oehlen’s paintings were so different from the “wild” Neo-Expressionism that was everywhere at the time. Leafing through the catalogues and books focusing on German art from this era, one finds images of Oehlen’s work alongside paintings by Elvira Bach, Werner Büttner, Walter Dahn, Martin Disler, Georg Herold, Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Middendorf, Markus Oehlen, Salomé, Klaudia Schifferle, and Andreas Schulze – and the difference is not always so obvious.

Yet it would have been possible quite early on to see that Oehlen’s concerns lay elsewhere. Initial clues were offered by the titles of his paintings: among them Gegen den Liberalismus (Against Liberalism, 1980); Morgenlicht fällt ins Führerhauptquartier (Morning Light Falls in the Führer’s Headquarters, 1982); Treppenhaus Spezial (Staircase Special, 1984); and Selbstporträt mit verschissener Unterhose und blauer Mauritius (Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius, 1984). There is no mode of painting that can cover such a wide range of themes and non-themes, but that was exactly the point. Like Büttner and Kippenberger, or above all Sigmar Polke, Oehlen used such statements to push the subject matter and imagery of painting to the limits of its potential, as a way of demystifying the medium, undermining expectations and, ultimately, liberating art from the mission it was purported to have by collectors, institutions, and admirers of artists like Joseph Beuys or Anselm Kiefer. “So, what you had to do was to put an excessive amount of stress on the medium [painting], that’s how the real beauty comes out,” Oehlen explained in a 1991 conversation with Wilfried Dickhoff and the Austrian linguist Martin Prinzhorn, who was among the first to participate in the discussion of this strategy of making excessive demands.

In the exhibition catalogue for a show at Galerie Borgmann Capitain in Cologne in 1986, Prinzhorn gives an accurate description of how Oehlen’s art resists any simple meaning being ascribed to it: “For art criticism, that old game of allocating form and content is always central. No matter how complex it might be, it ultimately always aims at a form of ‘understanding’ that presupposes such an endeavour as a meaningful allegory or metaphor. The art we are discussing here does not allow for these kinds of interpretative mechanisms.”

As recently as 2005, American curator Bonnie Clearwater wrote: “Albert Oehlen is a difficult artist to pin down. This is deliberate on his part.” To this day, most of the writing on Oehlen is an attempt to do just that. This endeavour is confronted by a body of work that exploits contradictions and assimilates them into its underlying structure.

In addition, attempts to domesticate Oehlen’s work are made more difficult by the artist himself staking out a position in his writings and giving numerous interviews that turn commonly held ideas upside-down.

Until 1987, Oehlen made figurative paintings that didn’t differentiate between the sincere and the banal and primarily worked with a spectrum of greys and browns. In 1984 he introduced the three primary colours, blue, red, and yellow, as if the point were to think back to Mondrian. This is when he painted Portrait A.H. (1984), a large-format portrait of Adolf Hitler in primary colours – which still seems borderline today. Also around this time, Oehlen began experimenting with elements foreign to painting proper, incorporating stickers, metal signs, and above all mirrors into his paintings. He opened up the closed space of the canvas using the most banal means possible. In this way, Oehlen’s work feigns a conceptual approach that ostensibly provides an easy point of entry for people doubtful of painting’s value. Finally, in 1987, Oehlen produced a series of figurative works, each of which was titled Abstract Painting. What was originally intended as a dig at the traditional opposition of figuration and abstraction became a long-term engagement with abstract painting – insofar as this is still a valid term.

Oehlen claims that his behaviour and artistic practice as a young artist were also an attempt to break into the temple of painting. In 1988, something went missing as part of this process and hasn’t returned since: perspective. Kippenberger’s 1986 exhibition “Die Perspektivenscheisse” (The Perspective-Shit) at Gerald Just in Hannover already signalled that something was in the air. In 1989, the same year as the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people did indeed lose perspective. In Oehlen’s case, it was replaced with layering: the pictorial space, which had previously been structured hierarchically with foreground, middle ground, and background, began to spread across the picture plane and stack up in multiple layers. This gave a new prominence to colour as a material as well as to the role of line.

In 1991 Oehlen began making drawings on the computer without knowing too much about the technical details. The resulting images were printed out, silkscreened onto large canvases, and worked on some more with paint. The computer-drawn lines became monumental, raising questions around the nature of materiality. While the digital offers no resistance and can be modified at will, paint insists on a life of its own: its sheen varies, depending on the way the light falls; it drips or is too matte or thick in all the wrong places. There is a certain arrogance to its materiality – a quality foreign to the digital, which is so endlessly compliant. In the following years, Oehlen conducted further experiments with the digital, working through various possibilities for drawing and colour, and creating invitation cards and posters that look as if Photoshop were having a bad dream. Oehlen then continued to broaden his territory, especially in the late 90s, with a series of grey paintings in which he adopts Gerhard Richter’s famous blurring technique. As in Richter’s works, this process resulted in images that both suggested a lot of associations and were formally elegant. One might think that such an effect is inevitable: blurry grey is always a big hit. This would seem to support Walter Robinson’s theory of “zombie formalism”, which claims that contemporary painting is dominated by work that refers in more or less covert ways to art (like the work of Christopher Wool or Albert Oehlen) that is well established on the market.

After the turn of the millennium, Oehlen’s practice expanded at an even faster pace. This period saw the emergence of collage, such as that shown at the Vienna Secession in 2004; collage on paintings, as shown at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin in 2011; paintings on collage, as shown at Gagosian in New York in 2014. He has also made large pictures by gluing advertising posters on top of one another; finger paintings; large charcoal drawings; and, since 2014, paintings on aluminium Dibond that depict the dark silhouettes of trees against a red and white background. Trees first appeared in Oehlen’s work in the late 80s; now, 25 years later, they have been given their own extensive series. According to Oehlen, the tree works well as a form because it is both abstract and figurative, while allowing for flatness and depth, detail and mass, density and line. As a structure, it engenders connections through the image, as well as obscuring it and partitioning it. And it is powerful enough to hold its own against the layers of red and white. These paintings have a somewhat monstrous quality. They are astonishingly cold and harsh, and leave a striking impression of irreconcilability.

The details are fantastic: the matteness, the sheen, the brushstrokes, the fade-to-white, the traces of glue, the spray paint particles, the lines. Above all: the lines. If anything, these lines are the content of Oehlen’s work.

They invite the viewer to look closely, to study the application of paint, the edges, sections, and progressions. Standing in front of an Oehlen painting is like standing in front of an idea. These paintings cancel out the division between form and content, figuration and abstraction. Whether they are good or bad or wrong, they are aware of their particular depth, but it has nothing to do with perspective. Instead it has everything to do with the details – they are the source code from which the image is produced, which is also what breaks down the system of painting. It’s in the details that a space opens up, space that is also time – the time one takes to look, without ever being seduced, without ever being instructed, without ever being tickled by tricks, without having to love. For me, these paintings bring to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films, which have a sense of distance that is hard to match. These pictures are like an Internet protocol that enables the very possibility of exchange.

Translated by Bonnie Begusch


ALBERT OEHLEN, born 1954 in Krefeld, lives in Switzerland. EXHIBITIONS: Home and GardenNew Museum, New York (solo); An Old Painting in Spirit, Kunsthalle Zürich (solo) (2015); Fabric Paintings, Skarstedt Gallery, New York (solo); Variations: Conversations in and around Abstract Painting, LACMA, Los Angeles; Die 5000 Finger von Dr. Ö, Museum Wiesbaden (solo); Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles (solo); Galerie Max Hetzler, Paris (solo); do it Moscow, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moskau; No Problem: Cologne/ New York, 1984–1989, David Zwirner, New York (2014); mumok, Wien (solo); La Biennale di Venezia; Albert Oehlen / John Sparagana, Studiolo, Zürich (2013). REPRESENTED BY Gagosian Gallery, New York; Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Paris

DANIEL BAUMANN is director of Kunsthalle Zürich.



Home and Garden


New York didn’t get the Albert Oehlen survey it deserved. Although there are plenty of strong paintings among the twenty-five or so included in Home and Garden at the New Museum, and for the most part they are installed to sufficient impact, this show short-changes Oehlen’s crucial relationship to the legacy of New York painting since the 1940s, without which he would be far less the critical painter he has been for some time. Leaving underwhelmed, my assessment was reinforced by a small yet potent presentation of works from 2011 and 2013 at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago that collage silhouettes of Swiss cows onto canvases to make complicated paintings with no paint. The works in Chicago distill and extend the terms of the two most recent works at the New Museum, both Untitled (2009-11), representatives of Oehlen’s “Fingermalerei” (finger paintings) that put the look of New York School painting front and center with or without apology. (It’s not clear why the New Museum show doesn’t include any work made after 2011.)

Albert Oehlen, Festnahme [Arrest], 1996. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 75 1/4 × 96 1/2 in.

Before I get into what I’m trying to get at, I want to be clear that I don’t think the artist is to be blamed for this missed opportunity. Surveys, as such, are often nasty business, and Oehlen’s production has been tailor-made to resist summation, clarification, and established (or the establishment of) historical frameworks. Moreover the virtual evidence of his concurrent exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich, called “An Old Painting in Spirit,” suggests more momentum is there, if only because of the inclusion of brand new paintings that look in pixelated reproduction like, yes, something new.

It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that my disappointment is with the curator. And while it may be old news for any of us who have put up with tired and repetitive rhetoric about painting since the late 1980s, at this point—well into the 21st century—I’ll admit to being surprised by reading this in Massimiliano Gioni’s essay: “It is ironic—if not downright depressing or, perhaps sadly illuminating—that one of the best descriptions of what life in the digital era feels like had to be captured in the old medium of painting rather than in some new, hyper-technological invention.” I’m not sure this is the most productive bias to have when organizing a show of Oehlen, given that he has dismantled it probably more than any other contemporary artist. Maybe painting never gave up its ability to provide some of the best descriptions of life. Like a killer pop song or jazz riff (more about this below), painting can embody or provoke contradictory attitudes all at once. Painting may be old, but it is not over the hill.

Since the beginning of his career Oehlen has provided plenty of bait for curators and critics who went all in against painting. As a student of Sigmar Polke’s in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1980s, he was well positioned to take up the terms of “bad painting” that had been established the decade before and produce early pictures that provide the triple insult of first making “bad” versions of “bad painting,” then giving them what they need to hide in plain sight amongst so-called new-expressionism (aping what I once heard Lari Pittman describe as “it’s my feelings painting” with a requisite brown palette and squiggles), and, finally then a half-hearted slap of self-portraiture. Self-portrait with One-hole Vase [Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf] (1984) is one of two prime examples included here, and with the advantage of hindsight it sets up the enduring attitude of Oehlen’s work: representing himself as a hunched over pasty-faced puppet, it looks as if he was using his wooden finger to stick his doubts about painting in that damn vase. (I think this painting might also be a nod to Willem de Kooning’s The Glazier (1940), but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Albert Oehlen, Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf [Self- portrait with One-hole Vase], 1984. Oil on canvas, 67 × 102 3/8 in.

From there, the exhibition jumps to five paintings from 1988, 1989, and 1992, when Oehlen turned to abstraction alongside his partner in crime Martin Kippenberger. These canvases are from the period when I was first introduced to Oehlen’s work (at Luhring Augustine in 1991), and seeing them here lined up on a wall my first thought was that they did not age well. When this body of work was first shown it held a certain interest with a peculiar range of painterly moves that managed to survive the brown (so much brown!) but a tentativeness has now overtaken them. Nonetheless they are critical to understanding the bigger picture of Oehlen’s significant achievements, triumphs that I think have everything to do with New York painting before the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, etc. I could call this the de Kooning problem, but instead I think it’s an answer to some of the current thinking about painting overall.

In the catalogue, Gioni is joined by Mark Godfrey who, in his essay, makes it clear that he does know painting. However he only gives passing mention to de Kooning while stating the obvious: Oehlen’s path to abstraction was not like Mondrian’s or Malevich’s or Barnett Newman’s. I find this disingenuous when what Oehlen’s path is like is de Kooning’s. As John Elderfield’s impeccable 2011 MoMA survey demonstrated, de Kooning was as much a vulgarian as anyone who has followed him, willing to upend expectations again and again. That Oehlen has what de Kooning had does not mean that his work is lesser for having been “done” before in both attitude and form. Instead it provides solid evidence that some of the best things about painting really never change, and one of those things is that painting never stops being contradictory.

In 1963 Roy Lichtenstein said he wanted to make a painting that was so “despicable” that no one would want to hang it, and no doubt many at the time thought he had achieved just that. Three years later, John Adkins Richardson published an essay, now ripe for rediscovery, called “Dada, Camp, and the Mode Called Pop” in which he wrote about some black Jazz musicians who created “masterpieces of condescension”: “Because the performance of these ‘put ons’ requires great technical facility and inasmuch as they are done with good humor they are not offensive to anyone, least of all to the rare white man who comprehends their purpose.” Technical facility doesn’t really change, even if it looks or operates differently in various historical periods. It’s the attitude that is never able to be only one thing or stay the same over time, whether in the double-duty love/hate, authentic/fabricated strokes of a mid-1950s de Kooning (see my review of the MoMA retrospective in the October 2011 Rail), or the computer paintings that Oehlen started in the early 1990s.

The five computer paintings that come next in the chronology of Oehlen’s survey are the tipping point of his work overall, because it’s only after them that Oehlen becomes the “technician of freedom” that he proclaimed with authority and spot-on humor in his recent commencement address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The constraints of the New Museum do achieve one surprise: they amplify Oehlen’s achievements as some of the super-sized paintings of the early 2000s are able to remain approachable and even intimate in perverse, perfect ways: Born to be late (2001), for example, is breathtaking here mainly because it remains inviting while being irritating and too much. It’s also one of my favorites because it has the perfect title to push back against the notion that painting has been, or will ever have to be, on the clock.


Terry R. Myers TERRY MYERS is a Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


June 8, 2015 5:00 p.m.

Albert Oehlen Is Like a Badger of Painting


Party Dreams, 2001. Inkjet print and mixed mediums on canvas. Photo: Courtesy Cristin Tierney Gallery

The New Museum’s tight two-floor, 27-work exhibition of Albert Oehlen gives ample evidence of the ways and whys this 61-year-old German artist is one of the most influential painters working anywhere today—a virtual freedom machine. Oehlen is like a badger of painting, a cross between a weasel and a small bear, fearlessly scouring painting’s possibilities, implications, and metaprograms, scavenging for sweet spots, weaknesses, ways to decode, remap, and break down the medium’s programs, surfaces, image depiction, markmaking, and brushstrokes. I love his work, but I am not even sure that I actually like it. I hear the liberating bells it rings, and revel in them. And yet his work almost always has the look of being messy and structurally delirious, with so many visual and coloristic cross-references firing at once that they become soups of incredible pictorial gibberish. Like they come at me too hard.

For the first eight years of his career, I think I thought of Oehlen as a strong second-string Kippenberger, Schnabel, Markus Lüpertz, or Polke type of painter — German, punkish, trashy, brash, tearing up painting in carnivorous ways. That was in the early 1980s, and I found him good and smart but not up to first-level ambition or admiration. I don’t think I thought about him again until the mid-1990s. Then he threw me for a real loop. His early work had been large, splashy mash-ups of figures, household objects, and abstract shapes in marshy fields of muddy color. Then, almost out of nowhere, and probably before anyone of his generation, in 1992, he began probing the significant surfaces and possibilities of digital imagery and the tools that make it. Employing a Texas Instruments computer and picture programs, along with spray-paint, silk screen, collage, and bushstrokes, utilizing mainly black and white — colors that are more ideas than real, as they don’t actually exist in nature — he suddenly developed a subspecies of painting all his own. So many other artists have now followed in his footsteps that it may be hard for viewers to grasp just how shocking this work looked at the time. At least it was for me.

