It was late 2014 when the art world began to acquaint with a movement that emerged as far as the mid-1970s. Exhibitions began lining up: local Kukje Gallery in Seoul, New York’s Alexander Gray Associates, Blum & Poe Los Angeles. The unjustly neglected Dansaekhwa, a contemporary Korean art movement, was finally getting the attention it deserved; and what’s more, it didn’t stop there for the remarkable Korean artists involved. The great effort made by Korean galleries and a hugely successful book on art in the country, first such publication in English gave an astounding result: Dansaekhwa was the official Collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale in Italy in 2015, it was featured at Art Basel in Miami Beach and at London’s Frieze Masters, to name only a few events. Today, we can talk about the many solo shows of Korean artists coming our way, as well as an ever-increasing interest in this form of Minimalist art from Korea, mostly notably on the art market. What is it that makes Dansaekhwa so appealing to collectors?
Translating to ”monochrome painting”, Dansaekhwa came to life during the country's post-war period, when its artists wanted to break away from the legacy of the Japanese colonist rule. It sought a sense of tradition and a connection with the country’s roots, at the same time going against the dominating Western forms of abstraction. Korean artists of Tansaekhwa, as it is also called, based their work on a simple style, inspired by traditional Asian ink painting. They explored soft objects, in form of Korean paper (hanji), mulberry paper (tak), oil, acrylic, pencil, black coal, powder color and iron, applying them to various supports such as canvas, board and woodblock. Their art was inspired by the beauty of nature, depicted through intricate and seemingly random patterns, textures and reliefs. As outstanding as they are, these artworks are conceptually unique and aesthetically breathtaking, and although they appear similar to Western monochrome paintings, they hold a much greater political, social and cultural values.
The rising popularity of Korean artists on the market has been officially confirmed by their success at major auctions. Sales records of many key Tansaekhwa creators have all been broken in the last few months alone; in May 2015, Kim Whan-ki's Montagne Bleue sold for $1.8 million at Christie's sale of Asian works, becoming the most expensive piece of the minimalist movement, closely followed by Chung Sang-Hwa, Park Seo-bo and of course, Lee Ufan.
If you’re a fan of Dasaekhwa, this book might just be for you. It follows the movement and it how it flourished within the then-contemporary art scene in Korea and beyond, telling the story of the development of contemporary art practice in the country through the work of Dansaekhwa artists Kim Guiline, Chung Sang-Hwa, Chung Chang-Sup, Ha Chong-Hyun, Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo and Yun Hyong-Keun. Characterized by its emphasis on the monochrome, its refined approach to materiality and its philosophical interest in the relationship between the artist's consciousness and the act of making, Dansaekwha borrowed materials, techniques and motifs from both Eastern and Western painting traditions.
Among the Korean artists who worked with the traditional Hanji paper, Chung Chang-Sup is probably the one who knows all its properties all too well. During the 1950s and 1960s, he also meticulously experimented with the possibilities of Western oil paint, by gradually thinning the oil in his work. But in the 1970s, Chung Chang-Sup came across Tak, a main component of Hanji paper. From then on, he leaned on this incredibly strong and widely used material to make art that explored meditation. The artist also used the “dakjongi” mulberry sheets, soaking them in water and molding shapes with them, emphasising the materiality of the paper. After his death in 2011, he’s had solo exhibitions at Galerie Perrotin in New York and Paris.
Featured image: Chung Chang-Sup - Meditation 91010, 1991. Tak fiber on canvas. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin
As one of the Koreans who lived and worked in Japan, Chung Sang-Hwa helped spread out the artistic practices of his country. His studies in Western painting only influenced him enough to create his trademark “rip” and “fill” paintings, featuring grids of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines on flat canvas. His working process is complex, as it involves a surface covered in kaolin clay, water and glue being drawn on the reverse and folded along the lines afterwards. While this is the “ripping” part, the “filling” consists of multiple layers of acrylic paint, until Chung Sang-Hwa finds a perfect harmony of reduction and addition. His art is about how it’s done, while the final result, to paraphrase the artist himself, is not the target of his work.
Featured image: Chung Sang-Hwa - Untitled 96-12-5, 1996. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Tina Kim Gallery
Ha Chong-Hyun, like many of his peers, associated himself with the early 1960s style of Art Informel. Some ten years later, he encountered a material that would become an inevitable part of his practice. Although his works from this period engage everyday substances such as wire and even flour, Ha Chong-Hyun was fascinated with plain-woven hemp, widely used at the time to make rice bags in Korea. Like Chung Chang-Sup related to hanji, Ha Chong-Hyun found magic in hemp, a kind of a bridge through which he could connect with the outside world. His Conjunction series, for instance, consists of a thick layer of paint being pressed onto the reverse of the canvas until it penetrates through to the other side.
