Korean Abstract Art—Western Interest in an Eastern Art Form?

For years, much of the art world focus has been on globalization. This imprecise term focuses on a larger market for, and production of, artistic expression. While there has been an uptick in art offerings from India, Mexico, and South America, Korean art has largely been overlooked until recently. In fact, until 2009 there had not been a major exhibition of South Korean contemporary art. Then, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, together with the Museum of Arts in Houston, offered an exhibition of South Korean contemporary art. The Korean Dansaekhwa art style has gained renewed interest by both domestic and foreign art collectors.

Dansaekhwa Korean Movement

The separation of North and South Korea after the Korean War could have resulted in stifled artists in this ravaged landscape. However, young artists began testing new styles in expression of the disturbing social situation in post-war South Korea. Influenced by abstract expressionism in the western world during the 1940’s, these young artists presented their own unique interpretation with the influx of their traditional Confucian approach to their world after the war.


Style of Korean Abstract Art

Dansaekhwa, meaning “monochrome painting” in the Korean language, grew into a recognized genre in the 1970’s. As a departure from traditional Korean art, this style was often accused of being Western-centric and modeled after Western modernism. However, as a reflection of the angst felt by South Korean artists for their need of United States protection, it is more likely that this represented the drive from tradition and not simply toward Western assimilation.

Korean abstract art pays attention to the properties of objects, and particularly soft objects, such as colors and muted shapes. The paintings are often made on hanji, traditional Korean paper made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, native to Korea. In stark contrast to Japanese art (growing in popularity during this time), dansaekhwa focuses on muted tones, sometimes using a single color, and using nature as inspiration. However, instead of minimalism, there is more of a layering and stratum to the works. The distinction from Western abstract expressionism is further intensified by the lack of a subject, avoidance of using hard surfaces, and a lack of modern images such as buildings and machines.

Well-known Korean Abstract Artists

Lee U-fan. Born in 1936, Lee could be considered one of the grandfathers of Dansaekhwa. Living in Japan, he has been afforded the opportunity to flourish in Japan’s contemporary art movement, while still differentiating himself from modern Japanese artists. The difference is obvious  with his notion of encountering the immediate reaction of the world as it is. He has been awarded a UNESCO prize in 2000, and the Lee Ufan museum was opened in Naoshima, Japan in 2010.

Park Seo-bo. Born in 1931, he has been likened to Andy Warhol for his outspoken confidence in his work and avant-garde presence. Like other Dansaekhwa artists of the time, he was influenced by Western expressionism, combined with Buddhist and Confucian philosophy. His use of repetitive lines on soft surfaces like cloth or canvas express the Dansaekhwa unity with “nothingness.” He founded in 1994 and remains president of the Seo-bo Art and Cultural Foundation in Seoul, Korea.

Future of Korean Abstract Art

Many modern Asian art experts feel that Dansaekhwa truly shaped the establishment of contemporary Asian art. With Buddhist and Confucian influences, artists in this genre focus on the meditation involved in art production. Traditional Korean principle of “going with the flow of nature” is expressed in this art and appreciated by art collectors worldwide.

There has been a shift away from traditional art materials and supplies, and a growth of other substances, such as tak (pulp made from the bark of a mulberry tree), and nontraditional canvas, such as recycled materials and hemp. However, the avoidance of primary colors still exists.  One may wonder why Dansaekhwa art and artists for so many years went “undiscovered,” but the advantage is that the works were more affordable and in short quantity. And perhaps, the eye was simply untrained to appreciate the simple abstract expressionism found in Korean abstract art. To quote Park Seo-Bo, who considers himself the best artist in Asia, in regard to the rising prices of Dansaekhwa art, “It will happen. You’ll see.” So far, he has been right; prices for Park and similar artists’ work rose 200% between 2014 and 2016.

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