Untitled, 2007. Oil and paper on canvas. Photo: Collection Cynthia and Abe Steinberger

When you get to the section of the show containing these, you’re seeing Oehlen finding something in painting’s inherent program, something that must have been there from the beginning — another level of abstract possibilities and endless processes, a way to almost paint against painting’s program, rather than making the medium adapt and absorb human needs. This opened 10,000 doors, to as many artists. Pause here to give Oehlen props — even if the works strike you as stark, too stripped-down, lazy, or the beginning of too many subsequent bad careers to name. Oehlen found a way to embed electromagnetic information into the spaces, surfaces, and materials of painting.

They struck me that way, too. As when I had relegated him to the second tier in the ’80s, in the mid-1990s, I saw these black-and-white works as too easy, thought the surfaces looked slapped together, and couldn’t process that lines were being made with a new device called a “mouse” and then transferred into coded files and reproduced onto the canvas. (Almost the exact resistances we see today to artists like Wade Guyton and Richard Prince.) I had no problem with an artist not touching his work — this was nearly 100 years on from Duchamp, and 30 years after Warhol. And yet I failed to see that Oehlen had bypassed then-fashionable critique theory and deconstructions of painting. Instead he was voraciously badgering the medium’s carcass, transforming, reevaluating, seeing that painting’s deepest structures contained the possibilities of adaptation, mutation, and growth while also redefining skill and beauty and maybe tools. The ways he was doing all that even now look radical and magical, like maps to other kinds of thinking, graphic worlds, and chains of non-symbolic meaning.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Oehlen also created large, allover abstract fields of reproduced images, pictures that looked swollen from bee stings, out of focus, about to erupt into visual nothingness. His colors became highly keyed-up, acidic, hazes of pink, purple, magenta. With little annoying bad-boy nihilism, these works seemed to take old-school Abstract Expressionism, Rauschenberg, and Rosenquist on pop-punk joyrides, all the while maintaining graphic-pictorial integrity and control. Again, I’m not even sure I actually like these paintings. Yet I see them as real signposts pointing in so many directions simultaneously that I see these canvases as compasses to wherever I allow them to take me.

For this, the curators of this show deserve a lot of credit. Not only because the New Museum has one of the worst spaces for exhibitions, but because rather than laying out a building-filling survey of an art star, they have chosen to give us two or three of these highly unstable crucial oscillation points in Oehlen’s career. The result is that you see through mastery and market thoughts, and glimpse an artist whose energy is hot like de Kooning’s but whose work is endlessly ironic, posed, utilizing ideas that others and probably he dismissed as useless, silly, stupid. That’s what I meant by calling Oehlen a “freedom machine.” We’re not just seeing silk screening, computer graphics, color, images, and the like; the deep content of this work is flexibility, openness, the willingness to abandon everything to see how much more the vessel of painting and even the self might hold, while at the same time making it all look as easy and sometimes as ugly as pie. Oehlen reminds us that first and foremost, all artists are or should be technicians of freedom that set other people loose.


Artists Q&A

‘Humans Will Have the Last Word’: A Talk With Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen photographed on June 8 at the New Museum.


A retrospective of Albert Oehlen’s work runs through September 13 at the New Museum in New York.

Bill Powers: I understand that in high school you papered your bedroom walls with cheap supermarket advertising.
Albert Oehlen: That’s right. When I was fifteen. It was my kind of protest. I was living with—what I considered—a bourgeois family.

BP: I heard you once made a rule that on half of a canvas you would use only expensive paint and on the other half very cheap paint.
AO: Yeah, I did these kinds of experiments a lot. It has an impact on your work. It makes things slower and you come to impossible results. You might put your paint in alphabetical order and say, “I’m only using A through K today.” It makes no sense, but you wonder what will happen on the canvas.

BP: Is that something you learned from Sigmar Polke? The need to experiment?
AO: This is stuff that just came to mind, but I did find out that other artists had similar ideas, yes. Like when Malcolm Morley makes an oil painting after a watercolor he did—he transfers it with these grids and is able to keep the aesthetic of watercolor, only done in oil. For someone who knows about painting you can see how that’s strange. I love this kind of thinking. Malcolm Morley has done a lot in that direction and has a kind of humor.

BP: Is humor something that you value in painting?
AO: I think it should be there anyway.

BP: People make a big deal about your use of technology in painting. Do you remember the first time you worked with Photoshop?
AO: The thing that was important for me was when, in 1990, I got a Texas Instruments laptop. I liked the pixelation. It was like a filter: take it or leave it. Then I thought the only way for me not to accept what was happening there was to hand-paint over it. This meant that I had the last word instead of the technology. And I liked the fact that I could call what I did “computer paintings.” Also, they captured a moment in history. They are time-stamped by the technology.

BP: And you were employing this technology in real time. There was nothing nostalgic about it as in, say, the Mario Brothers videos of Cory Arcangel.
AO: It really depends on what you want. I wasn’t trying to profit from the technology—in fact, quite the opposite. I made a fool of myself and of the technology. It was a struggle between us.

BP: In the end will technology overtake us? Like when Garry Kasparov plays the computer in chess, is it just a matter of time before the machines win?
AO: I don’t know if I can give the right answer, but I know the answer I want to be true: humans will have the last word.

BP: Has music directly influenced your art? I know John Currin will listen to horror music or bad heavy metal in the studio.
AO: I did a lot of paintings listening to Frankie Laine.

BP: That’s not very punk rock of you.
AO: It just put me in the right mood.

BP: Christopher Wool is a good friend of yours. What did you think of his recent show at Luhring Augustine?
AO: I loved it. When I first saw photos of the sculptures I thought he’d gone crazy. Then, when I saw them in person, I realized how smart they are.

BP: You made your fabric paintings in the early ’90s while living in Spain?
AO: Martin Kippenberger and I went to live in the Spanish countryside, but then we moved to Madrid because it got too boring.

BP: Can we talk about your relationship with Kippenberger? What did you admire about him?
AO: Technically he was far ahead of all of us. He could sit in front of a painting and work on it for hours. I could never do that. I’d step back, interrupt the process, but I saw myself as a real artist. Kippenberger was very disciplined and I liked his craziness. Also, I liked his feedback very much.

BP: So you guys would trade ideas?
AO: He would see something that I was doing and would respond to it, make something more extreme. I made funny self-portraits, then he made self-portraits, almost as an answer to me, a parody on it—like the thing with the swastika. Do you know this story? I painted a Rodchenko sculpture and he looked at my painting and said, “For the life of me, I can’t see the swastika in this painting.” He made a joke of it. If you were with Kippenberger, you had to take whatever he dished out. You might tell him about an idea you had for a new painting one night, and the next morning he would have made 20 of them. You couldn’t even be mad at him.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “ ‘Humans Will Have the Last Word’: A Talk With Albert Oehlen.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


Albert Oehlen: ‘There’s something hysterical about magenta’

Fuelled by beer and speed, Albert Oehlen ran riot through the Berlin art world. He made intentionally bad paintings, worked only in grey, and was even anti-art altogether. Now’s he’s living the outdoors life in Switzerland – so why do his trees still look psychopathic?

A detail from Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, by Albert Oehlen
‘Alarming’ … a detail from Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, by Albert Oehlen. Photograph: Stefan Rohner/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Albert Oehlen has filled the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair with big paintings of trees. Oehlen’s trees are black, skeletal and deformed-looking, their thin curving branches extending beyond blocks of smeared magenta into pure white backgrounds. In some paintings, straight black parallel lines suggest the trees are standing on an autobahn and, indeed, their minimalism and bold colours would not look out of place on a Kraftwerk album cover.

In others, a single long line of black spray-paint trails across the canvas like a hurried graffiti scrawl – except that these are not canvases, but shiny, smooth, synthetic sheets of Dibond, a polythene-coated aluminium board more commonly used for advertising displays in trade fairs. “I like the stiffness,” says Oehlen, “It has this modern technological feel to it, and it’s actually much easier to paint on than canvas. I wasn’t looking for another surface, I just tried it one day and liked it.”

Untitled (Baum 46), 2015
Untitled (Baum 46), 2015. Photograph: Stefan Rohner/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

This kind of accidental development is emblematic of Oehlen’s approach to making art, which is somehow both instinctive and cerebral. He paints in the long shadow of abstraction, abstract expressionism and minimalism, as if aware that the act of painting is a gesture of defiance in the face of history. When he talks about his work, it is often in a self-deprecating and mischievous way. It is almost as if he doesn’t take his vocation seriously, when in fact the opposite is true. Like his paintings, Oehlen is hard to pin down: elusive, I suspect, by nature rather than design.

“I don’t intend to be cryptic or difficult,” he says at one point, “I am like I am. I work and sometimes I get ideas and I pursue those ideas until I exhaust them. To me, it all fits together. It’s a continuous work for me – and of me.” As is often the case, his attempt at elucidation ends with a wry laugh. I have never encountered an artist who so effortlessly debunks the myth that to make art you must be a tortured soul. “I do struggle,” he says, “but mostly, I struggle because I have a lot of work to do. Often, I have one recurring problem: how to make a painting that is entertaining – to me and to everyone else. It’s a lot of effort, that one idea. It means I am often trying to do something that is impossible. So, yes, what I do is playful, but it is also work.”

Albert Oehlen
Neue Wilde no longer … ‘We wanted to be – pathetic words – new and provocative’: Albert Oehlen. Photograph: Oliver Schultz-Berndt

Oehlen currently lives and works in Buhlen, a small town near Zurich. It seems an oddly sedate base for a former enfant terrible of German painting, but the days of beer and speed in post-punk Berlin have given way to an outdoor lifestyle of hiking and skiing in the surrounding mountains. Back then, Oehlen was best friends with the hard-drinking Martin Kippenberger, and at the vanguard of the Neue Wilde movement. “We hung out together, we had fun, we got into trouble. We wanted to be – pathetic words – ‘new and provocative’. But, the flip side of that coin is that you can’t ask for success because you have set yourself up to be totally against the very idea of success.”

It all sounds like an impossibly faraway time, before the tyranny of the global market turned artists into unapologetic careerists. “I was even against art for a while,” he says, laughing. “Punk was in the air, but, really I didn’t belong to punk.” As a strategy, though, punk made sense to him. “It interested me because it asked the question – what happens if you work with something that you are not a master of and don’t control? That’s still an interesting question.”

It is one that has resounded though all of Oehlen’s work to one degree or another, not least in his constant adopting of often absurd-seeming rules and limitations. He once laboured on a series of paintings in which he only used shades of grey. For another series of intentionally “bad paintings” – including a garish portrait of Hitler – he stuck rigorously to red, yellow and blue.

Untitled (Baum 30), 2015
Untitled (Baum 30), 2015. Photograph: Stuart Burford photography/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

He has an odd and wilfully dysfunctional relationship with what many might consider the most fundamental aspect of painting: colour. “For a long time, I just didn’t care about it,” he told me, when I visited his studio, which looks out over snow-covered rooftops to the mountains beyond. “I just put my paint on the palette and worked with what was there. Then I thought, what would happen if I did care about colour?”

It is this kind of approach that has led some critics to dismiss Oehlen as a chancer, while others, including a new generation of younger artists that includes Urs Fischer, Wade Guyton and Michael Williams, have found his punkish attitude and constant stylistic shifts a source of inspiration. In the mid-90s, he was ahead of the game in his use of digitally manipulated images for a series he called Computer Paintings. Before that, he made “smear paintings” using his fingers instead of a brush.

The Tree paintings first appeared in more messily abstract form some 20 years ago. “They are more simple and more complicated now,” he says. “When you place those black lines against a magenta background, something alarming happens. Magenta is a hysterical colour somehow. To me, they look like psychopathic trees – psychopathic human trees.”

He pauses for a moment. “But, I’m not really interested in what the paintings mean. People can interpret then how they want, but, for me, painting is about trying to get as far away from meaning as possible, which is perhaps the most difficult thing of all. Really, I am just trying to make something new every time. I’m an experimenter who can live with the contradictions and even the mistakes that experimentation entails. If we were talking musically,” he adds, “it’s definitely Frank Zappa, not Leonard Cohen.”

Albert Oehlen is at the Gagosian Gallery, London, until 24 March

Jun. 01, 2015

The Accidental Abstractionist

Albert Oehlen: Untitled, 2014, oil on wood, 82⅝ by 67 inches.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin and Paris.

1. Quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, trans. Damion Searls, Atlanta and New York, J&L Books, 2011, p. 246.
2. Ibid., p. 248-49.
3. Quoted in Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert, “Ordinary Madness: An Interview with Albert Oehlen,” Frieze 78, October, 2003, pp. 110.
4. Quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, p. 344.
5. Quoted in Valérie Duponchelle, “Albert Oehlen: ‘Je suis un alien très discipliné!’” Le Figaro, Nov. 25, 2009, My translation.
6. Ralf Beil has an interesting discussion about the relationship of Oehlen’s art to the fall of the Berlin Wall in his essay “Red Light District: On the Eros of Impurity in the Work of Albert Oehlen,” Paintings/Pinturas, Salamanca, Domus Artium, in association with the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, 2002, p. 30.
7. Quoted in Beil, p. 16.
8. “Interview: Alexander Klar and Albert Oehlen,” originally published in German in Albert Oehlen: Fingermalerei, Cologne, Walther König, 2010; English translation from Albert Oehlen: New Paintings, Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, 2014, p. 82.
9. Quoted in Duponchelle; Glenn O’Brien, interview with Albert Oehlen, Interview, May 2009, p. 108.
10. Quoted in Duponchelle.
11. Possibly Oehlen had in the back of his mind the title of Red Krayola’s 1999 LP Fingerpainting, a record to which he contributed electronic rhythm tracks. Since the 1980s, Oehlen has pursued musical experiments, releasing recordings under his own name, with his brother Markus as Van Oehlen, and, most extensively, with Red Krayola.
12. Quoted in Heiser and Verwoert, p. 106.
13. “Interview: Alexander Klar and Albert Oehlen,” p. 82.
14. Quoted in Heiser and Verwoert, p. 109-10.

The most important for us is to realize what is possible
and what is not.

—Albert Oehlen


IF YOU HAD TO cram Albert Oehlen’s career into one sentence suitable for a book jacket blurb, you might come up with something along the lines of: The unlikely tale of how an exponent of “bad painting” in 1980s Cologne became a major legatee of gestural Abstract Expressionist painting. Even for a longtime admirer of Oehlen’s work like me, the notion that he is among the most compelling inheritors of the legacy of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell comes as something of a shock. This, after all, is an artist who made his name with paintings such as Morning Light Falls into the Führer’s Headquarters (1983), a big, garish expressionistic depiction of Hitler’s HQ, bearing several actual mirrors, into which Oehlen has inserted a giant painted swastika, and Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius (1984), where the artist, clad in the aforementioned soiled shorts, is portrayed examining a rare postage stamp held in a pair of tweezers.