Featured image: Ha Chong-Hyun - Conjunction 15-214, 2015. Oil on hemp cloth. Courtesy Tina Kim
Considered a pioneer of abstract art in Korea, Kim Whan-ki is also the most popular of all Dansaekhwa creatives. Before his death in 1971, the artist participated in the seventh Sao Paulo Biennale in 1963, and has also lived and worked in New York. The demand for his paintings of simple forms like dots and lines has gone up in all parts of the world in the last fifteen years. His record sale at Christie’s in 2015 was soon toppled by auctions in Seoul and Hong Kong, with one piece going to close to whopping $4 million! Back in Korea, his works are placed in the Whanki Museum, which opened in 1992 in his honour. Kim Whan-ki is also known for depicting the cosmos, the planets, sounds, music and echoes.
Featured image: Kim Whan-ki - 16-II-70 1970. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Tina Kim
Another admirer of the characteristics of Korean traditional paper, Kwon Young-woo took a unique approach towards the medium - he used his fingernails to scratch and tear thin sheets, and then he would stack the torn papers to create relief sculptures. He also experimented with ink by applying it to layered hanji paper, from which he made eggshell-like holes and rugged lines. His works are often put in the context of those by Lucio Fontana in the West. Kwon Young-woo was also the first to study Oriental Painting at the prestigious Seoul National University in 1946. This didn’t influence him to follow its principles in art, although he did create a few figurative artworks at the beginning of his career.
Featured image: Kwon Young-woo - Untitled, 1982. Gouache, Chinese ink on Korean paper. Courtesy Kukje Gallery
It is true that Lee Ufan is mostly known as the founder of Japanese art movement Mono-ha, but we mustn’t forget his crucial contribution to Dansaekhwa. One of the most important living Korean artists, he explored the themes of gesture, as well as what it means to leave a mark in terms of painting and how the medium relates to that act. This is particularly notable in his early From Line and From Point series, for which he combined ground mineral pigment with animal-skin glue, traditional to East Asian painting on silk. Lee Ufan’s color palette for these works was quite limited - cobalt blue of the sky or burnt orange of the earth on a white ground, while he loads his brush with powdery and crystalline emulsion, marking the canvas with regular dabs until the color runs out.
Featured image: Lee Ufan - From Line (No. 780103), 1978. Pigment suspended in glue on canvas. Courtesy Kukje Gallery
One of the founding members and widely considered the most important artist of the movement, Park Seo-Bo is the speaker of the rudimentary languages on traditional Korean paper. Still a very active promoter of the abstract minimalism from Korea, he has a keen eye for detail, as seen in the repetitive marks of his Ecriture series. His is a unique take on the elegance of the eastern tradition of calligraphy painting which aims to bring units between the creator of art and his true self through the revelation of universal life force of “qi”. Seo-Bo too worked with hanji, applying its multiple sheets on canvas soaked in acrylic paint and ink. For this artist, a piece of paper becomes an object, rather than a support.
Featured image: Park Seo-Bo - Ecriture No.010521, 2001. Black ink, white clam and oyster shell powder and glue with Korean hanji paper on canvas. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin
The meditative paintings of Yun Hyong-Keun might call to mind the works of Richard Serra, or even Mark Rothko, but the truth is that his art is inspired by an 18th century Korean painter and scholar, Kim Jeong-Hui. He is the artist of Burnt Umber and Light Ultramarine, representing earth and ocean in his pieces, as nature makes up the main point of his interest, in centuries-long tradition of Asian ink painting. Although there are only two pigments, they allow a great range of hues and provide the work with depth, which Yun Hyong-Keun preferred to call ”the color of rotted leaves”. The two aesthetic forces create an intense and sublime colors, which in a way could be considered the Korean answer to Color field painting.
Featured image: Yun Hyong-Keun - Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1998. Oil paint on linen. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt
Noh Sang-kyoon belongs to the generation of later Dansaekhwa artists who boldly use materials like natural resins, faux pearls, Plexiglas and stainless steel. This artist uses sequins, which he glues and threads together by hand into two-dimensional and three-dimensional structures such as canvas, mannequins and religious statues, drawing attention to the process of repetition and the value of the material. The high concentration and continuity of the circular movements create rhythmic visual illusions, attributing new aesthetic meaning to the object in question. This way, Noh Sang-kyoon deals with the notions of cognitive chaos that comes from fictitious fantasy, elevating everyday objects to the meditative realm.
Featured images: Noh Sang-kyoon - Installation view of Conjuring Constellations exhibition. Courtesy Bryce Wolkowitz; Installation View of Dansaekhwa, collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo by Fabrice Seixas via Kukje Gallery. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
Read Other Interesting Stories
Currently on display at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo is a fascinating exhibition centered on the practices of six renowned Japanese artists.
The State Hermitage Museum, Saatchi Gallery, and Parallel Contemporary Art jointly organized a magnificent survey of contemporary South Korean art.
Milan-based Dep Art Gallery is about to host an exciting exhibition featuring the works by five leading avant-garde artists who renovated Korean modern art.