Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 2017
Joan Kee Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 384 pp.; 135 color ills. Paper $39.95 (9780816679881)

Dansaekhwa is a style of abstract painting in which Korean artists explore monotones using various materials. There has been little agreement among Korean theorists on the term, which demonstrates the difficulties of defining it. Although Joan Kee transliterates it as Tansaekhwa in her book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, ever since the 2012 exhibition Dansaekhwa at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, Dansaekhwa has been widely used. Dansaekhwa emerged in the mid-1970s, continues to influence contemporary Korean artists, and recently has been recognized abroad. Though scholarship and criticism about Dansaekhwa is plentiful in Korean, the lack of materials in English has been a great hindrance in its wider reception and understanding. Kee’s book therefore provides a much-needed foundation for the study of contemporary Korean art in English. Her fluent writing style, knowledge of current art theories, expertise on Asian and Korean art, and passionate research suggests a thoroughgoing and panoramic perspective on the first years of Dansaekhwa.

Dansaekhwa had its roots in the Korean Art Informal of the 1960s, emerged in the 1970s, and became institutionalized by Korean art museums and galleries in the 1970s to the mid-1980s. While the style matured artistically in the 1980s, its influence in Korea was limited by the inflow of postmodern theories. Dansaekhwa revived in the 2000s, riding the wave of pluralism and globalism in the Korean art world.

Kee begins her book with a rough definition of Dansaekhwa as “a loose constellation of mostly large abstract paintings done in white, black, brown, and other neutral colors made by Korean artists from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s” (1). After the first chapter, which claims that Kwon Young-woo’s use of hanji and Yun Hyong-keun’s use of oil challenged the division between Korean and Western mediums, chapter 2 discusses Ha Chong-hyun’s Conjunction (1974–present) in its cultural context. Kee argues that Ha’s Conjunction series arose from his understanding of the Japanese Mono-ha movement in the context of warming Korean-Japanese relations. Chapter 3 extends the discussion of Mono-ha and introduces the central Mono-ha artist Lee Ufan as the seminal Dansaekhwa artist. Chapter 4 focuses extensively on Park Seo-bo’s early pencil drawings Écriture (1967–present) and compares them to the work of Lee, Agnes Martin, and Cy Twombly. Chapter 5 discusses how Dansaekhwa’s identity has been described by some Korean, Japanese, and Western critics. In this chapter and throughout the book, the 1975 exhibition Five Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White at the Tokyo Gallery in Japan is implied to be the beginning of Dansaekhwa. Yet an earlier 1972 group exhibition, titled Five Kinds of White, at Seoul’s Myungdong gallery demonstrates that the Dansaekhwa style had already developed within Korea before Japanese critics recognized it. The book’s epilogue introduces various challenges to Dansaekhwa within Korea.

Kee’s book is substantial in its thorough research, insight into cultural and political context, formal analysis, sophisticated arguments, and detailed descriptions of various historical and sociopolitical events surrounding Dansaekhwa. (One small but important correction: figure 1.5 is an image of the anti-Kukchôn exhibition held by the 1960 Artists’ Association, although Kee describes the image as the Wall Exhibition, a different event [11–12].) But readers who wish to delve more deeply into the artistic qualities and chronological development of Dansaekhwa will only get a limited perspective.

A large portion of the book describes the social and political climate of the 1960s. The volume as a whole gives the impression that Dansaekhwa was short-lived, with its pinnacle in the mid-1970s. This chronological emphasis is problematic, for Dansaekhwa is an ongoing movement whose first-generation practitioners are still actively creating works and whose second-and third-generation artists are notable in the Korean art world. Many Dansaekhwa artists have intensively investigated the same monotone style for decades. While Kee provides a good introduction to the first years of Dansaekhwa, this style’s continuous thriving in the midst of many short-lived experimental artistic movements deserves further scholarly study.

In Kee’s analysis, Dansaekhwa began with the task of establishing Korea’s cultural and national identity amid the turmoils of colonialism, Westernization, industrialization, internationalism, and globalism. However, many scholars, critics, and artists themselves believe that there must also be other, uniquely Korean, qualities to Dansaekhwa: connections to Korean aesthetic tradition, sensations, material cultures, perspectives on nature, or the long-lasting Confucianist legacy. The early Korean abstract artists Kim Whanki and Yu Youngkuk offer a parallel. Though they explored modern abstract trends while studying in Japan, after their return to Korea they began to develop abstract painting styles that reflected Korean climate and topography. Similarly, the Dansaekhwa artists were influenced by both international abstraction and longstanding Korean artistic traditions. Contemporary Korean Art lacks a deeper discussion of this relation between Korean aesthetic modernity and the country’s long-lasting philosophical and material culture.