Throughout the 1980s, Oehlen was Martin Kippenberger’s main partner-in-art-crime, participating in public provocations and wildly offbeat projects (like covering a Ford Capri with brown paint and oatmeal) as well as producing an endless torrent of books and exhibitions. The duo were among the loudest members of what Susanne Kippenberger, in her biography of her brother Martin, calls the “Hetzler Boys,” an all-male cohort of artists who showed with Cologne dealer Max Hetzler. As Oehlen later recalled, “With Hetzler we made asses of ourselves and made everyone hate us. We climbed on tables and pulled down our pants—extreme artist behavior.”1 Imbued with a punk-derived insolence, and maybe influenced by the radical Maoist politics he had absorbed as a teenager in the early 1970s, Oehlen took up subjects and painting styles that were calculated to offend the German art establishment, often with imagery that tested the limits of its tolerance, its liberal ideals. The depth of Oehlen’s dissatisfaction with the status quo is revealed when he talks about how he and Werner Büttner met with disapproval for their friendship and solidarity with Kippenberger, whom many in the early 1980s saw as a drunken, attention-seeking clown rather than as an artist of substance. “We lost favor with some people too—art-lovers, gallerists, museum people—when we supported Kippenberger. He was unserious. They said, ‘Do you want to go with the monkey house or with us?’ I said I’d rather stay with the monkey house, thank you—or rather, that that was real art. Not the stuff you think art is.”2

Although they painted together, showed and made books together, traveled and caroused together and, on a few occasions, even lived together, Oehlen and Kippenberger were two very different kinds of artists. Their differences are not always easy to discern, but one place to look for fault lines is in their relationship to painting as a medium. Although the social attitudes expressed in their work and their subject matter often overlapped, Oehlen and Kippenberger diverged when it came to their painting sensibilities. Even at the time when Oehlen was creating scabrous works such as Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and larding his canvases with swastikas and painfully awkward figuration, his feeling for the physical effects of brush and oil paint was hard to miss.

Some of the differences between Oehlen and Kippenberger may stem from the fact that Oehlen was a slower painter, even in the manic mid-1980s. When they came up with an idea together, which, he says, they often did, “Kippenberger would churn out 60 pieces overnight, straight away, so that at breakfast the next morning I knew I could forget it.”3 Of course, Kippenberger was an immensely gifted painter, but I don’t think he ever fully shared Oehlen’s interest in its matière or in expanding its technical possibilities (something which became central to Oehlen’s work after 1989). I don’t know, for instance, of any 1980s painting by Kippenberger that is as heavily worked, or as luscious, as Oehlen’s Four Travel Bags (1981). Significantly, Oehlen has always been primarily a painter and a painter without assistants, while Kippenberger, who died in 1997, was an artist who made a lot of paintings but was perfectly willing to outsource the brush-on-canvas part of his work (even at the beginning of his career) and, as the years went by, was as engaged with sculpture and installation as he was with painting.

Perhaps it was precisely because of Oehlen’s attraction to the richness of his chosen medium, his capacity to indulge in sheer painterliness, that he needed Kippenberger—the master of the monkey house inoculated him against the temptations of conventionally “good” painting. As long as Oehlen was so closely linked to Kippenberger, there was no chance of his being sucked into the deadly orbit of Neo-Expressionist hacks, of settling for petty ambitions. Instead, he could stake out a zone for paintings that resisted stylistic pigeonholing, just as they defied assimilation into polite discourse. And what did Kippenberger gain artistically from Oehlen? I suspect that Oehlen’s gifts as a painter and his gradually emerging ambition to engage the legacy of 20th-century abstraction may have helped Kippenberger to push for more formal complexity in his own paintings and to find a balance between corrosive satire and painterly verve. There is a world of difference between the stylistic blandness of early Kippenberger paintings such as the 1976-77 series “Uno di voi, un tedesco in Firenze” (One of you, a German in Florence) and the kind of canvases he was producing at the height of his association with Oehlen.


IN EARLY 1988, Oehlen and Kippenberger rented a house/studio in the southern Spanish town of Carmona. Oehlen recalls that “Spain was extremely productive for us, totally extreme; for me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development.”4 It also seems to have marked the end of his “wild years” and the start of his long residence in various parts of Spain. If the period 1988-89 marks a transition in Oehlen’s work, one has to ask if the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Western Communism influenced his practice. Oehlen has dismissed the idea, telling a French interviewer in 2009, “I was in Spain when the Wall fell. I saw on TV the arrival of the East German cars, the ‘Trabis.’ I can’t say I was upset. I didn’t feel very German.”5 Interestingly, Oehlen refers to his 1988-97 abstract paintings as “post-non-objective.” The phrase is odd since you would expect an artist who had switched from figuration to abstraction to call his new work “post-representational” or “post-figurative” rather than “post-non-objective,” the term “non-objective” being a common synonym for abstraction. Oehlen’s odd terminology suggests that he wanted to escape the abstract/figurative binary, in order to make paintings in which one didn’t have to take sides, and in which content wouldn’t be equated with the presence or absence of recognizable imagery. This stance parallels post-1989 geopolitics, insofar as the postwar discourse around abstraction had been intimately bound up with the ideological debates of the Cold War, especially in West Germany where, as an alternative to the social realist styles imposed throughout the Communist Bloc, abstract art was widely seen as emblematic of the Federal Republic’s integration into the democratic West.6

As the 1990s progressed and Oehlen continued to work abstractly, he began to experiment with different materials and techniques. In 1992, he started his “Fabric Paintings,” oil paintings executed on pieces of commercially printed fabric stitched together and stretched like traditional canvas. In the same year he also first turned to the computer as a compositional tool. Although Oehlen’s embrace of the computer might suggest some ramping up of production, this doesn’t seem to have occurred. By 1996, his pace of painting had slowed down to eight or 10 canvases per year, even as his range of techniques multiplied. He began to employ silkscreens, digital printing, collage and spray paint as well as oils and acrylics, often on a single canvas; this hybrid practice has continued to the present.

It didn’t escape some critics that certain bodies of work Oehlen made in the 1990s (the “Fabric Paintings” and a group of gray paintings from 1997) evoked projects by two major German painters of the previous generation, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the latter of whom had been Oehlen’s teacher in Hamburg. Oehlen has explained his intermittent making of gray paintings as a spur to using more color: “I wanted to paint even more powerfully colored pictures and prescribed the gray ones for myself as therapy so as to artificially heighten the craving for color.”7 I don’t doubt the artist’s explanation, but I also think that the gray paintings, like the “Fabric Paintings,” can be seen as evidence of Oehlen’s compulsion to struggle directly with art history. Rather than deprive himself of printed-fabric supports or all-gray paintings because such elements had been notably explored by other artists, Oehlen decided to utilize them in ways that were recognizably his own and might contribute to the history of the medium.

Like most great painters (and maybe all of them), Oehlen is keenly aware of what has been done before and how difficult it can be to open up new creative space. Refreshingly, he doesn’t simply plunder art history for stylistic options or knowing references, but instead seeks to understand, assimilate and, with luck, transcend past precedents. For the last seven or eight years, the historical antecedent that Oehlen has been contending with most directly has been Abstract Expressionism. The process began, the artist says, when he saw an exhibition titled “Action Painting” at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

It was by no means my favorite type of painting; I merely thought I should give it a try, and since my approach is a deliberate, very slow way of painting and a very artificial procedure, it cannot ever be considered spontaneous or aggressive. Everything that played a role in action painting was intentionally left out, totally eliminated. My pictures were constructed. And then to be confronted with the term ”action” . . . after my work of the past twenty years . . . that was finally the moment when I was able to get somewhere with action. When I integrated it into my practice, it became a wholly different story than if I had simply charged at the canvas headfirst in 1988.8

So deeply immersed has Oehlen become in Abstract Expressionism that de Kooning now looms greater for him than any other artist. In 2009 he told a French interviewer that de Kooning was his “absolute master, a painter who was truly fascinating all through his life,” and when Glenn O’Brien asked who inspired him in the history of abstract painting, Oehlen replied, “It’s mostly de Kooning. I was fascinated by others, but the thing that lasts is de Kooning.”9

The “Action Painting” show also inspired Oehlen to start using a painting tool he had never considered. “I said to myself: ‘Which painting could one add to this hanging?’ That influenced my way of painting: I started to use my hands, something I found ridiculous and impossible before.”10 Although it was a departure in Oehlen’s work, finger painting had a well-known precedent in Gerhard Richter’s allover monochromes of 1972. Maybe that was one of the reasons that Oehlen had found it “impossible” before 2008. Something he saw in the “Action Painting” show must have suggested to him how he could try Fingermalerei in a way that wouldn’t be dismissed as Richteresque.11


FINGER PAINTING IS but one of the many ways that Oehlen has sought throughout his career to interfere with or detour around conventional approaches to painting. Again and again, this studio restlessness has helped him to avoid settling down into any formulaic style. Large oil works are sometimes painted on canvas supports that carry ink-jet printed enlargements of the artist’s digital drawings. On several occasions he has used one of his paintings as a film screen, projecting onto it the 1986 movie 9½ Weeks, starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. Nor has he ruled out provocations that hark back to his Kippenberger years: Oehlen’s 2008 finger painting titled FM 9 features a toilet seat glued to the canvas. In the mid-1990s his writer friend Rainald Goetz challenged Oehlen’s emphasis on “clarity.” (“He told me that believing yourself to have achieved clarity was a stupid state to be in.”12 ) As a result, Oehlen started a new body of emphatically nonabstract work that he calls “computer collage posters.” Similarly, around 2008 he began affixing Spanish advertising posters to his canvases and painting over them with brushes and his fingers. As artistically successful as the poster paintings have been, I didn’t expect Oehlen to stay with them forever, and in fact in 2014 he unveiled a new mode: stark paintings on aluminum panels of black treelike forms against geometric shapes and white grounds. There is no finger painting, no “action” in sight: de Kooning seems to have left the room.

The presence of the posters, with their cheap, emphatic graphics guarantee that the painting won’t be “pure,” that the experience of looking at it will involve some kind of conflict, on the canvas and in the viewer’s mind. What are these works about? Is the presence of the poster just a way for the painter to have something to take off from, as when de Kooning would paint a big arbitrary letter shape so he wouldn’t be stuck with a blank canvas? Or is the artist trying to say something about high and low, about the interweaving of pop culture and fine art, about advertising and contemporary painting?

Ultimately, the effect of the paintings, the kind of experiences they offer, is far more subtle and rewarding than such crass binaries. But perhaps it is the very crassness of this initial juxtaposition, its blatancy, that permits Oehlen to venture into such complex painting territory, to do the amazing things with color, gesture, space and light that make the poster paintings feel as visually rich as some Baroque masterpiece. Recently my eye was caught by a striking resemblance—or so it seemed to me—between some of Oehlen’s poster paintings and the zigzagging yellow and purple satin garments in Anthony van Dyck’s 1632 portrait of the doomed English sovereign Charles I and his family. (Oehlen’s colorful schmears can also evoke passages in Cy Twombly’s paintings, but his compositions are wisely devoid of any Twomblyesque graffiti.)

In 2010 Oehlen explained his decision to start painting over posters:

It evolved slowly, and finally I would permit myself something that could have been misunderstood before. Back then [in the late 1980s and 1990s] it wouldn’t have worked. It would have been overpainting, which was already around. Overpainting always interested me, but there were already stupendous works that couldn’t be topped.13

Here, I think, is a wonderful glimpse into what has made Oehlen such a significant painter. He knows that the technique of “overpainting” holds great potential for his work, and he also knows that if he doesn’t approach it properly, if he doesn’t find an unprecedented relationship of ground image and paint, he will just be repeating what so many other artists have done before him. Patient, rigorous in his conceptualizing, and then, when the moment comes, absolutely free, as if he were the first one in the world to attempt the thing at hand, Oehlen is able to turn the anxiety of influence into the most personal of styles.

When I included Oehlen in my May 2009 A.i.A. article “Provisional Painting” it was because of these overpainted poster paintings as well as his earlier black-and-white computer paintings. At the start of the article I described him, Raoul De Keyser, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann and Michael Krebber as “artists who have long made works that look casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling. In different ways, they all deliberately turn away from ‘strong’ painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse.” One aspect of Oehlen’s work that made it look “provisional” to me was his use of basic graphic design software, with crude pixelation and obviously off-the-shelf effects. The situation of a gifted and experienced painter deliberately turning to a drawing tool that seemed to exclude all his skills was paradoxical, even perverse. That it resulted in unexpectedly compelling paintings forced me to rethink some fundamental painting issues, as did the exhilarating balance between virtuosity and defacement in the overpainted posters. (Rereading my brief description of these works in “Provisional Painting” I think that I didn’t do justice to their painterly lyricism.)

In “Provisional Painting” I connected punk to a particular approach to painting. Oehlen has some interesting things to say on the subject. He explicitly links his initial choice to become a painter to the ethos of punk. As he recalls in a 2003 interview:

What sparked my interest was a desire to be involved with the medium that quintessentially represented High Art but which at the time, in the late 1970s, was coming under fierce attack. Added to which, there was a general feeling of massive potential in painting, since so little was happening in that field. It was more or less a black hole. And it coincided with Punk, the feeling that one could use rudimentary means to revitalize the whole thing. There was no question of being intimidated by jibes like: “Go and learn to play an instrument.”14

Oehlen is then asked how he feels about the punk attitude now. Noting that it can be helpful in giving young people the confidence “they might otherwise have lacked,” Oehlen adds that “it soon becomes ridiculous.” Like any other originally iconoclastic, avant-garde, disruptive stance, punk inevitably turned into a codified style.

Something similar seems to have been happening among younger painters attracted to the painting mode I identified in my 2009 article. If a new generation of artists (and maybe an occasional contemporary) wishes to learn valuable lessons from Albert Oehlen, they will not find what they are looking for in any of his specific moves (compositional overload, playing high against low, mixing the digital and the handmade, inserting text into abstraction, etc.), although his brilliance as a colorist should be taken as a challenge by all chromophobic painters. Admirers should focus, rather, on his refusal, for more than three decades, to ever be satisfied with his own art, and on his equally sustained, equally demanding pursuit of a deep dialogue with art history.


Albert Oehlen


Albert Oehlen studied in Hamburg with Sigmar Polke, played a central role in a prodigious group of artists who came to the fore in the ’80s, and was associated with various movements and groups—some apt, some gratuitous. I would describe him with that popular health-food term free radical. Today, the German-born Oehlen lives and works in Berlin, Switzerland, and Spain. A retrospective of his work opened recently at Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, and he has a solo show running all this month at Luhring Augustine in New York. I interviewed him in New York when he came for the opening of a show featuring the work of his late friend Martin Kippenberger at the Museum of Modern Art. During the interview, we were joined by Oehlen’s friend and mine, the painter Christopher Wool.

GLENN O’BRIEN: Maybe this is a dumb question, but what made you want to be an artist in the first place?

ALBERT OEHLEN: Oh, I can’t remember the moment where I had this idea or made the decision, because I think I always had the feeling that I am an artist. My father was an artist, my brother’s an artist, so . . . [laughs]

O’BRIEN: Your brother is close to you in age, right?

OEHLEN: Yes, he’s two years younger and also a painter and a sculptor . . . He makes sculptures all the time. I think the moment where I would have made the decision—if I had made the decision—was in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Everything was still under the strong influence of the ’68 turbulences, and I was really shaken by that. One saw one’s role differently. It didn’t occur to me to make a kind of normal career, like learning to be an artist and becoming one. Because at that time, especially when you’re young and a bit naïve, a lot of things seem possible.

O’BRIEN: It seems like you were involved in a lot of groups, or certainly extended families of friends, who were doing things together.

OEHLEN: It was more extended families rather than groups.

O’BRIEN: I guess it was kind of like what was going on in New York around the same time. It was kind of a scene, and the same people were making paintings and making music and making films.

