It’s Time To Stop Ignoring South Korean Abstract Art

It’s Time To Stop Ignoring South Korean Abstract Art

It’s Time To Stop Ignoring South Korean Abstract Art

Korean monochrome painting, or tansaekhwa, originated in a deep ambivalence about painting.


Globalization has been the talk of the art world for years now, but the international perspective is of a shallow sort—a smorgasbord of names shorn of any sense of culture or history. Ask someone to name a Korean artist, for instance, and the answer will likely be Nam June Paik, who was born in Seoul in 1932. But after his university years in Tokyo, Paik lived in West Germany and then the United States from 1956 until his death in 2006. Someone else might mention Lee Ufan, an artist of Paik’s generation who likewise went to Japan to study and now divides his time between there and Paris. And there’s Do-ho Suh, a prominent midcareer installation artist whose work has appeared in many biennials as well as one-person shows across the United States and Europe. But the list might stop there.

In 2009, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston attempted to offer an alternate view, presenting what was billed as “the first major museum exhibition in the United States to focus on contemporary art from South Korea.” The exhibition featured a dozen artists described as representing a generation that has “emerged since the mid-1980s” (though many of them were younger than that implies). The focus on young artists, justified on the grounds that South Korea “has opened up under the influence of globalization” (­to quote from the publisher’s description of the accompanying catalog), suggests that their work’s immediate international context outweighs their cultural background.

There is finally an opportunity to look a little deeper. This fall, New York City gallery-goers are being newly introduced to an older generation of Korean abstract painters, and it’s clear there’s a lot of catching up to do. Through December 23, Galerie Perrotin is presenting the work of Chung Chang-sup (1927–2011), while, also through December 23, Blum & Poe is featuring Yun Hyong-keun (1928–2007). The Tina Kim Gallery recently mounted the second-ever American solo exhibition of Ha Chong-hyun, an artist born in 1935 and still going strong. Chung and Yun had a few US exhibitions in the early 1990s but not since—in Yun’s case, mainly thanks to the support of Donald Judd, who’d met him and admired his work on a visit to Korea. Ha’s first US show took place just a year ago, at Blum & Poe. All three exhibitions are impressive; those of Yun and Ha are enough to convince me that they are major artists who should have been widely exhibited in museums years ago.

I don’t think I’ve seen the international art market swarm this quickly around a genre since the boom in Soviet unofficial art in the late 1980s. Except for Lee Ufan, who has been better known for his association with the Japanese Mono-ha movement, the artists here—all of them associated with the school of monochrome painting known as tansaekhwa—have until now been practically unknown outside Korea and Japan. They were not included in Barbara Rose’s otherwise comprehensive 2004 exhibition “Monochromes: From Malevich to the Present” (at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid), nor are they mentioned in the “revised and augmented” 2006 edition of Denys Riout’s 1996 book La peinture monochrome: Histoire et archéologie d’un genre.

Why are these Korean painters suddenly appearing (or reappearing) on the New York scene? To reply “It’s the market” isn’t really an answer; instead, it’s a way of avoiding the question of how and why the market abruptly became interested in artists whom it had ignored for so long. One attraction is that ready-made label: tansaekhwa (sometimes rendered dansaekhwa). The word means “monochrome painting,” but it’s usually translated as “Korean monochrome painting” to distinguish it within the genre that came into existence in Russia when Malevich painted his white-on-white canvas in 1918 and Rodchenko painted his trio of red, yellow, and blue works in 1921, and which then reemerged in Europe and the United States in the 1950s with Robert Rauschenberg, Piero Manzoni, and Yves Klein. But what exactly is Korean about tansaekhwa has been questioned right from the start. According to the art historian Joan Kee, the most prominent Anglophone scholar of tansaekhwa, the idea that the movement expresses something quintessentially Korean was first proposed by Japanese critics and only subsequently taken up—and then often contested—by Koreans themselves.

The timeline of the American discovery of tansaekhwa begins in 2013, when the University of Minnesota Press published Kee’s thoughtful and solidly documented book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method. It’s the kind of text that would ordinarily have earned good reviews in academic journals but little wider notice. The following spring, the New York gallery Alexander Gray Associates mounted “Overcoming the Modern: Dansaekhwa—the Korean Monochrome Movement,” organized by the curatorial team of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath; it seems not to have received much attention. The same can hardly be said of the next American group show, the much larger “From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction,” which Kee curated for Blum & Poe in Los Angeles in the fall of 2014. The Los Angeles Times critic David Pagel extolled it as “resplendent”; in Artforum, Kavior Moon noted how the works “pushed the material and conceptual limits of painting, often to visceral effect”; and in The Huffington Post, veteran critic Peter Frank proclaimed the show “truly radical.” (The invaluable selection of primary documents translated in the catalog for “From All Sides” is my source for many of the quotations in this article.)

