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.