OEHLEN: Yeah, it was like that. It was friendships, and not much more. We were colleagues—I mean, fellow students.

O’BRIEN: Did you study alongside Martin Kippenberger?

OEHLEN: No, he was at the same school [Academy of Fine Arts Hamburg], but a couple of years before me. And our paths crossed at that moment. We moved in different directions. He, from Hamburg to Berlin, and I, from Berlin to Hamburg. But still we met . . . [laughs] maybe one day when we were both in the same city, and became friends.

O’BRIEN: You were in a band. Were you making music then, or did that come later?

OEHLEN: I never made music seriously. My brother was in a punk band at that time.

O’BRIEN: Which band?

OEHLEN: Mittagspause. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. They were good.

O’BRIEN: That rings a bell. I tried to keep up with the Germans. I used to write for this German music paper—do you remember Spex?

OEHLEN: Yeah, of course.

O’BRIEN: I wrote for them, and I followed the German bands a little bit. I was a huge fan of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubaten.

OEHLEN: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Well, that was a bit later. Markus’s band was very early. They tried to be the German Wire. I liked them. But I never played an instrument. Of course, I was part of some militant activities at that time and then later with Mayo Thompson, who was a friend.

O’BRIEN: You’re part of the history of Red Krayola, a band member, officially, even if you weren’t.

OEHLEN: It wasn’t really about music, but I was somehow involved—like talking, ideas . . .

O’BRIEN: There was a lot of funny stuff going on that was sort of the edge of music at that time.



(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence)
Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Albert Oehlen
from the Blue issue

Albert Oehlen: I was always interested in the transportation of meaning, and I tried to find out what’s possible with that. When I started I was a kind of left-wing radical and I was interested in transporting this meaning-like making propaganda. I always liked the work of Immendorff; he did this thing too and he seemed to fail very early, but he continued doing it, and this was a very interesting thing for me. I couldn’t repeat this experience but I had his experiences in mind when I started with my things. I experimented by trying to glorify something in the painting or trying to criticize. I saw very early that this failed and I wouldn’t like the result. But I thought that I had to do it because as an artwork the result would be good; if I had the feeling that it wouldn’t work, I thought I had to prove that it doesn’t work. I thought this was good enough to do. The question is: what is the frame? what shall it be? what is the real subject of the work? Then you can say, ‘OK now I’ll paint Stalin,’ but you haven’t really painted Stalin, you did something else because you cannot find out if you were trying to praise or criticize him-there are more than two viewpoints. I started with this idea and I still have in mind that it’s absolutely not clear what the picture is saying-this is a big problem.

Pataphysics: Do you want your images to be clear?

AO: Yes, but this wish is determined by the above-mentioned problem. It should always be visible in my paintings that this wish is present-otherwise my art would be funny or even satirical. Once the painting does not say anything, this does not mean that my general attitude towards clarity has changed, only the result turns out to be quite complex and no ‘solution’ in a folk-psychological sense has taken place. But the intention is the same and there is no reason to change it. On the other hand, this intention should not lead to idealization, which on this level would always mean decrease in content.

P: In relation to your belief that artworks function ‘either to glorify or criticize,’ how do you position your painting of Hitler done in 1986?

AO: This Hitler painting is a very big failure; it really is a disaster somehow, but it was meant as that. It was meant as an extreme point of content and the extreme point of painting. This idea of the three basic colors was meant to make it very artificial and the subject Hitler was meant as a maximum of content and association. But these two aspects together were meant as something that doesn’t work, and this picture has failed so much that it just looks like an ugly, wild painting. It was the result of an experiment where I wanted to prove that propaganda doesn’t work, and it really didn’t work.

P: Is it possible for painting today to ‘oppose’ failure?

AO: The idea of ‘failure’ is connected with the historical context. Art always seems to give answers in the historical perspective; glorifying or criticizing or simply advertising ‘failure’ is a strategy to oppose such concepts by blocking them and by not playing around with them and changing their meanings.

P: How do you see your painting of Hitler in relation to Keifer’s images of Fascist architecture?

AO: I have a doubt I can really say something. Kiefer deals with speculations. With misunderstandings. And, of course, Kiefer knows he is clean-he knows he is not a fascist. I try to prove that these are misunderstandings-for example, I don’t believe in symbols. Symbols are, in practice, never used as independent global units. The idea of ‘openness’ with respect to symbols is-in most cases-a lie. The truth is that pigs always want to deal with things in their own language and that is why they need symbols. Even if symbols work in their language in a way which seems to be independent and precise, they are only vehicles of the intentions of the language in question. At the same time they deny this, because the viewer learns to deal with the symbols-they learn the language and believe it is their own language.

P: Do you see any relationship between the recent events in Berlin and your work of the past decade?

AO: No, I don’t see a relationship. The main moving in my consciousness is that I started with very big intentions-I used art for propaganda, for saying something-and now I get more and more disappointed by seeing that that’s not possible, and I try to blame the art on it, of course. This shouldn’t sound like I’m unhappy with the art or with the politics, but I think if the relationship between art and reality is that way, then I want to prove that it is that way.

P: What defines beauty in art? Can art be beautiful if it is a lie?

AO: I can find something beautiful if I understand the idea and if I think there’s the right thought behind it. To lie in art would be a misunderstanding-it would be taking art for something that it isn’t; for example, to try to use it. This is the main lie, the main misunderstanding, in art, that you can use it as something to pleasure the eye as an organ. This idea is really a thing that is around. Or the thought that you could enjoy art, really directly enjoy it…

P: In relation to this how do you see the series of carpets you exhibited in 1987…?

AO: This is a good example because this is absolutely about failure. This is about the misunderstanding of using art because it’s artwork that you really use because you run around on it and you step on it. They were collages and they all have critical texts on them; they’re phrases that are supposed to be critical but they are platitudes. They don’t say much, they just say things like : ‘Be young, be radical’ or ‘Don’t fall asleep’ or ‘The yell against hunger’-all these stupid things that don’t say anything.

P: Is this the same with the phrases on your more recent paintings?

AO: These things are kind of the opposite; these are optimistic phrases. These are phrases I took out of poems by Walt Whitman and some of Guy Debord. I found phrases that have the same sound and the same meaning.

P: What was the importance of your experience as a member of Sigmar Polke’s class in the ’70s?

AO: We were quite alone there, and I had only one friend in this class who was Georg Herold. Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn’t able to teach us something in the classical sense, so he gave us a main lecture for every artist, which is to destroy a chair. This is the only thing I can remember. Then he showed me a film he made, and told me about his travellings in Australia… I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy. Today it should still be possible, but it’s very difficult. Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things.

P: Do you worry about where your work is presented?

AO: No. I decided once that I shouldn’t care about that because I’m not this kind of artist, like some Americans who have control over everything that happens with their work and place it in special collections. But I can’t care about that, I cannot control it. I feel I have to make one good picture after another and this should be my work.

P: You’ve said that you attempt to avoid making errors. How do you trust yourself enough to be able to judge what is and what isn’t an error?

AO: There are two kinds of mistakes. The one mistake is the ‘bad’ picture. Of course, I’ve made pictures that I don’t like or like less than others. The other mistake is the positive mistake where I say I can afford this mistake because this is not the meaning of the picture. I like these mistakes or these errors but with them I try to prove that the subject or the concept of the picture is on something else-in this case the mistakes are good. For example, in the beginning I made horrible mistakes in the classical sense of painting just to prove that I wasn’t interested in this.

P: Formally, what is the importance of composition in your recent work?

AO: It is a composition of the ingredients: content = stubbornness and motive = why am I doing this. But at the end there is no problem of composition because ‘the thing’ is, what’s happening in the middle of the picture and reverse.

Phillip Guston: Painter 1957-1957 at Hauser & Wirth New York- Reviews



Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957; Photo: Arthur Swoger; © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957; Photo: Arthur Swoger;
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967, which opened in Chelsea at Hauser & Wirth last week, offers a rare, comprehensive peek into one decade in an artist’s process and career.

Curator Paul Schimmel has organized an exhibition of 36 paintings and 53 drawings culled from museums (two from the Museum of Modern Art), a gallery and private collections. The paintings fill all but one of the rooms and feature thick oil or gouache brushstrokes in progressively dim colors that form indeterminate shapes. Guston finally abandoned these types of paintings for the “pure drawings” that hang on the wall of the final room.

Guston’s career progressed from figuration to abstraction and back again. The exhibition’s paintings, as a group, tilt heavily toward abstraction, though murky forms emerge upon close examination. At a preview, Schimmel identified heads, targets, and what could be a paintbrush. “The creation of these forms is really the subject of this entire exhibition,” he said. Guston was concerned with the “loss of the object” in the abstraction that many of his peers were practicing at the time.

Philip Guston, Last Piece, 1958. © The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Last Piece, 1958.
© The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

“This has been described to me as the transition era,” Schimmel said about the ten years the exhibition explores.  It doesn’t really make sense though, he pointed out, that you would describe ten years in a master’s life that way.

Recommended by Forbes

Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

“He had an ability to push back on his own history,” said Schimmel. “Push back on his own success. Push back on both the critical and commercial success that he achieved remarkably in the 50s.” It’s a lesson that young artists of any medium can appreciate: continue to challenge yourself, avoid complacency and refuse to allow external praise to guide your career. When Guston eventually left behind his version of abstraction for figurative works that often invoked social issues, many critics were initially appalled. Yet, those works may now be his strongest legacy.

Philip Guston, Inhabiter, 1965. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Inhabiter, 1965.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Schimmel spoke about the paintings’ titles as evidence of Guston’s approach to painting as a journey—Traveler III, Turn, ReversePath II, Path IVAlchemist. The names offer small hints for viewers, friendly clues into material that can seem initially unapproachable.

Schimmel also emphasized Guston’s creative challenges. “The word ‘free’ is something that Guston often wrestled with,” he said. “Free was a blank canvas but was ultimately an enormous constraint.” He spoke of Guston’s sense of “unfreedom” as “the freedom of being able to reject and embrace the past. In the beginning, you’re free. When you face the white canvas, you’re free, and it’s the most anguishing state.” It’s a relatable feeling–the simultaneous sense of possibility and fear upon starting a new project, taking all your predecessors into account while attempting to begin something unique and meaningful.

Philip Guston, The Year, 1964. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, The Year, 1964.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967 is not the most Instagrammable show in Chelsea right now: lots of muted colors particularly toward the end, vague forms that take a while to reveal themselves, and textured paint to which photographs won’t do justice. It’s not going to break the Internet, but it’s also not trying to. The show is, more importantly, a deep and quiet meditation on process. Schimmel and his team provide a rare opportunity to examine, painting to painting and year to year, how one of the most important artists of the 20th century charted his path.  It’s a show to remind creators of all kinds to continually challenge themselves, to appreciate art as a journey and to find encouragement in both the limitations and opportunities of a blank canvas.

Philip Guston, Leaf, 1967. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Leaf, 1967.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967 is on view at Hauser & Wirth from April 26 through July 29.


PHILIP GUSTON: PAINTER, 1957-1967 @ Hauser & Wirth New York

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in Private Collection, London

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in Private Collection, London


Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967
26 April – 29 July 2016
Hauser & Wirth New York, 511 West 18th Street
Opening: Tuesday, 26 April 2016, 6 – 8 pm

‘I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean himself in this environment, in this total situation.’
– Philip Guston, 1960

New York… Beginning 26 April 2016, Hauser & Wirth will present ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’, exploring a pivotal decade in the career of the preeminent 20th century American artist. Featuring 36 paintings and 53 drawings, many on loan from major museums and private collections, the exhibition draws together a compelling body of work that reveals the artist grappling to reconcile gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction. Calling attention to a series of works that have not yet been fully appreciated for their true significance in the artist’s development, ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ explores a decade in which Guston confronted aesthetic concerns of the New York School, questioning modes of image making and what it means to paint abstractly. In the number and quality of paintings on view from this period, the show parallels Guston’s important 1966 survey at the Jewish Museum in New York, a half century ago. As its title suggests, the exhibition offers an intimate look at Guston’s unique relationship to painting and the process by which his work evolved.

On view through 29 July 2016, ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ has been organized by Paul Schimmel, Partner and Vice President of Hauser & Wirth. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue focusing specifically on the period beginning in the late 1950s and spanning a decade until the artist’s return to figuration in the late 1960s.

About the Exhibition

By the mid-1950s, Philip Guston (1913 – 1980) and his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, were among the leading figures of the New York School, standing at the forefront of American avant-garde painting. Guston, whose work was widely exhibited during this period, achieved critical success as an abstract painter, whose work was lauded its luminous, ethereal, and tactile fields of bold gesture and color. At this pinnacle moment, with the artist seemingly at the height of his career, an unexpected shift occurred in Guston’s approach. Dark, ominous forms began to crowd his paintings, coalescing into what would become a new language that consumed his practice over the next ten years.

Fable II, 1957 Oil on illustration board 62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in © 2016 Hauser & Wirth. Private Collection

Fable II, 1957
Oil on illustration board
62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in
© 2016 Hauser & Wirth.
Private Collection

The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth opens with ‘Fable II’ and ‘Rite’, two small paintings from 1957 that suggest evolution in both Guston’s mood and technique. Disturbing the pictorial field of these canvases, thick, densely clustered black strokes burst through heavily pigmented colorful patches ranging in tone from radiant azure and blazing orange, to fleshy pink and deep forest green. Similarly, a silvery wash of glimmering brushstrokes begins to encroach upon Guston’s lighter forms. Enveloping the background completely in ‘Last Piece’ (1958), the expanses of grey field suggest erasure – an obliteration of the artist’s previous association to pure abstraction.

In that same year of 1958, Guston exclaimed, ‘I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart’. In the face of abstraction, Guston’s search for corporeality intensified. He challenged himself to create and simultaneously dissolve the dialogues of the New York School in a field that evoked ‘something living’ on the surface of his canvas. The introduction of brooding forms can now be understood as harbingers of a new figuration, wherein titles such as ‘Painter’ (1959) go so far as to suggest the pictorial presence of Guston, the painter himself. Wrestling with the simultaneous existence of abstraction and representation, ‘Painter’ strikes a precarious note: ambiguous, but semi-recognizable forms recall the artist’s early figurative works of the 1940s. A red shape and the loose application of blue paint hint at the return of his signature hooded figure, here with a paintbrush in hand. At the same time, however, the artist’s gestures dissolve legible shapes into a swirling field of energies in flux.

Alchemist, 1960 Oil on canvas 154.9 x 171 cm / 61 x 67 3/8 inches Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 Photo credit: Milli Apelgren

Alchemist, 1960
Oil on canvas
154.9 x 171 cm / 61 x 67 3/8 inches
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 Photo credit: Milli Apelgren

The exhibition continues across four dedicated rooms, tracing the evolution of Guston’s forms through the 1960s until they are reduced to “the isolation of the single image”. With such works as ‘Path II’ (1960) and ‘Alchemist’ (1960), dense pictorial dramas are unleashed, with colors and forms competing against one another in a storm of darkened strokes. In ‘Path IV’ (1961), Guston’s blackened, weighted masses emerge victorious, swarming in an atmosphere of rusted reds and ashen greys. Meanwhile, ‘Accord I’ (1962) reconciles the grouping of Guston’s black forms while still offering richness and warmth, as faint hues of color peek through pewter grey grounds.