But it wasn’t only the critics who took notice. The New Yorker recently reported that until 2014, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by Ha Chong-hyun was $13,303, and that of the eight works by the artist offered between 2007 and 2013, half didn’t sell. Since then, nine of Ha’s works have been auctioned (in Asia, but often to Western buyers) for six figures each. “To be honest, it was not possible to make a living making this kind of work in Korea,” he told The New Yorker’s Natasha Degen and Kibum Kim. “I was so tired and it’s such welcome news.” You’re going to be hearing a lot more about tansaekhwa in the near future, and hopefully the major surviving artists associated with it—along with Ha and Lee, I can mention Park Seo-bo and Chung Sang-hwa—­will reap at least some of the benefits.

* * *

Tansaekhwa deserves the attention of anyone with a genuine interest in painting, in part because it originated in a deep ambivalence about painting. In South Korea, education in painting runs on two separate tracks: “Oriental” (ink) and “Western” (oil). The tansaekhwa artists, born and partly educated in the prewar period of Japanese occupation, may not have been trained under this system, but it’s worth considering their work not so much as a synthesis of these supposedly separate Asian and Euro-American strands, but in opposition to both—as well as in opposition to the very dichotomy between them. Lee speaks of Yun’s works not as paintings but as “unpaintings.” For his part, Chung Chang-sup has explained, “Painting without painting, creating without creating, this is what I will.”

“Creating without creating” means, I take it, giving up a certain artistic control in favor of allowing impersonal processes to occur. This is what happens in a number of works titled Return, made in 1977. In them, Chung mounted hanji paper onto canvas, leaving a border of canvas around the paper (thereby demonstrating that both Korean and Western materials have been employed). Ink has been applied to the paper from its edges, soaking into it in irregular rivulets, so that the painting’s “empty” center—­which isn’t really empty, because the blank paper has a tonality of its own, while its thinness allows the weave of the underlying canvas to show through—is surrounded by a jagged black repoussoir, as if it were made of ripped paper. It looks like light tearing its way through a wall of darkness.

The later works on view are mostly from the series Meditation and dated 1996. They are more like painting without painting than creating without creating—which is to say, they are painting with other than the traditional means, Asian or Western. Neither ink nor paint is employed. Instead, Chung made these works solely using a pulp made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, which is known as tak. Rather than transforming this substance into the delicate sheets of hanji used for calligraphy, or even the sturdier sheets used in traditional Korean architecture as well as for craft objects, Chung applied the tak pulp to canvas, working it in a quasi-sculptural fashion to create a texturally variegated “impasto” that in each piece frames a central square or squarish zone in which the paper has been pressed completely flat. The edges of the central square are in part very crisply defined, but in other passages may fade almost imperceptibly into the more roughly worked surround, suggesting that the geometrical form is as much a mental construct as a visible one. The colors of the works range from pure white to earthy browns; as Chung himself put it, these tones “are subtly faded and blurred into yellowish tint or bluish gray in the sediment of time.”

The dense matter of the paper forms a kind of wall—most prominently in a 1994 Meditation consisting of a vertical grid of 12 square panels without the impressed central zone found in the 1996 works—but it’s a wall that breathes. “Through the screen of tak paper,” Chung explained, recalling the walls of the house in which he’d grown up, “one can distinctively sense the wind, light and the flow of time outside his or her room, which allowed us to experience both feelings of being inside and outside.” It was clearly his intention to evoke such experiences in his art. The nostalgia they hold for Chung may be imperceptible to a Western viewer—or, for that matter, to a new generation of Koreans who did not grow up with traditional architecture—but the warmth and, to a certain extent, the idealization with which Chung conveys those experiences remains accessible.

* * *

Because of a certain harsh edge, a freedom from idealization, the work of Yun Hyong-keun has to my eye a greater force than Chung’s. Unlike Chung, Yun used materials exclusively from the Western tradition—oil on canvas—though in tension with the Korean history of ink painting. In his mature paintings, he worked with just two colors, ultramarine and burnt umber, though he applied them in so many overlapping washes that in most cases no particular color is discernible. Yun himself spoke of “a concentration of navy and the color of dirt…. I do not tire of this color, and although it looks black, it is a mixture of the colors of dirt and water; it is a bitter color, like that of rancid ink.”

All but two of the 12 paintings on view at Blum & Poe feature a linen ground whose beige or buff tonality gives a distinctive atmosphere. In a 2007 painting that has a whiter and finer cotton, on which the painted form shows up with a sharper edge, the black has a more graphic impact. But on the linen, Yun’s infinitely variable “rancid ink” color seems blacker than black—­deeper, more beguiling, like that immensity in which Giacomo Leopardi once imagined his thought voluptuously drowning.

