contemporary art works

David A. Parker - copyright 2014

Published in Korean Quarterly, Winter 2014, p. 60-2.

Book review:  Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, by Joan Kee.  University of Minnesota Press (St. Paul: 2013), ISBN #978-0-8166-7988-1


Go to a contemporary art museum in most any major city and you will find work by Korean-born artists. But it was not always so.   Artists who today enjoy international fame stand on the shoulders of predecessors who struggled mightily so that Korean art might be taken seriously.   Starting in the 1960s, a group of painters set out to make pictures that could participate on the world stage.  Their artworks and writings came to define Korean art for decades.

Joan Kee, a professor of art history at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, has written the first book in English examining this most influential group of Korean artists and tansaekhwa, their painting movement. This word translates as “one-color painting,” and reflects the fact that in the main, these artists made paintings that were white, black, brown or otherwise monochromatic. 

Like so many Korean stories from last century, this is a complex narrative with roots in the Japanese occupation and Korean war.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, abstract oil painting dominated the art capitals of Paris and New York, and therefore set a global tone for art regarded as “significant.” Korean painters such as Park Seobo responded to this trend, and took the lead in making some of the first abstract paintings in Korea.  This, Kee takes pains to explain, is not simply Koreans blindly imitating a foreign style; rather, it was their effort to participate in international cultural dialogue during the postwar reconstruction years. 

One of the main themes of Kee’s account runs throughout the history of art: the shifting dynamic between the artwork, the artist’s intention behind the artwork, and the world outside the artwork.  Changes in this dynamic result in changes to the meaning of the artwork, and therefore can make the difference between an artist’s fame and obscurity.   All of the artists profiled deeply understood this, and knew that they found themselves in a small country, still recovering from the traumas of war and occupation, far away from the art power centers of the West.    Kwon Young-woo (b. 1926) was trained in Korean ink painting, and in the late 1950s consciously included elements of abstraction.  His efforts were welcomed by his peers, who saw his move as a means to leave behind the influence of Japanese ink painting styles –a bitter memory of the colonial experience.   His innovation in the 1960s was to create art using only paper and glue, tearing and manipulating it upon a flat surface into delicate patterns and arrangements. By entirely leaving out the black ink that would otherwise connect his art to East Asian ink painting, these new works were something startlingly fresh.  They would also be Kwon’s lifeboat off a sinking ship – ink painting would be all but disregarded by Korea’s art establishment as “irrelevant” by the 1970s.  Kwon and others challenged Korean viewers to examine their category-based viewpoints that separated works into “Western painting” and “ink painting.”

Then as now, Korean artists felt a tension with the West.  Some called for an art that could be considered specifically “Korean” – or, barring that, generally “Asian.”  One of the most exceptional artists of the time was Lee Ufan (b. 1936).  He gained attention as a young man for his controversial idea that only art grounded in rigorous theory has a hope of standing on the international stage.   A gifted theoretician, he was able to achieve renown even as a Korean residing in Japan, and today remains one of the most respected painters alive (his work is reproduced on the book cover as emblematic of Korean contemporary art).   He founded an art movement in Japan called “Mono-ha”, and at its heart was the aim of providing viewers with an experience based on what they might see and touch, rather than relying on their specific background or knowledge.  

Those familiar with the name of Lee Ufan but who, like me, were unclear as to the significance of his art will appreciate Kee’s substantive discussion of his life and work.  As she says, “Lee was interested in what might happen when certain materials not usually brought together were forced to interact.”  Like Kwon, he avoided the associations with traditional ink painting by eschewing the color black.  In fact, he was remarkable for keeping himself free of any group or recognizable style.  He was staunchly against illusionism in painting.  In his “Relatum” series of 3-dimensional works, he arranged ordinary objects like rocks and steel plates in an effort to transform an unspecified place into a specific place.   He undertook daring and radical gestures, such as laying objects on the ground and declaring that the work, in that it forced the viewer to stoop, was a way to get viewers to stop thinking about their own uprightness, and also to serve as a counter to the heroics of rapid skyscraper building going on in 1960s Japan.  Recognizing the deep tendencies of both Koreans and Japanese to make distinctions based on national, ethnic and racial origin, and that he himself was no exception, Lee felt that he had to transcend his Koreanness in order to successfully “engage in creation that possessed an individual character” and so be recognized as important art on the world stage.  Lee was truly unusual for his time in that he espoused the idea of a world without center versus one based on the existing power structures of nation, ethnic group, culture, etc.   He sought to combat centeredness in general, and did so through works that caused viewers to question their own assumptions.  For example, his rocks on a stretched canvas on the floor presented “painting” in an unconventional new light – as a load-bearing support, a horizontal plane, and something with real volume.    He felt a kinship with Jackson Pollock – “the many kinds of drippings are, perhaps, not indications of creating or making, but seem to indicate a destruction that thought creating or making to be all wrong.” Lee wanted an art that was truly “what you see is what you get,” free of ideas of representation or illusionistic depiction.  Kee makes a tidy connection to implications for the rigid society of the day: “To paint in ways that might upset the distinctions upon which these taxonomies were founded might be the most critical step in remaking a world that to viewers in 1970s Japan and Korea seemed all too premised on the circumscription of individuals by much larger forces, attitudes, and beliefs.”

Park Seobo (b. 1931), like Lee Ufan, wanted to push notions of what painting could be, and emerged as another giant in the field.  In the 1960s, conventions demanded that abstraction and figuration remain separate, and Park questioned this division by focusing on the use of line. He maintained that the line is what is shared by both types of painting, as well as writing – so why couldn’t painting be all of these, or none of these?  A key insight came through watching his young son practice penmanship on grid paper. The child lost his patience, and furiously drew all over the paper – a reaction against the confines of conformity.  Park would go on to become known for a kind of controlled scribbling pencil mark that resulted in works of uncertain status (painting? Drawing? Sculpture?) yet that somehow appeared to glow from within.  Thanks in part to this quality, and in no small part to his own ambition and formidable influence, Park’s works came to define Korean contemporary art through the early 1990s.