Accord I, 1962 Oil on canvas 173 x 198.4 cm / 68 1/8 x 78 1/8 in Private Collection

Accord I, 1962
Oil on canvas
173 x 198.4 cm / 68 1/8 x 78 1/8 in
Private Collection

Such concessions disappear in the following year: In a significant group of works created between 1963 and 1965, Guston interacts directly with the raw surface of his canvas, marking gestural, smoky fields in greys and pinks. One of the largest paintings from this period, ‘The Year’ (1964) is dominated by the presence of two great black personages floating in a field of luscious wet-on-wet strokes. Using white pigment to erase his looming black strokes, Guston creates heaving washes of nuanced grey matter that seem to pulsate with energy and life. As forms become fewer and denser in other works, the artist’s titles imply vague narratives. In ‘Group II’ (1964) or ‘The Three’ (1964), head-like shapes and bodies emerge. In the latter, Guston represents a family: the artist, his daughter, and his wife. The culmination of this extraordinary series is ‘Position I’ (1965), in which a single black shape nestles in a barren landscape devoid of chromatic variation.

Position I, 1965 Oil on canvas 165.1 x 203.2 cm / 65 x 80 in Private Collection

Position I, 1965
Oil on canvas
165.1 x 203.2 cm / 65 x 80 in
Private Collection

In the years following his 1966 Jewish Museum survey, Guston would abandon painting and turn to drawing during a time of internal conflict and personal turmoil. In the two-year span between 1966 and 1967, he produced hundreds of works on paper in charcoal and brush-and-ink that are known as his ‘pure’ drawings. Works from this period occupy the final room of the exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Presented together in a grid, they recall the manner in which Guston lived with these works, which were tacked to his studio walls.

Commenting upon the decade explored in ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ Paul Schimmel said, ‘If there was one way in which Guston was consistent as an artist, it was in his unwillingness to be pinned down or to rest on his own considerable accomplishments and influence. As one of the most significant proponents in the reconciliation of gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction, he was a solitary figure, ‘moving vertically’, unencumbered by the responsibilities and pressures that others often felt as they worked in his shadow’.

Courtesy of  Hauser & Wirth New York – Press Release


May 24, 2016 3:03 p.m.

How Philip Guston, America’s Great Painter of the Night, Completely Reinvented the Sublime



Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

As late as he came to the style, by 1957 Philip Guston was a highly admired first-generation Abstract Expressionist — a phrase he hated. How “late” was Guston? In the 1940s peers like Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were finding their ways into all-over abstraction. Yet Guston experimented with figures, grounds, solid spaces, and objects until 1950. Pollock — whom Guston went to high school with in Los Angeles (the two were expelled for designing satirical leaflets) and who urged Guston to move to New York in 1935 — had been making abstract paintings since 1939. Gorky had done so since 1932; Rothko and Willem de Kooning reached these further shores by the early 1940s. Guston didn’t go fully abstract until about 1950! History is lucky; had he waited a minute more the Ab Ex train would have left without him and we might never have heard of him.

Guston was always a hesitant plodder, and when he finally did get to real abstraction he stayed ambivalent about it. “Every real painter wants to be, and his greatest desire is to be, a realist,” he said. The abstract works that deservedly won him fame are beautiful shimmering lyrical fields of broken brush strokes, flickering grounds of pearly blue and pink, serene combinations of Monet and Turner with inflections of Mondrian’s early piers-reflected-in-water. But Guston started to feel as if he was only taking small bites. By the 1950s, he felt he “had nowhere to go.” Saying “I hope sometime to get to the point where I’ll have the courage to paint my face … to paint a single form in the middle of the canvas,” he started doing exactly that. And had the courage to do it at the apex of his career.

By 1970 he’d finished “clearing the decks.” From then until his death, in 1980, at 66,* Guston left abstraction behind and made some of the most memorable and influential paintings of the late 20th century, big and small: huge, gloppy, opaque-colored images of Ku Klux Klansmen driving around in convertibles, smoking cigars; cyclopes heads, in bed, staring at bare lightbulbs; piles of legs and shoes; figures hiding under blankets, clutching paintbrushes in bed. A lot of these are so narratively accessible they can seem almost comic-strip-like. But also cryptic. I see spiders, newts, malignant clouds, boatmen, snake charmers, lanterns lighting up existential nights. The list of artists influenced by this incredible work includes Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, Albert Oehlen, Carroll Dunham, Elizabeth Murray, and Georg Baselitz, who saw as early as 1959 that Guston was involved with “a distortion of the abstract … full of concrete forms.” Jasper Johns saw that, too.

But the stakes of abandoning abstraction were high. Recognition had come late to Guston’s generation. The Abstract Expressionists had labored alone in America, dirt poor, with no audience, no art-world apparatus to support them. Only one another. As Barnett Newman famously put it, “We were making it out of ourselves.” And those selves were obsessed with going beyond Picasso and into non-objective painting. They had bet their entire lives on the gamble, which is why any sign of apostasy or disaffection was seen as a threat to all. Even after America took notice of the group, in the early 1950s, they were the constant butt of jokes about “my 3-year-old” being able to paint like that. Worse yet, no sooner had they arrived then a new group of artists — led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg — arrived on the stage doing totally antithetical work. The world turned on a dime. In 1962, the Sidney Janis Gallery organized a show including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, and Claes Oldenburg. This was seen as a betrayal by Guston, Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, who all quit the gallery in protest. It was the show in which de Kooning reportedly told Warhol he was “a killer of art.” But Guston wasn’t really in line with his colleagues; amidst all this he harbored secret feelings of wanting to change.

By 1957, he’d done everything he could do to avoid doing what he had to do, and his work began to solidify into something new. The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art — not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict. Even when they make what might be nightmarish or ugly to them.

Philip Guston, Position I, 1965. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Which is why “Philip Guston; Painter 1957–1967,” at Hauser & Wirth, a showcase of Guston at the turning point of his career, is an incantatory lesson for all artists. Perfectly curated by the gallery’s Paul Schimmel, the exhibition sounds a secret chord for artists in search of one of art’s many strange grails: how to make art that is original and entirely one’s own. This is especially pressing now that there are promising signs of artists everywhere trying to break through the fog of professionalism and careerism that have crept into the art world; the corporate carefulness that’s made too many painters make little moves in known directions; toe pre-approved formal lines; and make the system feel clogged up, static, sterile. Guston, who was desperate to change, knew this. He said “I got sick and tired of all that purity… the extreme codification of beliefs and the institutionalism of everything.” If that sounds painfully familiar, make it your business to see this show.

On view in the airplane-hangar-scaled museum-level gallery show are 35 paintings and 48 drawings. All are from this lesser-known decade of his career, 1957 to 1967. The entire group has not been exhibited together since the 1960s. So this is new information for many in the art world. What we see is a lead-up to what is perhaps the greatest last-act in 20th-century American art history: Guston’s all-hell-broken-loose id-under-pressure late figurative paintings.

The change comes slowly at first; Guston is always fighting it. As Jasper Johns put it about being an artist, “If you avoid everything you can avoid, then you do what you can’t avoid doing, and you do what is helpless, and unavoidable.” Guston did that. The opening gallery shows his first steps — so small you might not see them, thinking, Oh, he’s getting choppier, is all. I guess that triangle could be a hood or something. In 1957, Guston’s colors turn more opaque; warm tones turn frosty and muddy; odd, armlike shapes appear, torsos or trunks, hillocks, shadowy head configurations. But nothing definite. Being figurative was so strictly verboten that at one point Guston said he painted a can with paintbrushes in it, lost his nerve and scraped it off. It was just too much. In the next gallery, Guston’s backgrounds turn blocky. The shimmery thing is gone. So are the little snaky strokes. Things are thickening. A huge maroon hand thing emerges from the top of one canvas. Compositions get optically bolder. In Garden of M, named after his wife and daughter (both named Musa), we spot something like a patchy garden grid, or maybe two lumpy figures clutching each other in bed. Sooty grays, yellows, and crimsons abound. But things stay abstract. What’s happening is that Guston is looking for every way possible not to make a figurative painting. He couldn’t just paint that single thing inside a canvas, a head, or even a can, without retreating back into abstraction. It must have been hellish. These works are almost ugly.

Philip Guston, Garden of M., 1960. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Then, in 1963, he just blows through the fear. A big, black-hat-wearing, egg-shaped head appears with a shaky arm holding what might be a paintbrush and maybe a small canvas. This wasn’t Ab Ex, it wasn’t Pop, it wasn’t like anything. The title Painter III tells us what’s going on; it’s a self-portrait and a collective portrait of all artists’ immense inner temperaments when venturing into realms unknownBut it’s too much for Guston and he pulls back. Again. Looking is just a smooshed figure that might be gazing at a black rectangle. It’s almost self-as-grub. This one-step-forward, one-step-back crab dance continues as Guston looks for biomorphic, architectural, or geometric solutions rather than what’s staring him in the face: the horror of going both figurative and expressionistic. In the last work in the show, Guston hits the wall of all the implied image-making. An all-gray field that is so confusing to Guston he doesn’t even go to the edges, leaving swaths of canvas unpainted. In the middle of this is what looks like a black sun hovering — as if everything that Guston can empty out has been emptied out: except the truth. The implication of figure, ground, narrative, image. He’d reached Johns’s “helpless” place.

Guston must have known the return to figuration couldn’t be denied any more. And still he refused. He was in a battle of wills with his art. It must have been nightmarish. So much so that he stopped painting altogether for three years after the last canvas in this show. He didn’t show his work again until 1970. Critics had slammed that work  as “displeasingly raw”; the canvases were said to have “unpleasant texture.” His colleagues were shocked, suspicious, and thought he was trying to hop on the Pop bandwagon; one painter friend asked why he had “to go and ruin everything.” Lee Krasner was said to find the work “embarrassing.” New York Times critic Hilton Kramer lambasted Guston as “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum,” dismissing the work as “cartoon anecdotage … funky, clumsy and demotic,” and concluding “We are asked to take seriously his new persona as an urban primitive … and this is asking too much.” But the die was cast. While Pollock was the first to truly break through to pure non-objective painting, it was Guston who was the first to break out. And yet nobody seemed to understand. He’d risked everything and lost.

But Guston had crossed the Rubicon and was becoming the great painter of the American night. Not the night that follows day; the night of self. He said he wasn’t painting “pictures” but “one’s experiences and one’s enlargement of self.” Guston moved the sublime — the bigness of it all — away from abstraction where the Abstract Expressionists located it, away from nature where the 19th century placed it, off the ceilings of churches where it went in the Renaissance, and back, finally, to where it really is and probably has always been since it left the fires in the caves: The sublime is in us! To see that pictured brings Emerson’s “alienated majesty” back to us. Guston helped push everything aside, all the classicizing, romanticizing, philosophizing, or being a theologian of the sublime. This is epic. And it’s in all of Guston’s late work. Of his contemporaries, only the always generous de Kooning saw the real, deep content of Guston’s late art. He said that the subject of this art is “freedom.”

*The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Guston died at age 76. He was 66.

*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.


Reflections on Philip Guston
PHILIP GUSTON Painter, 1957 – 1967

HAUSER & WIRTH | APRIL 26 – JULY 29, 2016

One of today’s most influential painters is having his first museum-quality, posthumous show at Hauser & Wirth: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. It’s an exhibition that showcases a transitional decade, a gap that links his earlier, acclaimed abstract expressionist pictures and his later figurative, cartoonish works, which continue to resonate with many important artists of our day, including Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, and Katherine Bradford. In the works on view, we see Guston emptying himself. He leaves sumptuous color behind and simplifies his compositions, even temporarily abandoning painting in 1967 to draw. Philip Guston: Painter allows us to focus on the formal: the touch, the color, the composition.

Installation view: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. Hauser & Wirth New York, 18th Street. Photo: Genevieve Hanson. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

With the knowledge that such moving, significant paintings are around the corner, it is difficult to look at this decade of painting without anticipating what is to come. Guston’s early use of pink, beginning in 1965, will be pushed forward in 1970, the color becoming more corporeal, more atmospheric, and more emotional. He will use it as both the sickly skin color of his figures and the walls behind them. Guston will shape the roughly rectangular, black forms that almost touch in his 1962 painting Untitled into recognizable shapes: shoes, cigarettes, shadows. He will use that same confident, fast, responsive brushwork that is non-referential in this decade to make his figures and their environments. He will tighten the stacking that is just becoming visible in May Sixty-Five or Reverse (both 1965): his paintings will soon feature glasses, people, cars, and shoes resting on tables, beds, streets, and floors.

But what does the viewer lose by understanding these paintings as merely transitional, as I have just done, or by contextualizing them as an attempt to reconcile “gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction,” as the press release does? This rush to find hints of future paintings, or to triangulate them within different art historical genres, distracts from the painterly elements that create the rhythm and energy that make Guston’s work so exciting, so fresh, so contemporary. Without the striking, psychological, and emotionally resonant images that will come to define Guston’s late work, the formal qualities that make Guston’s work so compelling are easier to discern.

Touch: immediate, direct, responsive. He loads a two-inch brush with paint, and seemingly without hesitation, applies the paint with a consistent pressure to create a dense network of marks. In the earlier abstract paintings, (Rite (1957) and Painter (1959)), Guston nestles his forms close together, creating a claustrophobic, Soutine-like space packed with forms made with tight, impasto brushwork. The paintings are structural and architectural. But in the paintings from 1964 – 65, Guston’s brushwork becomes more open. The brush follows the extension of his arm. It registers the movement of his body.

Color: muted, close contrast. Guston insists that he is not a colorist, as Bonnard was, but a tonal painter, in the vein of Rembrandt, Goya, or Zurbarán. As articulate verbally as he was manually, Guston explained his transition to a more controlled color palette in one of the many wonderful excerpts collected in Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition catalogue:

Gray and black seems magnificent to me. And I guess, also, I want to see how much I can do with very little things. Very simple. Just two colors. I mean, white and black. And a brush. My hand. Nothing to paste on. I want to see if there’s anything left to express with the more elementary means. So far, I’ve found it very challenging and inexhaustible.1

Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Oil on canvas. 66 × 79 inches. Private Collection, London. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

For Guston, reduction of means allowed for expanded communication. In Portrait I (1965), his grays are inflected with the reds and pinks underneath, creating a color that feels less like a wall and more like air.

Composition: variations on a theme, awareness of the edge. Guston’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962 proved crucial for his development. Never satisfied to continue thoughtlessly, Guston visited the Guggenheim every Monday, critiquing the nearly 100 abstract paintings that hung in the rotunda. The museum itself became, as he described, “an extension of my studio.” After the show ended he was “more ruthless” in his practice and began emptying the canvas not just of color, but of structured composition. In The Year (1964), he uses white to “erase” his blacks, creating the grays that surround his black forms, which he saw as objects of a kind. Throughout 1964 – 65, Guston repeated these one, two, or three black forms in slightly different places and in different sizes so that one can see the paintings as a continuum, aided by Hauser & Wirth’s installation. The density of these black forms contrasts with the openness of his edges, which he leaves as unpainted canvas, partly as a practical issue—at this point, he paints on unstretched surfaces—but also as a poetic one. The unpainted edges keep his paintings open and unfussy, allowing for breath. But they also complicate the relationship between image and surface: the painting seems to hover in front of the picture plane, but then an awareness of the unpainted edge locks the painting back in place.

Guston empties the canvas of color and compositional complexity so much that he reverts to drawing; more than fifty ink and charcoal works on paper hang on the final wall of the gallery. As fresh as they were in 1967, these drawings register Guston’s transition back to figuration (he was a WPA muralist in the 1940s). Here we see his recognizable hand: confident (indicated by the pressure he exerts on his material), yet wobbly. We see his openness to images, his humor and playfulness, and ultimately, his willingness to experiment his way forward.