Blocks of this inky darkness loom up—often just two, sometimes three or four—with unpainted intervals between them, sometimes in the larger portion of the canvas but more often in slivers, as well as above them. The effect is dramatic, at times almost minatory, and the blurring at the fringes of the dark zones makes the force behind this striking effect somehow hard to locate. Likewise, the intersection of the columns of murky paint with the lateral edges of the canvas—and always its bottom one—often has the paradoxical effect of dissolving the edge, of blurring the boundary between painting and wall. Yun once said, “I want to hang my paintings on dirt walls”—that is, walls that might be similar in color to the paintings themselves. His work feeds off a tension between marking and not-marking, between making distinctions and effacing them; but it thrives on the discomfort in this ambiguity—or, rather, this ambivalence.

The two most recent paintings by Ha Chong-hyun in the exhibition at Tina Kim—a kind of mini-retrospective that follows his work from 1972 through this year—might look, at first, to be cousins with Yun’s glowering columns of stygian blue and umber. Ha’s Conjunction 15-214 and Conjunction 15-215, both from 2015, are composed of columns of thick oil paint (white and black, respectively) on brownish hemp, like burlap. But the thickness of the paint, a stark contrast to Yun’s dense layering of evanescent veils, makes all the difference. With Yun’s paintings, it’s hard to tell whether the paint has been applied from the top and brushed down to the bottom edge or vice versa. I’d bet on the former, which would mean that the viewer’s sense of forms rising up was in contradiction to their true genesis, a sort of illusionism. In Ha’s case, no doubt is possible: We can see that the paint has been pushed upward from the bottom. What the painter has actually done and what the paint appears to do are in unison. And in place of Yun’s blurred distinctions, Ha’s paint is clearly set off from the surface (and never intersects the lateral edges, only the bottom).

However, there’s a hidden dimension to these paintings, which might be more evident in some of the others on view. Ha uses coarsely woven hemp not as a support in the traditional sense, but as a sort of membrane: He pushes the paint through it from behind, then manipulates it on the recto. The “conjunction” indicated by the title he’s given to all of his works since the mid-’70s is this meeting of paint and fabric as two separate entities. He’s written of his fascination with how these “two unique substances…came into conflict with each other.” In other paintings, Ha has left intact the evidence of the paint’s having been squeezed through the surface, even as he further worked it in a remarkable variety of ways—although usually in ways that produce, as Kee puts it, “a viewing experience made unstable by competing allegiances to pictorial composition and materiality.”

Unlike Chung’s or Yun’s work, Ha’s maintains no overt allusion to the Korean ink-painting tradition. He uses, sometimes against themselves, materials associated with the West; yet in their parsimony, their atmosphere, their material force, his paintings aren’t so distant from Chung’s or Yun’s. Still, on the evidence of this show, Ha is an artist of greater range than Yun or Chung. Like them, he has chosen for himself a strictly circumscribed paradigm—­emphasized by the fact that all three artists give the same or similar titles to their works once they’ve arrived at their fixed position: Chung’s are Meditation, Yun’s are Umber-Blue or Burnt Umber & Ultramarine or similar, and Ha’s are always Conjunction. But Ha’s paradigm seems more capacious: He allows himself more ways of working his paint and a broader range of tones, though always earthy or somewhere on the gray scale. What might be most surprising to viewers coming to these works with Western monochrome painting in mind is the artists’ determined avoidance of pure or primary colors. To Barnett Newman’s rhetorical question “Who’s afraid of red, yellow, and blue?”, the tansaekhwa painters might well have replied, “We’re not afraid; we just couldn’t care less.” In a fascinating 1977 roundtable discussion between Korean and Japanese artists, “On Color in Contemporary Painting,” the sculptor Shim Moon-seup speaks with disdain for the work he’s encountered by the French Supports/Surfaces group, whose experimental approach to painting one might have thought would be sympathetic to their tansaekhwa contemporaries. Shim understands that “their motive is to treat color like a material object” but finds that despite themselves, they are “immobilized by it,” finally dismissing them as mere “drapers.” By contrast, Lee has praised Yun for evoking “a scene that does not lead one to perceive either color or form in particular.” Park Seobo agrees that “it is not suitable for a color to bring out its distinctiveness in an imageless structural expression,” while Ha seems to choose his paint colors above all to set off that of his burlap, which he happily describes as of “a color that is extremely limited, even monotonous to the point of squelching the imagination.”

Instead of asking why tansaekhwa is suddenly “hot,” it might be better to ask why it took so long for the Western art world to notice it. The answer to that question probably lies in this quest for an area of indiscernibility: The force of this art lies in understatement. In any case, as Ha reflected in 1977, “Being unable to sell or being ignored by collectors is different from being unappreciated. There is an audience as long as someone comes to see the work.” Tansaekhwa painters have had plenty of time to cultivate the strength to persist while being ignored. I hope they’ve also developed the very different strength it takes to persist in the spotlight, because the time when they’ll need it seems to have arrived.

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