SEOUL — Coming on the heels of the recent surge of interest in South Korea’s Dansaekhwa art movement of the 1970s, there is a new urgency to frame the trajectory of modern art history in the country. According to Hyun-Sook Lee, the founder of Kukje Gallery and one of the people responsible for bringing Dansaekhwa art to worldwide attention, establishing the trajectory of Korean art since the ‘70s is crucial. Two current exhibitions at Kukje Gallery and the Ilmin Museum of Art contextualize the development of modern art in the country by two important South Korean artists: Wook-kyung Choi, the first female Korean artist to make work inspired by Abstract Expressionism in the late ‘60s; and Yong-Ik Kim, the conceptual artist whose early work coincided with the struggle for Korean democracy in the ‘80s.
In 1963, during an era defined by censorship, military rule, and a ban on foreign travel, Wook-kyung left South Korea. At just 23, she moved to the United States. The works in Wook-kyung Choi: American Years 1960s–1970s at the Kukje Gallery show the influence of techniques from European abstraction and Abstract Expressionism, which she learned at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit. In “La Femme fâché” (1966), Hans Hoffman-like rectangles and intertwined planes make strident formations on her canvas. Painted in bright hues of yellow ochre, orange, blue, and red, Choi’s composition creates tension and movement from the mash-up of different forms and colors. These bold, obtrusive structures also suggest a sense of defiance that is conveyed through her title — French for “the angry woman.” In “Untitled” (1965), a curved form in the foreground with dark vertical lines below resembles an odd creature on the move. Its shape is emphasized by Choi’s choice of contrasting colors, a vital element of her art. The bright green background highlights the beetle-shaped form’s yellow ochre body and blue stripes, making it the center of attention.
Marking a huge departure from her male compatriots in Korea — whose meditative Dansaekhwa practices, characterized by subdued colors and repetitive geometric lines, have been described by the pioneer of the movement, Park Seo-bo, as having “no purpose” at all — Choi paved the way for bold new experimentation. In a series of black-and-white paintings made in the mid ‘70s and showing the influences of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, Choi created her own unique, rounded vocabulary that was softer and more fluid than the angularity of her earlier, more colorful works. In “This is what you see” (1975), a series of painted shapes that recall human heads appears to be suspended. More feminine and distinctive than the broad, stereotypically masculine brushstrokes of much Abstract Expressionism, these forms morph into figures reminiscent of traditional Korean woodcuts in her later collage work. Although Choi’s career was cut short in 1985 by her untimely death at the age of 45, her fearless undertaking of a completely new method of expression would set the stage for younger Korean artists like Lee Bul and Kyungah Ham, who work with many different media and techniques.
Similarly, Yong-Ik Kim’s art developed as a strong response to the strictures, discipline, and unobtrusiveness of the Dansaekhwa movement. More in keeping with the ideology of the leftist Minjung art (or “people’s art”) movement of the ‘80s that sprang up as a result of the Gwangju uprising, Kim’s defiance of the status quo placed him at the forefront of a new line of conceptual artists who had a strong influence on art practices in South Korea beyond the ’70s.
Kim’s survey at the Ilmin Museum, Closer … Come Closer …, is spread over three floors. In his iconic dot series — begun in the ‘90s as non-painterly rubber circles fixed to the canvas and later progressing into what he described as “meaningless” painted grids of dots and rectangular forms — one can see, on closer inspection, traces of dust, mold, and scribbled text. During a guided tour of the exhibition, the somewhat self-deprecating artist pointed to these deliberate aberrations and humorously referred to his irreverent and mocking attitude to making art. He explained his intention to upend the hallowed institutions of the art world by suggesting that anyone can make art. His belief in democratizing art-making is in keeping with the perspective of Minjung art, which was partly a reaction against Park Chung-hee’s autocratic rule. Handwritten notes on the backs of his works, and Kim’s practice of continually adding layers to his paintings, contradict and undermine how a work of art is traditionally viewed and question whether a work of art is ever completed. In an ultimate gesture of irreverence, Kim has staged his own funeral on the top floor of the museum. Figurative paintings depicting Buddhist funerary rites are showcased in crates as if to suggest the end of the artist’s oeuvre and, with it, perhaps, the conservation of his art for posterity.
For Kim, as it was for Choi, a fulfilling practice and identity came from questioning the norm. Although the two artists worked at different times, their use of abstraction connected them and allowed each to steer away from the dominant Dansaekhwa movement. But like the Dansaekhwa pioneers Park Seo-bo and Ha Chong-hyun, whose avant-garde art stemmed from their search for a new Korean identity, Choi and later Kim — along with fellow conceptual artists like Yiso Bahc, Seoyoung Chung, and Beom Kim — spurred fresh methods of experimentation in contemporary South Korean art.
Wook-kyung Choi: American Years 1960s–1970s continues at Kukje Gallery (54 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea) through October 30. Yong-Ik Kim: Closer Come Closer continues at the Ilmin Museum of Art (139 Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea) through November 6.
Editor’s note: the author’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by the Ilmin Museum of Art and Kukje Gallery.