  1. All quotes from exhibition catalogue: Paul Schimmel, Philip Guston: Painter 1957 – 1967, Hauser & Wirth (2016).


Kate Liebman KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.


Master Baffler: How Philip Guston Gave Form to Doubt

Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)EXPAND

Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)
©The Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
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“Paul Valery once said that a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning,” Philip Guston told an interviewer in 1966, adding, “In a painting in which this is a room, this is a chair, this is a head, the imagery does not exist — it vanishes into recognition…. I want my work to include more.”

The abstractions on view at Hauser & Wirth contain much more than what we can see. Painted between 1957 and 1967, they culminated two earlier phases of Guston’s life’s work and previewed a final act that would leave many of his contemporaries despairing for him — and later viewers rapturous.

When Guston (1913–80) was about ten years old, his father committed suicide, and it was the youth who discovered the body hanging from a rafter. He reacted by escaping whenever he could into a closet with a single light bulb, spending hours drawing in solitude. His mother enrolled him, at thirteen, in a correspondence course from the Cleveland School of Cartooning, hoping to coax him out of his isolation. A couple of years later, in high school, he became friends with Jackson Pollock, and a teacher introduced the boys to Picasso, de Chirico, and other modernist painters; both students were ornery and were eventually expelled for distributing a leaflet satirizing the school’s elevation of sports over the humanities. By his early twenties Guston had become a skilled muralist, working first in Mexico, then California, and ultimately in New York City, where, at age 26, he won first prize for his mural Work – the American way, painted on the façade of the Works Progress Administration building at the New York World’s Fair.

In 1940 Guston completed another WPA mural, at the Queensbridge housing project, which exudes a hopeful earnestness through the community of musicians, basketball players, workmen, and roughhousing children depicted across its forty-foot expanse. But he was getting fed up with the government program — at one point federal inspectors ordered him down from his scaffold while they investigated the possibility that a dog’s tail curling around a boy’s leg in the Queensbridge mural (a composition inspired by Guston’s intensive study of Renaissance masters) might actually be a camouflaged hammer and sickle. More significantly, he was beginning to chafe against the aesthetic complacency of figuration at a time when his colleagues in the nascent New York School were struggling to find paths to abstraction beyond Picasso’s cubism, Kandinsky’s squiggles, and Mondrian’s geometries.

By the early 1950s, as Pollock was refining the explosiveness of his drip technique, Guston was atomizing his figures into fields of delicately tuned color. In 1966 he told another interviewer, “In the Fifties I entered a very painful period when I’d lost what I had and had nowhere to go. I was in a state of gradual dismantling.” His sense of being caught in limbo is manifested in those early abstractions as crosshatched clumps of color that dissipate into tinted fogs as they spread across a white tract.

In the later works on display here, ranging from two to seven feet across, those scattered clots of pigment have coagulated into forms that gain metaphysical heft from such open-ended titles as Fable II and Rite. With pink, red, orange, and green wedges parrying around black fulcrums, these two paintings (1957) feel as endlessly animated as the waltz of a Calder mobile. Painted with a wet-into-wet vehemence that pushes beyond Guston’s earlier elegance to achieve an earthy gusto, the images refuse to drift into biological allusion or cubist grid. Twinkling humor radiates from the rounded square with depending tail in Traveller III (1959–60), which levitates to the top of the composition like a balloon. Whether it is filled with helium or dialogue is an unanswerable question. In all of these works, Guston’s forms shamble up to the brink of representation (one might flash on the convolutions of the human brain in that scramble of orange and black brushstrokes) but inevitably shear off into abstraction. Narratives gibber behind the thrumming colors, visceral textures, and shifting proportions but never quite cohere. “Doubt itself becomes a form,” Guston told the poet Bill Berkson in 1964, and you can sense in these emphatic shapes the artist searching for a reason to let the classically derived figures he’d abandoned twenty years earlier re-emerge.

Guston mixed much of his color right on the canvas, but the smears here never degrade into mud. Instead, they positively glow. Quick struts of blue or crags of black partially obliterated by squalls of white create translucent layers as luminous as the sun through smoke (a haze that perpetually surrounded Guston, a chain-smoker — it is a rare photograph that doesn’t portray him with either cigarette or brush in hand). “What am I working with?” he once asked the composer Morton Feldman. “It’s only colored dirt.” And while Guston probably wasn’t grandiose enough to equate his own painting with fashioning Adam from dust — or even a golem from clay — he was tireless in trying to make something that had never existed.

That day came with Guston’s startling 1970 exhibition of galumphing cartoon paintings — those comical heads — which was nearly universally panned as willfully retrograde in an age when abstraction was already under assault from minimalism and conceptualism. John Perreault, writing in this newspaper, was one of the few critics to realize the breakthrough he was witnessing, a perspective that would be ratified more confidently by each generation: “It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart…a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. But not me.”

Perreault was dead-on about the hatred that followed — Feldman and Guston’s friendship was actually destroyed by the cartoon paintings — but that coming pain and revelation was still unknown to the artist when he painted the abstractions in this show. He was working his way to surprising even himself, telling Berkson, “I want to end up with something that will baffle me for some time.”

He got his wish — and so have we, for half a century and counting.


The Chameleon Painter

Even in his most pared-down paintings, Philip Guston was digging for something new.

My wife and I had spent a good bit of time at the opening of “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967,” the current exhibition (through July 29) at the Chelsea-docked starship that is the downtown Manhattan branch of the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Just as we were about to leave, I said, “Wait a minute—let’s not go just yet. I want to see something.” I’d noticed David McKee walking in, and I wanted to get a sense, if I could, of what the exhibition would look like reflected in his eyes.

McKee was Guston’s dealer from 1974 until the painter’s death in 1980, and afterward continued to represent his estate. In 1967, McKee was working at Guston’s previous gallery, Marlborough, just when Guston was producing the extraordinary array of drawings that cap the current show. In an interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, McKee explained that when he started working for Marlborough, Guston “was reluctant to have me visit, [saying:] ‘Well, it’s not going to be the sort of work that you’re expecting. My work has shifted.’” When McKee finally did visit the studio, he found it full of drawings of meager, abstract lines, like the ones now at Hauser & Wirth. Stark and powerful for all their obliquity, they seem oddly confident in their reduction of the Abstract Expressionist gesture to nearly zero. McKee saw something similar in the studio of another of Marlborough’s heavy hitters, Robert Motherwell, although his line, by contrast, was “extremely tentative.” McKee realized that both artists “had come to the conclusion that they’d exhausted the possibilities of their fifties and early sixties period. And were now curious about taking their work into other directions…. I never told the other what the other was doing. I couldn’t. It was like a secret that I held.”

Those drawings really were the end of something. When Guston took up painting again in 1968, he was making figurative work for the first time in nearly two decades. He had changed course completely. ( Well, maybe not completely: One of the first of the new figurative paintings, Paw, shows an animal appendage, rather than a human hand, drawing a stark horizontal line that might well be one of those in his 1967 drawings.) Raw and confrontational rather than cool and flashy, the new works showed the influence of comics but not of Pop. Instead of being shiny and new and void of the past, they were populated by Ku Klux Klansmen (a subject that Guston had painted years earlier, as a social realist in the 1930s) and haunting echoes of precursors from Piero della Francesca to Giorgio di Chirico by way of Krazy Kat. Fellow artists at the time responded coldly: They thought Guston had betrayed the cause of abstraction for which they had sacrificed so much. Guston had succeeded in scandalizing not the bourgeoisie, but the self-defined avant-garde. The critics were even crueler: Hilton Kramer’s verdict in The New York Times—that this was the work of “a mandarin masquerading as a stumblebum”—was only the most quotable censure. Guston’s contract with Marlborough was not renewed. Four years later, his new painting show inaugurated the McKee Gallery.

When his gallery shut its doors a year ago, McKee explained: “The art market has grown so vast that our gallery model is in danger: the collector’s private experience with art matters much less, as the social circus of art fairs, auctions, dinners and spectacle grows.” He went on to lament, “The value of art is now perceived as its monetary value. The art world has become a stressful, unhealthy place; its focus on fashion, brands and economics robs it of the great art experience, of connoisseurship and of trust.” For McKee, the epicenter of the new gallery model is Chelsea. In 2009, he remarked that he wouldn’t want “a big gallery in Chelsea” where “the spaces are anonymous, and they’re like cruise ships, where the captain doesn’t really know what’s going on in the ship…. I like a gallery to have a more intimate experience. And you know where if you want to sit and talk with a dealer, you can, who’s not going to kick you out.”

While McKee declined to adapt to the hypertrophy of the 21st-century art market, Hauser & Wirth—a sprawling enterprise with branches in Zurich, Los Angeles, London, and Somerset, England, as well as New York—is among the alpha galleries of the new environment, alongside Gagosian, David Zwirner, and others. Its Chelsea spaces are among the neighborhood’s biggest. The chances of being able to walk in and find Iwan Wirth minding the store and willing to sit down and schmooze about the work with you are close to nil. When McKee walked into the first-ever Guston exhibition in Chelsea (as well as the first with Hauser & Wirth), I was watching him look at art that he knew more intimately than almost any other living soul, and in a context more different than he might ever have expected. The look on his face was that of a man rather stunned—with dismay, or relief, or a little of both, I can’t say. I’d like to think that, without necessarily relinquishing his qualms about what the art business has become over the last 40 years, he was reconciled to seeing Guston in this new light by the evident care and respect with which the exhibition was prepared—no matter if it was installed in one those anonymous white caverns he never wanted for himself.

* * *

It’s often said that mega-galleries mount shows that might once have been the grand projects of museums, and that’s true. The point of an exhibition like “Philip Guston: Painter” isn’t merely to hang works on the wall that happen to be on the market (most of them probably aren’t); instead, the choices are based on serious art-historical considerations. Another such show is taking place nearby at Zwirner, through June 25: “Sigmar Polke: Eine Winterreise,” curated by the former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí. Like the Guston exhibition, it is not to be missed.

The Guston show really encompasses three distinct stages in his career. Early in the 1950s, his painterly touch was often considered a bit refined compared with some of his more swashbuckling colleagues. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, when this exhibition picks up the story, Guston’s mark starts to look blunter, more declarative; the paintings acquire a greater sense of the “objectness” of things. They are richly colored, with awkward, hard-won forms that clearly exhibit what Guston once called “an infighting in painting itself.” Then, in the mid-’60s, comes a reduction of color to mostly shades of gray, with loose, almost blowsy brushstrokes massing together to form simple, nebulous shapes. Finally come the drawings already mentioned, with their nearly zero-degree mark-making.

The coherence of the Hauser & Wirth show isn’t surprising, given that it was organized by one of America’s most respected curators, Paul Schimmel, the former longtime chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His involvement reflects yet another aspect of the changes afoot in the art world. In one of those strangely chiastic situations characteristic of the times, MoCA had hired art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as its director in 2010; Deitch and Schimmel didn’t see eye to eye, and two years later Schimmel either resigned or was fired, depending on whom you ask. Deitch himself didn’t last much longer in his new role and is now back running his gallery in New York. Schimmel left the nonprofit world to become a partner at the gallery whose Los Angeles branch is called Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.

For McKee, seeing Guston in this new context must have meant seeing his old friend’s work differently, for better or worse. I saw something almost completely new. That’s because I’d always thought of the essential Guston as the figurative painter of the 1970s. His abstract work was good, I knew, but mainly of interest as the precursor to greater work—an impression confirmed by the only large-scale Guston show I’ve ever had a chance to see, a rather skimpy retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Art back in 2004. This present show has changed my view: Had the 1967 drawings that form the conclusion to it been the last works Guston ever made—had he retreated into silence, which could well have been the next logical step for him after those defiantly reductive works—we would still have to recognize Guston as one of the great artists of his time.

And yet, however logical—and despite Guston’s friendship with the apostle of silence, John Cage—silence was probably never in the cards for him. Even his most pared-down work was less about shedding the inessential than digging for something new. The search for fresh ingredients meant not only poring through the history of art, but also keeping an eye on younger painters. I don’t think it’s really true that in the late 1950s and ’60s, Guston was—as a gallery wall text claims—“very much removed from the public debate, apart and alone in his studio.” Could those final drawings ever have come into being without him having been aware of a younger artist like Cy Twombly, with his sparse mark-making? A group of paintings from 1964 to ’65, their gray and black lit up by a bit of pink, seems like an attempt to observe how much can be done by varying and redeploying the fewest possible elements, as if he’d been observing the kind of “systemic painting” that had been in the air (and would be the subject of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966). In a 1966 interview with Guston, Harold Rosenberg pointed out how the paintings “have a great deal of resemblance to one another. Or let’s say a great deal of thematic continuity. It’s as if your paintings of the last three years were one long”—at which point Guston cuts him off, as if to avoid facing a verdict: One long what?

All the same, despite the seeming suddenness of Guston’s shift to figuration, hints that he was trying to go in that direction (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, trying to avoid an irresistible pull in that direction) are recurrent. They are most evident in the rather awkward work for which the Hauser & Wirth show is titled, Painter III (1963), in which the large central black oval is clearly enough the head of the painter whose brush-wielding hand can be made out just below. Looking (1964) gets its title from the eye-like marks that seem to face the viewer from the head-and-shoulders form on the painting’s right. Reverse (1965) anticipates the head in lost profile (with cigarette and smoke) of Guston’s 1978 Friend-To M.F. ( The composer Morton Feldman was one of the friends whom Guston thought had turned away from him in 1970.) Even earlier works like Fable II and Rite, both from 1957, earn their titles by the nonspecific figurative connotations of their bunched shapes; it would take only a little bit of further manipulation to turn those forms into the kind of stylized figures found in the paintings that Jan Müller was making around this time, or Bob Thompson just a little later. This was the period in which, as Frank O’Hara would write, Guston’s forms “pose, stand indecisively, push each other and declaim.” As early as 1961, the conservative New York Times critic John Canaday was wondering whether “in the end it should prove that he has really gone in a circle, carrying abstract expressionism back to its figurative start.” Just as Guston’s paintings explored the porous boundary between sameness and difference, his career was an essay in the single-mindedness of a chameleon.

In the Abstract

Art | Apr 2016 | BY Katy Diamond Hamer

What do brushstrokes tell us about a painter? Similar to a written signature, those singular linear marks are unique to each individual, and can change over time. Case in point: a new Philip Guston exhibition at the New York location of Hauser & Wirth, which recently announced its exclusive worldwide representation of the estate of the painter, who died in 1980. The gallery’s premiere Guston show features a series of paintings and drawings dating from 1957 through 1967, a time when the artist was known specifically for his abstraction. Early in his career, Guston made narrative figurative paintings, often working with the WPA on large-scale murals. Then, as Hauser & Wirth Director Anders Bergstrom points out, “In 1950 he started painting completely abstractly and became well known for these works.”

Guston’s Position I, 1965

Curated by Paul Schimmel, “Painter” includes a series of pieces with a limited color palette consisting of earth tones: greys, muted blues, deep reds and greens. The artist moved paint around the surface in a varied yet seemingly specific way. Sometimes it goes to the edge of the work, such as in Fable II from 1957, an oil painting on illustration board. Often it’s possible to recognize the thought process of the artist as he applied his medium thickly by brush, working it with other colors on the piece itself rather than the palette. A few years later, Guston made Traveler III (1959-60), an oil painting on canvas containing a frenetic life energy.