Kee selected five artists: Kwon Young-woo, Yoon Hyung-keun, Lee Ufan, Park Seo-bo, and Ha Chong-huyn. To this list, many scholars might add Chung Sang-hwa, whose influential work is squarely within Dansaekhwa. In particular, Lee is the book’s foundation. Active as a leader of Mono-ha and as an art critic in Japan, he was the central figure in the promotion of Dansaekhwa in Japan in the 1970s. During this time, Park and Lee were close and mutually influenced each other. Despite such connections, however, Lee did not create works along the lines of the Dansaekhwa artists. In fact by the late 1970s, as Dansaekhwa became more prominent, Lee distanced himself from it and promoted himself as an individual Mono-ha artist.

Lee called for “antiart” or “nonart” that rejected craftsmanship and privileged “the installation” of unmodified objects to suggest the meeting of the “thingness” and the viewer in a phenomenological setting. In contrast, a Dansekhwa artist like Ha simultaneously embraces painting and explores the materiality of his mediums. His long-running Conjunction series has tried to unite the artist’s body, madae (burlap), and oil within the physical frame of painting in order to “neutralize” materiality (Ha Chong-hyun, “The Neutralized Materiality,” Space (July 1980): 60–61). At the same time, Ha’s “non-painterly painting,” in which he squeezes and scratches oil laid on madae, works only within the modernist logic of painting in a white-cube setting. Ha’s work needs the wall. However much Dansaekhwa artists explore their materials and methods, they produce paintings that are conventionally installed.

Placing Lee as a major Dansaekhwa artist whose works are as representative of Dansaekhwa as those of Park and Ha obscures the deep differences between Dansaekhwa and Mono-ha. Lee himself states that the context of his From Point and From Line (both ca. 1970–80) series is different from that of Dansaekhwa. While Lee’s line aims to use restrained simple movement of the artist with basic use of material, most Dansaekhwa artists efface materiality. In a 2012 interview, Lee said that, “the Dansaekhwa artists in the 1970s did not seem to be greatly influenced by Mono-ha” and “it’s out of place to relate me or Quac In-Sik to Dansaekhwa simply because we made monochromic work in our early days. If our monochromic works and Dansaekhwa were compatible, what would you say about other contemporaneous monochrome art in the world?” (Yoon Jin Sup, interview with Lee Ufan, Dansaekhwa, exh. cat., Seoul: National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, 2012, 35, 36. The catalogue features an English translation, but I am supplying my own.) Lee said that Mono-ha was “a resistance to productionism [of physical art objects] and, with minimal action, an attempt to look again at the relation between the object and its surrounding space” (ibid., 35; emphasis added). In contrast, as Lee puts it, Dansaekhwa “is a lyrical painting that has very strong physicality and self-control. The drawback is that such deep illusion doesn’t show the questioning of the painting itself” (ibid., 37). Indeed, Dansaekhwa artists are fascinated by the two-dimensionality, physicality, and handiwork.

One of the most common and important characteristics of Dansaekhwa is that each artist developed a unique method and has continued developing it for decades. Kee sees “method” as the artists’ urgent response to both Korea’s sociopolitical situation and the rise of abstract painting in the international art world. Alternatively, “method” needs to be explored in the individual artistic practice. For instance, Park’s myobŏp (method) has transformed into three stages over many decades: early (late 1960–mid-1980s), middle (mid-1980s–2000), and late (2001–present). Park started exclusively using hanji in the 1980s, and became obsessed with the meticulous planning of his paintings beforehand. He systematized his method in a way that evokes design drawings used to achieve unfailing accuracy. The quintessence of Park’s approach and the direction of “method” of his early works can illuminate fundamental characteristics of Dansaekhwa—Park’s thorough obsession with method might explain how when he said, “I don’t draw,” he meant the painting process itself was self-discipline. Yet this “method,” which stems from “the urgency of method,” can only be fully discussed through an examination of over four decades of Dansaekhwa’s development.

Kee explores early literature of Dansaekhwa as well as more recent interviews with surviving artists. Nevertheless, there are at least forty years of Dansaekhwa’s history to mine. A deeper engagement with the Korean artists, scholars, critics, and audiences who have lived with Dansaekhwa since its beginning would be welcome. Such further research can now build on the foundation of this carefully researched, important, first English-language study of Dansaekhwa.

Phil Lee
Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Fine Arts, Hong-Ik University, Seoul