From Kim Whan-Ki to Dansaekhwa: Korean abstract artists to know
Ahead of our Hong Kong private selling exhibition A Narrative of Korean Art: From Celadon to Abstraction and Beyond, specialist Yunah Jung profiles Kim Whan-Ki, Park Se-Bo, Chung Sang-Hwa, Yun Hyong-Keun and Ha Chong-Hyun
Prefigured by Kim Whan-Ki’s pioneering abstract art of the 1950s and the Art Informel movement that preoccupied a number of Korean avant-garde artists in the 1960s, Dansaekhwa (‘monochrome painting’) began to take root in South Korea in the early 1970s. Making work that is inspired by traditional Korean art motifs — in particular celadon and white porcelains, Asian ink paintings and the beauty of nature itself — this group of experimental Korean artists began to explore new artistic identities.
Their work foregrounded self-discipline and self-expression, and their style was simple and austere. They embraced physical materiality and neutral hues in compositions created through meditative repetitions of natural forms and strokes.
By interpreting nature as a reflection of the mind, Korean abstract artists differentiated themselves from their Western peers. Despite, at times, visually resembling Western abstract painting, Korean abstract art was deeply rooted in Korean tradition, which held both reflection and meditation to its heart. This is in stark contrast to the Western tradition of dualism, which sees art as the opposite of nature.
‘The works are philosophically profound, visually beautiful, and conceptually unique’ — Yunah Jung
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. As Christie’s specialist Yunah Jung explains, the sustained interest in Korean abstract art comes from ‘the recognition that the works are philosophically profound, visually beautiful, and conceptually unique.’
One of the pioneers of modern Korean abstract art, painter Kim Whan-Ki (1913-74) is best known for his works that epitomise archetypal Korean aesthetics.
Following his return to Seoul in 1953 — having lived in a refugee camp in the port city of Busan during the Korean War — Kim began exploring classical Korean art practices and motifs, referencing, in particular, Joseon-dynasty (1392-1897) white porcelains, Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) celadon, and traditional literati paintings in his work. Kim was interested in capturing the poetic emotion and spirit imbued in the naturalism of Korean aesthetics.
During his New York period from 1963 to his death in 1974, Kim experimented with a variety of materials, techniques and styles, striving for harmony in colour and pattern, and evoking the flowing charm of Asian ink paintings.
In his mature years, Kim developed his own style of pure lyrical abstraction derived from nature, and eliminated conventional representation from his practice. A sustained interest in deconstructing and simplifying forms led to the birth of his own form of ‘pointillism’, which began to appear in his works in the early 1970s. As the artist wrote in his diary: ‘I paint dots while I think of Seoul, of a thousand things. My painting reflects my soul. My universe of dots.’
Park Seo-Bo (b. 1931) is one of the most important figures from the Dansaekhwa movement, having played a significant role in liberating artists from the institutional conservatism that prevailed in mid-century Korea.
Park’s intense attention to detail is particularly evident in the tightly repetitive markings of his ‘Écriture’ series from the late 1960s 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.
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.’
Chung Sang-Hwa (b. 1932) is one of the leading artists of the Dansaekhwa movement. After studying Western painting in Paris in the 1960s, the artist 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.
For Chung, the artistic process itself becomes the meaning for his contemplative work, which is imbued with a sense of spiritual cleansing and self-discipline that’s characteristic of the Asian literati tradition.
Yun Hyong-Keun (b. 1928) 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.
As early as 1973, Yun started experimenting with his signature colours: Burnt Umber represents earth, and Light Ultramarine the ocean. The mixture of two pigments allows a colour of great range and depth, which Yun preferred to call ‘the colour of rotted leaves’.
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 make comparisons with Mark Rothko. 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 celebrated for having developed a unique style of calligraphy.
Like his contemporaries, Ha Chong-Hyun (b. 1935) employs a meditative approach to his work, contemplating the relationship between the body and the mind through simplified colour.
Ha works predominantly with coarse, plain-woven hemp. In order to accentuate the materiality of his works, Ha applies a thick layer of paint to the reverse of the canvas and presses it until it penetrates through to the other side, repeating this process as necessary until complete. Ha calls his unique pressing technique the ‘back-pressure method’; his series produced by employing this pressing method is entitled Conjunction.
Sign up today
The Online Magazine delivers the best features, videos, and auction
news to your inbox every week
As he continued to experiment with materials and techniques, Ha began to mark the front side of the emergent paint with various tools, including his hands. The concept of eliminating the artist from the painting is key to understanding Ha’s works — they attempt to have a sincere conversation with nature, which is at odds with the ego of Western Abstract Expressionism.