Guston’s Last Piece, 1958

Most of the pieces on view in “Painter” were celebrated in a 1962 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. After his death, in 2003, Guston received a major retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum, “but there were only maybe eight paintings that represented 1957 to ’67,” says Bergstrom. “We’re taking those years and blowing it up to 30-plus paintings. People will literally for the first time in 50 years be able to see this many works from that era in one place at one time.”

Guston’s Painter III, 1963

In the 1982 documentary Philip Guston: A Life Lived, he was asked a question about his stylistic evolution between 1962 and 1969. While slightly shrugging his shoulders and lighting a cigarette, he replied, “You work in this style or that style, as if you had a choice in the matter. What you are doing is trying to stay alive and continue and not die.” Guston’s later body of figure-based pieces, once reviled, has influenced a generation. But regarding the abstract paintings currently on view at Hauser & Wirth, the artist stated, “I recognize that they are dissolved and you don’t have figuration, but that’s really besides the point. What is to the point is that I’m in the same state [when making them]. The rest is not my business.”

Goddess of Painting Carmen Herrera: Interviews. Images. Texts


U.S. New York NY Culture


Painter Carmen Herrera, at 101, Is Making Her Mark
New exhibition at the Whitney shows artist’s works from her earlier years as she refined her distinctive approach to geometric abstraction


Carmen Herrera at her studio in May. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
By Susan Delson
Sept. 11, 2016 6:48 p.m. ET

When the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new building in 2015, a striking green-and-white abstraction by a little-known artist hung alongside works by renowned painters like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.

And it more than held its own.

But the new kid on the block wasn’t new—she had been making art for decades. And she certainly wasn’t a kid. At that point, Carmen Herrera was about to turn 100.
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How Ms. Herrera developed her incisive, razor-sharp style—the same style in which she paints today—is the focus of “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” opening Friday at the Whitney. The exhibition zeroes in on the pivotal decades of 1948 to 1978, when Ms. Herrera’s distinctive approach to geometric abstraction came into its own.

“Frankly, she didn’t bloom late, she was noticed late,” said Dana Miller, the exhibition’s curator and until recently director of collections at the Whitney. “She bloomed a long time ago.”
The Manhattan studio of Carmen Herrera. ENLARGE
The Manhattan studio of Carmen Herrera. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

The exhibition opens with works from Ms. Herrera’s Paris years, 1948 to 1953. They trace an evolution from lyrical, curving shapes and a lush palette to the visual punch of straight-edged forms painted in two colors only—as in a stunning black-and-white series, begun in 1952, that anticipated the minimalism of the 1960s.

In these and other works, Ms. Herrera also began painting the frames and edges of the canvases and using multiple panels to create the works—treating them as three-dimensional objects rather than two-dimensional surfaces.

Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg were doing similar things at the time, Ms. Miller pointed out. But while their innovations won art-world recognition, Ms. Herrera’s went largely unacknowledged—until recently.

The idea for the exhibition emerged from the museum’s 2014 acquisition of the Herrera that appeared in the inaugural show—a 1959 work from her “ Blanco y Verde” (Green and White) series (1959–1971).


Carmen Herrera’s ‘Amarillo Dos,’ 1971. Photo: Carmen Herrera

Ms. Herrera considers “Blanco y Verde” her most important series, and “Lines of Sight” gathers an unprecedented nine of them—perhaps more, Ms. Miller said, than even Ms. Herrera has seen in one place.

Hanging in a gallery of their own, the works have a concentrated, almost electric energy. So do the seven paintings in the “Days of the Week” series (1975–78), which is positioned as the first thing visitors see stepping off the elevator.

With some 50 works, “Lines of Sight” asserts Ms. Herrera’s rightful spot in 20th-century art history. But Ms. Herrera herself is no museum piece. She works in her studio almost daily, and shows no signs of stopping.

She has deepened and refined the style she developed in those earlier years, and within its stringent parameters continues to create work of intense visual power.

‘I work, and I work, and I work.’
—Carmen Herrera

At age 101, she now grapples with the demands of her growing international recognition and the limitations of age, balanced against her own fierce absorption in her art.

An assistant does most of the physical labor, but by the time the canvas is prepped Ms. Herrera has already conceived the painting in full detail.

The process takes her from small pencil sketches to larger colored drawings and schematics indicating the dimensions of each area of the canvas. Specific colors are chosen from charts.

Ms. Herrera does much of her drawing at a counter at the front of her loft on East 19th Street in Manhattan, behind a bank of sunny, south-facing windows lined with orchid plants.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” she said in an interview. “I’m happy, and I do it. And then somebody rings the bell,” she added with a mock scowl. “All I want is to be left alone, like Greta Garbo. And you see what happened to her.”


Carmen Herrera and husband, Jesse Loewenthal, in Paris in 1949. Photo: Carmen Herrera

Born in Havana, Ms. Herrera was educated in Cuba and Paris, moving to New York with her American husband, Jesse Loewenthal—a cosmopolitan, multilingual writer and teacher—in 1939.

In 1948, the couple moved to Paris. There, Ms. Herrera quickly fell in with an international community of artists—including members of the forward-thinking Salon des Réalités Nouvelles—who encouraged her in developing her mature style.

In early 1954, financial pressures sent the pair back to New York, where abstract expressionism dominated the art scene with its explosive mix of gesture, drama and testosterone. Ms. Herrera’s cool, cerebral distillations attracted little interest.

Still, she persisted.

Her fortunes changed around 2004, when she began exhibiting with New York dealer Federico Sève at his Latincollector gallery. She debuted as the last-minute substitute in a group show.
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That year, collector and philanthropist Ella Fontanals-Cisneros acquired Ms. Herrera’s work for her Miami-based Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. Other influential collectors—most of them women—also acquired works around that time.

Ms. Herrera’s career got another boost in 2010, when the London-based Lisson Gallery began representing her internationally. This past spring, a show of her recent work inaugurated the gallery’s New York space—and sold out in a matter of weeks. According to Alex Logsdail, Lisson’s international director, several pieces are headed to major museums.

The auction market has started to catch up too. At last November’s Latin American sale at Phillips, Ms. Herrera’s 1965 canvas “Basque,” estimated at $120,000 to $180,000, fetched $437,000, including buyer’s premium.

“I never expected that,” Ms. Herrera said, before pausing to correct herself. “I did expect it,” she said firmly, speaking not only of the sale but her newfound recognition as a whole. “And here it is.”

rt & Design | Studio Visit
An Artist at 100, Thinking Big but Starting Small

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Carmen Herrera, 100, in her home studio on East 19th Street in Manhattan. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The painter Carmen Herrera, who turns 101 in May, was sitting in her wheelchair on a gray day last month, waiting and watching, catlike.

She was quiet for the moment, but at any time she might toss off a teasing zinger toward an old friend who was present, or a directive to her assistant to make a minute calibration to one of her hard-edge abstract paintings.

Ms. Herrera, who has shoulder-length white hair and wire-rim glasses and was wearing a black cardigan sweater, held up a small, rectangular piece of painted vellum and compared it to the larger version of the same work, one done on paper, which was hanging on the wall of her large, floor-through home and studio on East 19th Street.

She grunted softly.

Silently assessing the diamond-shaped areas of red and blue on the canvas, Ms. Herrera was working, in her way — deciding how much red, how much blue, and where the line between them would be — though she was not applying paint just then.

Ms. Herrera still makes art every day; it sustains her. “I’ve painted all my life,” she said, nodding her head firmly to make the point. “It makes me feel good.” She sold her first piece 81 years ago.

Ms. Herrera in 1965 with Jesse Loewenthal, her husband of 61 years, who died in 2000. Credit Jesse Loewenthal

Her sense of humor remains intact, and she has tart, firm opinions. “Don’t do it,” she said with a chuckle about being 100. “It’s horrible.”

In the last dozen years, Ms. Herrera has a thriving career that would make any artist jealous: a show opening May 3 at Lisson Gallery in New York, the debut for the American branch of the London dealer, and in the fall, a solo exhibition of early work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Lisson show features some dozen paintings, all made in the last couple of years, and all filled with her signature bold simplicity: sharply delineated blocks of color often energized by a strong diagonal line.
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Her age and lack of mobility — she no longer gets out of the house regularly and has live-in round-the-clock care — have forced a series of adjustments to her work habits.

Far from undermining her project, however, these concessions have served to highlight the conceptual nature of her work.

Dana Miller, the Whitney curator who organized the coming exhibition of Ms. Herrera’s, said that these quiet moments were clearly productive for the artist.
Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“The more I delve into her work, the more I understand that it’s conceptual in nature,” Ms. Miller said. “She said to me, ‘I don’t have the heart to paint, I have the brain to paint.’”

As Ms. Herrera has become physically shakier, she has relied on a team of people to help her — but then again, Jeff Koons relies on others to make his pieces, too.

Robert Storr, the former Museum of Modern Art curator and Yale School of Art dean, who wrote a catalog essay for the Lisson show, compared her to late-stage Henri Matisse, who was famously photographed sitting in bed and making his “Cut-Outs” series with scissors and paper.

“He was using someone else to be his arms and legs, and she’s doing the same thing,” Mr. Storr said.

He added that her work is part of the Constructivist tradition and shows “how much can be done with really simple elements.”

Born in Cuba in 1915, Ms. Herrera lived for two long stints in Paris, where, in the 1940s, her art became fully formed. Ellsworth Kelly (who died last December), whom she knew, and whose works have some similarities to hers, was developing his art in Paris at the same time.


Carmen Herrera’s “Night Forest” (2016), acrylic on canvas. Credit Carmen Herrera/Lisson Gallery

“I like his work, but I didn’t like him,” Ms. Herrera recalled. “He was kind of eeeehhhhh.” She screwed up her face.

Ms. Herrera settled permanently in New York in the 1950s, where she became friends with Barnett Newman, Leon Polk Smith and Wilfredo Lam. She has spent 49 years in her current apartment. Her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal, died in 2000.

She didn’t gain wide attention until she was in her 80s, but unlike the late-blooming painter known as Grandma Moses — Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860–1961), who took up the brush in her 70s — Ms. Herrera came to fame for a consistent style and sensibility she had been practicing for decades.

She speaks faintly now, often switching between Spanish and English. Often on hand to translate is her friend Tony Bechara, who helps her negotiate the outside world, from dentist appointments to dealer relations.

“I may end up as a footnote to history,” Mr. Bechara joked about his Zelig-like presence at her side. A painter himself, he met Ms. Herrera in 1972 when they were both featured in a group show — but he doesn’t assist with her art.

For that, Ms. Herrera has Manuel Belduma, who shops for supplies and does all the physical work she cannot. He was specifically hired for his lack of art-making knowledge, Mr. Bechara said, so that Ms. Herrera gets exactly what she wants on the canvas, with no art-school suggestions.

“Red Wall’ (2015), acrylic on canvas. Credit Carmen Herrera/Lisson Gallery

“She has financial means that enables her to have staff,” the Whitney’s Ms. Miller said. “It enables her to continue to work, period.”

The early stages of her process have stayed remarkably the same over the years.

“When I wake up, all I am thinking about is breakfast,” Ms. Herrera said. “After breakfast, I know I have something waiting for me. And I get going.”

She pointed to a desk by a long block of windows fronting the street, where she starts around 9:30 every morning. “That’s where I think of the composition — if I’m lucky,” she said.

Stage 1 is her sketch, which Ms. Herrera does in pencil on graph paper by the window, flanked by her potted orchids.

For Stage 2, she transfers the idea to a small piece of vellum, and, using acrylic paint markers, does the sketch in color. Sometimes what follows is a larger version on paper, to see if the composition is working.

“We do it small, and then we do it bigger,” said Ms. Herrera, who studied architecture in Havana in the 1930s. “When it gets big, you might think of it in a different way.”

Photo 17carmen6-master675
Ms. Herrera in 2015, using tape that is instrumental in the creation of her paintings. Credit Jason Schmidt/Lisson Gallery


Once the painting process starts, Mr. Belduma places the canvases horizontally on an old architectural drafting table on wheels, so that Ms. Herrera can spin it around and get a closer look.

Ms. Herrera tells him exactly where to place blue tape — the nonstick kind found in most utility drawers — as well as a special green tape that prevents the paint from bleeding onto adjacent sections.

When it comes to rolling the paint, Ms. Herrera often does a first coat herself. Mr. Belduma does the later ones.

Then he hangs them on the wall, and Ms. Herrera considers them, sometimes for days.

It takes from one week to several weeks to make a painting, and Ms. Herrera will often scrap a piece and go back, literally, to the drawing board — though everyone who works for her knows not to actually trash the attempts she throws in the garbage.

Ms. Herrera enjoys a glass of wine at lunch and dinner — an inexpensive merlot is the current favorite — and she still reads The Times Literary Supplement every week.

“I’ve known a lot of older artists, and she has the least signs of old-age problems of any of them,” said Mr. Storr, who has observed her working on multiple occasions.

She recalled the deprivations of Paris during World War II in terms that could also apply to the limitations and liberations of creating art in one’s 11th decade.

When there were no canvases available, she simply switched to painting on burlap.

“When you don’t have much,” Ms. Herrera said, “anything will do.”
Correction: April 15, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the location of Carmen Herrera’s studio in Manhattan. It is on East 19th Street, not East 17th Street.



CARMEN HERRERA with Laila Pedro

In recent years, Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) has become as renowned for her elegant, geometric abstract paintings as for her unflagging productivity during the decades in which the works were overlooked. Born in Havana, Herrera moved to New York with her American husband. The two spent several years in Paris in the artistically charged years following the Second World War. It was in Paris that Herrera, absorbing and transforming the city’s febrile creative currents, arrived at the deceptively minimal, restrained, and chromatically evocative style that we have come to recognize, unmistakably, as hers. On September 16, her long overdue solo exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ahead of the opening, Laila Pedro visited Herrera at her home and studio in New York to celebrate and reflect upon her long and finally groundbreaking career.

Portrait of Carmen Herrera. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu.

Laila Pedro (Rail): Carmen, here we are in New York, in your beautiful home and studio, as you are about to open a solo show at the Whitney. It’s a huge moment.

Carmen Herrera: Yes!

Rail: I was just reading the catalogue proofs. Dana Miller, who organized the show, writes its lead essay, which explicitly positions this exhibition as a corrective to the fact that your work, as hardly bears repeating, was overlooked for so long. I was struck by the very intelligent decision to focus this exhibition on a critical period for you: the years from 1948 – 78. This is the time when you were in Paris and in New York. And it was in Paris that you distilled your style—the minimal, restrained compositions that we now instantly identify as yours.

Herrera: Paris in 1948 was essential for me. I love France. It’s a tragedy to see how it is changing now. It is not only the terrorist attacks, but simply that the way of living, as an artist, which was so formative for me, is no longer possible. When I was there, everyone was there. It was a delicious time. But, these things end.

Rail: When you were first in New York, you were still doing figurative work. It wasn’t until Paris that you really evolved the precise, geometric abstract constructions that characterize your mature style.

Herrera: Of course. It was about meeting new people and gaining a new set of influences and learning to filter and absorb those. Everything was marvelous; everything was possible.

Rail: And in Paris you met and showed with the Salon des réalités nouvelles, which was important for you as well.

Carmen Herrera, Equation, 1958. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame, 24 × 42 inches. Collection of Stanley Stairs and Leslie Powell. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Ikon Gallery.

Herrera: Every year everyone came to exhibit—well, not everyone; you had to be accepted! [Laughter.] We would come together, people from all around the world. I showed with them several times. Someone who was very important to me was Fredo [Sidès, director of the Salon des réalités nouvelles]. He always told me the truth, like when a painting was too crowded, or I was trying to do too much, and I was grateful. I just showed up at his house and knocked on the door. I wasn’t scared of any of them.