Kee ventures into several fascinating ancillary discussions.  For example, the authoritarian Korean government under Park Chung Hee commissioned large realist paintings for propaganda purposes.  These paintings, though many were made by leading figures in Korea’s art world, have been excluded from most art historical accounts.  Park Seobo produced one called “Export Frigate,” and Kee provides a close reading of the imagery to argue that Park’s painting, which appears to dutifully laud Korea’s industrial and economic progress, is in fact quietly critical of the repressive regime.

The book has a compelling discussion about the meaning of the color white in Korean art, and its role in a larger campaign to define a Korean aesthetic.  Beginning in the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), most Korean people customarily wore white clothes.   In 1922 (ie – during the Japanese colonial period), famous Japanese art connoisseur Yanagi Museyoshi declared that because white was the traditional color of mourning in East Asia, Koreans appeared to be perpetually in mourning and therefore embodied the “beauty of sorrow.”  This idea was linked to a romantic notion commonly held by Japanese collectors that the white Choson dynasty porcelain was of unparalleled quality, and therefore white was somehow an intrinsic part of Korean aesthetics.  Yanagi’s idea would come under attack by Koreans who saw it as limiting understanding of Korea, and marking an unwillingness to fully explore Korean identity – in a word, imperialist in attitude.  Yet Korean critics such as Lee Yil would later come to support this notion that Korea=white, especially in relation to monochromatic painting, as a means of distinguishing certain art as more “Korean” than other and thereby establishing a generalized “look” for Korean contemporary art.

In 1975, a show called “Five Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White” took place at a Tokyo gallery.  The Japanese organizers clearly intended this exhibition to be part of a larger strategy to define a Korean aesthetic that could serve as the foundation of a larger “Asian contemporary art,” in the interests of countering dominant art trends of the West.   One presumes that given Japan’s aggressive past, there would be strong resistance to Japanese art taking such a leadership role, so Korea would serve nicely.  Lee Yil was in agreement, and saw this as a way for Korea to have a place in the international art world.  His writing in the show catalogue explicitly linked white to Koreanness, via white Joseon ceramics, à la Yanagi.  Lee was aware that this was an ideological strategy with serious flaws – not least of which was that the tansaekhwa artists of whom he wrote, including Park, explicitly treated white color differently from Lee’s characterization.  Despite his misgivings, Lee felt that cultural difference was the only criterion through which the art establishment (be it Western or Japanese) would consider including Korean works, and so he felt that he had no choice.   In later writings, he would go further, saying that Korean art had a special connection to “nature itself” in a manner that was essentially different from the West.  These ideas took root both at home and abroad, with the result that tansaekhwa works were sent in 1978 to represent Korea at a major international exhibition in Paris.

Park Seobo decided to follow Lee’s lead, and established an “École de Seoul” as a way of, in Kee’s words, “chasing both acceptance from an international art world and defending ‘Korean’ values.”  It also had the side benefit of strengthening Park’s position of supremacy within the Korean art world, as he was able to wield strong influence over what art would be shown at home, and abroad.   Thanks in part to the efforts of Park, tansaekhwa became established as the dominant style of Korean art through the early 1990s.  Yet it must be remembered that this success was based on rhetoric insisting that the artworks were intrinsically “Korean” and “natural”- even when the works themselves clearly showed little such quality.   Criticism against tansaekhwa’s dominance in Korea was always present, on the grounds that it was accepted by the military government (Presidents Park and Chun), its de-facto exclusion of women, and its (ie –Park Seobo’s) self-proclaimed connection to elite practices of literati painting.  To many observers, tansaekhwa artists appeared solely focused on currying international favor, and so from the 1970s onward calls at home grew louder for an art more directly linked to Korean society.

Kee cites artist Nam Kwan (1911-1990) when he lived in Paris in the 1960s, and as an illustration of the task before Korean artists wanting to participate in artmaking at a global level, it is worth quoting at length:

My task was to make something singular that could not be seen in French society. It had to be rooted in the Asia I had lived in as an Asian. Rephrased, my work had to have Asian singularity. I had to forge a world of creation separate from that of Euro-Americans by whatever means possible.  Hence it had to address fundamental questions latent in Korean history and not sate foreign touristic tastes for the “exotic.” But [I found that] this is a very difficult thing to do.

Kee closes the book with examples of 2 Korean artists who have achieved global prominence, at least in the museum and gallery system. The first, Kimsooja (b. 1957), seems to have succeeded where Nam Kwan could not; her sculptures are instantly recognizable as Korean due to her use of traditional Korean printed fabrics.   Though she was exposed to tansaekhwa ideas as an art student, her work reflects changes in the Korean art establishment from the late 1980s, when opportunities widened for women artists, and discourse expanded beyond tansaekhwa’s limited purview.   

Haegue Yang (b. 1971) is extremely active internationally at present.  While she doubtless recognizes the pressure to produce work with “Asian singularity,” she deliberately eschews efforts to include something recognizable as “Korean” in her work.  So far, it seems to be working for her; she has been included in some of the most prestigious exhibitions in the world.  Kee closes her book with a trenchant thought:  despite Yang’s success, it still remains all but impossible for the work of non-Western artists to be examined separate from its social context, and so this is a challenge that extends beyond the artists profiled in her book to artists anywhere.

This book is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in Korean art of the 20th century.  Kee’s writing is refreshingly lucid and quite low on jargon; a background in art history will be helpful, but is not necessary to follow her discussion.