But it was another time, and another community. And it was so open that I was able to gain all this exposure. Before, I didn’t know anything about all these different kinds of people. Germans, Italians—I barely knew anything about Americans! So it was very good, and very important, to be exposed to that community.

Rail: That was a sense of community that you hadn’t been able to find in New York, but that you had experienced in Cuba, with women artists like Amelia Peláez (1896 – 1968) and Loló Soldevilla (1901 – 71).

Herrera: Yes. Amelia had won a scholarship to study in France, and she spent some time there, but Cuba drew her back. She was older than me, significantly, and I admired her tremendously. She was tiny and she swore like a sailor. I admired her as a painter, but more so in her personality. Her personality informed her work, of course, but she was tough, and that was what inspired me. Loló also traveled to France, so she was part of everyone who was there. Wifredo [Lam] helped her a lot.

Rail: Did Wifredo help or influence you? I know you were friends—and people would even try to get in touch with him through you—but there is some artistic influence in your early work, no? In your Tondos from this period, for example. It’s this kind of more Cubistic, organic abstraction.

Herrera: We got along very well. I had been to school in Paris, but when I went back as an adult artist, Wifredo had already been there, in those circles, for some time. I would help him to navigate socially, because he came from a very humble background; he was not very sophisticated. And he always thought he had something to teach me! But in France everyone fell in love with him. And everyone thought we must be related because we were both Cuban.

Rail: In Cuba, your family collected art; you come from a very cultured, progressive home. Did they collect works by Cuban painters?

Herrera: They collected European works, but many intellectuals did visit our home. Langston Hughes came to visit. It was a very intellectual environment. There wasn’t as much money as there was culture. And in Havana there was also the Lyceum, the women’s club. That did a tremendous amount of good because it exposed women to literature and art. It was magnificent. And I had wanted to go to the university and take architecture classes, but it was difficult, because of all the political unrest. I had a group of friends who gathered to study architecture together—and they did all become architects.

Rail: Then you met your husband, Jesse Loewenthal.

Herrera: Yes, and we came to New York. You think you’re steering your own life, and then, all of a sudden, things change. That was it! [Laughter.]

Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”, 1971. Acrylic on wood, 40 × 70 × 3 1/4 inches. Private collection. © Carmen Herrera.

Rail: Carmen, can we look at some of the works you’ve produced in this time? There are some I am very curious to ask you about.

Herrera: Yes, ask whatever you want. [Laughter.]

Rail: Let’s look at the Estructuras [structures], like Amarillo “Dos.” You’re very specific that they’re not paintings, they’re not sculptures—they’re structures. The use of depth and negative space to deploy shadow as a painterly device—almost a chromatic element—in what is otherwise a monochrome seems hugely important to me.

Herrera: I wanted to make these for a long time, and I think they are very important, but I couldn’t find the right person to help me with the fabrication. So there are many of them that are unrealized. I had a wonderful carpenter who helped me make them, but he passed away and I could never find anyone else who could do it properly. Recently, I’ve found a new assistant, who is finally able to fabricate and execute work the way I conceive it.

Rail: Are they free-standing?

Herrera: Some are. Some are hung on the wall, but they also protrude.

Rail: They’re obviously informed by your architectural mind.

Herrera: Of course. They’re minimal but you can walk around them. You can turn them around when you display them and change the display.

Rail: There’s the architectural aspect, which is part of a general concern with the materiality of your works. Sometimes, you’ve painted the frame as well.

Herrera: Painting the frame is my defense of the work, my way of protecting it.

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949. Acrylic on canvas on board, diameter: 40 inches. Collection of the artist. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Rail: Looking at your “diptych” works gives a sense of the intensity of expression and composition that you extract from very minimal elements. It’s not symmetrical: even where you’ve painted the edges, in some cases you’ve only painted one edge. Through radical reduction, you’ve made minimal optical components incredibly dimensioned and textured. It magnifies the relationships of scale.

Herrera: I didn’t always divide them in the middle. Sometimes the proportion is almost identical—but not quite.

Rail: This black-and-white work, Equation, from 1958, plays with some of the issues of scale, but also with orientation and dislocation.

Herrera: I think that is one of my first really serious works. One of my first serious, geometric works.

Rail: Now that you have a fabricator, a technical assistant that you trust, you are able to keep realizing your paintings. Can we talk about your daily process?

Herrera: Every day I make drawings in color, on paper, at my desk over there by the window. I make the drawings and then they are hung on the wall right over here. These are all the drawings I’ve been working on. I hang them and live with them for a while so I can see how I feel about them. I can see what needs to change, what needs to be taken out. This orange and black one, here—the small orange section at the bottom right needs to go. I’m absolutely sure. Do you see? It will be much more interesting if you remove that piece.

Rail: You are always reducing, Carmen.

Herrera: It seems obvious, now!

Rail: Like an architect, you make scaled preparatory drawings, with the dimensions indicated along each side of the work. Here you have them all marked; they look almost like blueprints. Do you always have a sense of the scale before you sit down to draw?

Herrera: Yes. When I’m working on the drawing, I always know roughly the size of final work I want it to become. I mark the proportions and then my assistant executes them. Behind you is one we just finished. He did all that blue there with a small roller, to get the very smooth surface, and the lines are marked off with tape.

Rail: You’ve left the bottom quadrants unpainted, so it is almost like in this section of the painting the bare, ivory cotton is working as its own color, its own pigment. The material is acting as a paint.

Herrera: Yes, everyone keeps telling me to leave that white there but I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure. I’ll leave it a bit longer and see what my brain tells me.

This conversation has been condensed and translated from Spanish by Laila Pedro. Carmen Herrera’s longtime friend, artist Tony Bechara, provided invaluable assistance and support.


Laila Pedro LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.



Art & Design
A Carmen Herrera Solo Exhibition at the Whitney


The painter Carmen Herrera, who turned 100 last year. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“Don’t do it,” the painter Carmen Herrera recently counseled an interviewer, about turning a century old, which she did last year. “It’s horrible.”
Carmen Herrera’s “Wednesday” (1978). Credit Carmen Herrera, via Lisson Gallery

But Ms. Herrera, who was born in Cuba and labored for decades in Paris and New York before finally coming to the art world’s notice, has something this year to chase away thoughts of another birthday. On Friday, Sept. 16, the Whitney Museum of American Art opens “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” her first solo museum exhibition in New York in almost 20 years, focusing on work from 1948 to 1978, when she was finding her signature style: a hard-edged, radiantly colored, vertiginously geometric way of making very little do a lot. Dana Miller, the show’s curator, describes the effect as being less like paint on canvas than “like cuts in space,” an innovation Ms. Herrera shares with painters like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly (though they became famous for their versions 40 years before hers began to enter important public collections). (Through Jan. 2; 212-570-3600,

Art & Design
At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting


DEC. 19, 2009



Carmen Herrera in her Manhattan loft, surrounded by her art. She sold her first work in 2004. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Under a skylight in her tin-ceilinged loft near Union Square in Manhattan, the abstract painter Carmen Herrera, 94, nursed a flute of Champagne last week, sitting regally in the wheelchair she resents.

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”

Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retrospective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”

In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot. In an era when the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.

“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she said of painting. “I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, called Ms. Herrera “a quiet warrior of her art.”

“To bloom into full glory at 94 — whatever Carmen Herrera’s slow rise might say about the difficulties of being a woman artist, an immigrant artist or an artist ahead of her time, it is clearly a story of personal strength,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.
Carmen Herrera at work. She has painted for six decades, and since her first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued her. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A minimalist whose canvases are geometric distillations of form and color, Ms. Herrera has slowly come to the attention of a subset of art historians over the last decade. . Now she is increasingly considered an important figure by those who study her “remarkably monumental, iconic paintings,” said Edward J. Sullivan, a professor of art history at New York University.

“Those of us with a passion for either geometric art or Latin American Modernist painting now realize what a pivotal role” Ms. Herrera has played in “the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Painting in relative solitude since the late 1930s, with only the occasional exhibition, Ms. Herrera was sustained, she said, by the unflinching support of her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal. An English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Loewenthal was portrayed by the memoirist Frank McCourt, a colleague, as an old-world scholar in an “elegant, three-piece suit, the gold watch chain looping across his waistcoat front.”

Recognition for Ms. Herrera came a few years after her husband’s death, at 98, in 2000. “Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above,” Ms. Herrera said, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud.” She added: “I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”

In a series of interviews in her sparsely but artfully furnished apartment, Ms. Herrera always offered an afternoon cocktail — “Oh, don’t be abstemious!” — and an outpouring of stories about prerevolutionary Cuba, postwar Paris and the many artists she has known, from Wifredo Lam to Yves Klein to Barnett Newman.

“Ah, Wifredo,” she said, referring to Lam, the Cuban-born French painter. “All the girls were crazy about him. When we were in Havana, my phone would begin ringing: ‘Is Wifredo in town?’ I mean, come on, I wasn’t his social secretary.”

But Ms. Herrera is less expansive about her own art, discussing it with a minimalism redolent of the work. “Paintings speak for themselves,” she said. Geometry and color have been the head and the heart of her work, she added, describing a lifelong quest to pare down her paintings to their essence, like visual haiku.

Asked how she would describe to a student a painting like “Blanco y Verde” (1966) — a canvas of white interrupted by an inverted green triangle — she said, “I wouldn’t have a student.” To a sweet, inquiring child, then? “I’d give him some candy so he’d rot his teeth.”

When pressed about what looks to some like a sensual female shape in the painting, she said: “Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles.”

Born in 1915 in Havana, where her father was the founding editor of the daily newspaper El Mundo, and her mother a reporter, Ms. Herrera took art lessons as a child, attended finishing school in Paris and embarked on a Cuban university degree in architecture. In 1939, midway through her studies, she married Mr. Loewenthal and moved to New York. (They had no children.)
Ms. Herrera’s “Red Star” from 1949. Credit Collection of Estrellita Brodsky, First Sale

Although she studied at the Art Students League of New York, Ms. Herrera did not discover her artistic identity until she and her husband settled in Paris for a few years after World War II. There she joined a group of abstract artists, based at the influential Salon of New Realities, which exhibited her work along with that of Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and others.

“I was looking for a pictorial vocabulary and I found it there,” she said. “But when we moved back to New York, this type of art” — her less-is-more formalism — “was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn’t get a gallery.”

Ms. Herrera said that she also accepted, “as a handicap,” the barriers she faced as a Hispanic female artist. Beyond that, though, “her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.”

Over the decades, Ms. Herrera had a solo show here and there, including a couple at museums (the Alternative Museum in 1984, El Museo del Barrio in 1998). But she never sold anything, and never needed, or aggressively sought, the affirmation of the market. “It would have been nice, but maybe corrupting,” she said.

Mr. Bechara, who befriended her in the early 1970s and is now chairman of El Museo del Barrio, said that he regularly tried to push her into the public eye, even though she “found a kind of solace in being alone.”

One day in 2004, Mr. Bechara attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan, who was dealing with the withdrawal of an artist from a much-publicized show of female geometric painters. “Tony said to me: ‘Geometry and ladies? You need Carmen Herrera,’ ” Mr. Sève recounted. “And I said, ‘Who the hell is Carmen Herrera?’ ”

The next morning, Mr. Sève arrived at his gallery to find several paintings, just delivered, that he took to be the work of the well-known Brazilian artist Lygia Clark but were in fact by Ms. Herrera. Turning over the canvases, he saw that they predated by a decade paintings in a similar style by Ms. Clark. “Wow, wow, wow,” he recalled saying. “We got a pioneer here.”

Mr. Sève quickly called Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a collector who has an art foundation in Miami. She bought five of Ms. Herrera’s paintings. Estrellita Brodsky, another prominent collector, bought another five. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, also bought several, and with Mr. Bechara, donated one of Ms. Herrera’s black-and-white paintings to MoMA.

The recent exhibition in England, which is now heading to Germany, came about by happenstance after a curator stumbled across Ms. Herrera’s paintings on the Internet. Last week The Observer named that retrospective one of the year’s 10 best exhibitions, alongside a Picasso show and one devoted to the American Pop artist Ed Ruscha.

Ms. Herrera’s late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 — sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. “I have more money now than I ever had in my life,” she said.

Not that she is succumbing to a life of leisure. At a long table where she peers out over East 19th Street “like a French concierge,” Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she said.articlelarge popup popup-1



To inaugurate its new Chelsea space, Lisson, one of London’s most significant and established galleries, presents works created over the past two years by the painter Carmen Herrera. Born in Cuba, Herrera has been a New York resident since 1954. She found her path into abstract painting upon discovering the artist group Salons des Réalités Nouvelles when she lived in Paris in the 1940s, and her earlier paintings tend to organic abstraction—curved shapes echoing natural forms. By the mid 1950s, the edges of these forms had sharpened and a radical simplicity—honed to this day, and a salient feature of this exhibition—had taken hold. This desire for “utter simplicity,” in Herrera’s own words, produces a lucid complexity even when, as is often the case, she uses only two colors and one shape.

Carmen Herrera, Alpes, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 120 × 70 inches. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

A single painting on one wall, Alpes (2015) is the kind of work that stops you in your tracks: it is at one and the same time direct, open, and unpredictable. The composition is utterly compelling in its implications of a continuous space, which includes the white of the wall behind it, and in the contradiction of this, its two green triangles: one is seemingly incomplete, a half of the other—which is itself already complete. Herrera creates this effect with a sophisticated optical structure. She paints the sides of each painting the color of the shape that reaches that edge. Alpes comprises two panels; the vertical line of their meeting divides the complete isosceles triangle. The green and white triangles interchange visually as positive and negative inverting shapes. The white triangles, one complete at one scale while the white space to the right of the second green triangle implies a much larger one that is only partially seen, imaginatively continues across the wall itself. These differences are felt, rather than intellectually discerned. While they can be analyzed formally, their effect is more intense, musical and emotional. It could be described as spiritual: not only are we engaged physically, we are displaced from a state of certainty by such ambiguities, and—with pleasure, it has to be said—made to see something so apparently simple operate on another nuanced plane of visual experience. It is not so much a case of reduction as of distillation and refinement.

In Portal (Diptych) (2014) the black, central, symmetrical shape makes a mirror image across the two panels of the painting, in fact resembling a portal, or an Italian Renaissance portico. At 84 × 56 inches it is a size (like the majority of paintings here) that invites a physical relation with the viewer. What would have been a painting of sharp chromatic contrast and finely judged enigmatic symmetry instead becomes, through the use of the two panels, a play of doubling or reflection. The line created by the juncture of these panels is, in existing as a line, another contrasting element. As with the other works Herrera has painted the sides of the panels. This allows the paintings to be read as colored objects, an effect enhanced by the use of the abutted panels. The one sculpture present, Untitled Estructura (Blue) (1962/2015), is a logical extension of the optical into fully three-dimensional space.

Herrera’s achievement is clear. An artist who, subjected for decades to what might be called “benign neglect,” (as she put it: “I was happy to be ignored because I was interested in painting,”) continued working, despite being told by gallerist Rose Fried sometime in the 1950s, “You are a wonderful painter, but I will not give you a show, because you are a woman.” Thankfully, this absurd and stupid attitude towards women artists is a lot less in evidence these days (although of course—infuriatingly—not entirely purged). Herrera is making her best work now; this exhibition (along with further deserved acknowledgment upcoming in a survey exhibition at the Whitney this fall) offers the chance to fully appreciate its significance.


David Rhodes


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