The term “post-war” is the first crossroads at which one arrives when ruminating on Post-war Asian Avant Garde Art. To the West, “post-war” is a term of homogeneity, one that usually refers to the collective survival of the atrocities of the Second World War. In artistic discourse, “post-war” art of the West includes many differing movements, most notably many advances on abstraction, amongst which include Informel, Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field, Arte Povera, and Action Painting. Originating from Europe and North America—with Paris and New York the then epicentres of the art world—these movements were representative of the West’s attempts to free itself from the strife of war, and the artistic results were both innovative and revolutionary, causing endless ripples in contemporary dialogue. The evolution of post-war Western art was thus celebrated and disseminated, paving way either for various subsidiary groups or entirely new concepts.
Japan and Korea likewise underwent post-war periods in the mid-forties to late-fifties. While Japan survived the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its subsequent occupation by the Allied Forces, Korea emerged from being a Japanese colony, and endured a period of internal conflict with the Korean War. It is self-evident that the history of contemporary Japanese and Korean art history is thus much more than a Eurocentric vision allows, and though the artistic movements that transpired as a result of the Asian “post-war” phase did indeed espouse similar views to parallel movements of the West—which the artists from the two countries no less recognised and respected—to categorise the Asian Avant Garde as a simple derivative would be to negate its complex nature.
Unlike Western art post-1945, Japanese and Korean post-war art did not simply reflect on destruction; rather, the various artistic developments were founded upon regeneration, nation-rebuilding and cultural reaffirmation, and were multifarious in their pursuits. After various experimentations, performances, and exposure to the international art arena, the Avant Garde art from both countries in the seventies were pure renderings of their geneses from the forties onwards, and were refined examples of the revival that their creators sought to champion. While this climate delivered the Gutai movement in Japan, South Korea explored abstraction and minimalism. Scholars have since ascribed the term Dansaekhwa to denote the Korean monochrome paintings that many artists produced around this time, though it is of import to note that it was not a “movement” per se, but rather a term that was coined ex post facto.
Meaning “concreteness”, Gutai was led by Yoshihara Jiro, who above all, propagated a connection with this very “concreteness”, and co-founded the group in 1954. Seeking to modernise a hitherto traditional post-war Japan, Gutai members were propelled by their leader’s affirmation to “Do what no-one has done before!” and to dispel all “art of the past.” According to the methodology of the group, this “outmoded” art was that which was simply forged by various kinds of matter (such as paint, cloth, and metal) and wantonly attributed signification, rather than created through genuine feeling. “Gutai Art imparts life to matter. Gutai Art does not distort matter.” Such were the bold words that Yoshihara wrote in the art group’s manifesto. Only through genuine connection, where the human spirit and matter join to produce meaningful art, can it go “beyond abstraction”, and emit “pure creativity”. Although the Gutai group officially dissolved in 1972 when Yoshihara passed away, the original members continued to create visually stunning works writhing with energy and vigour.
Gutai’s affirmation of materiality and concreteness also stressed individualism and active engagement, as opposed to passive reception of art. The 1st Gutai Art Exhibition included works such as Shiraga Kazuo’s Please Come In, a circular assemblage of logs that invited the audience’s active participation and directed its gaze upward, to view a sky that was framed by the top of the cluster. In the same exhibition, Tanaka Atsuko’s installation Work (Bell) required its audience to activate a circuit of ringing bells. All such displays of involvement can be read as extensions of Gutai’s own philosophy, which demanded the artists’ own active engagement with media.
Until recently, very little attention has been paid to the Gutai group’s art, despite its prominence in the Asian region, as well as beyond, through various correspondences that began in the fifties. The group’s first exposure to the international world came indirectly through Yoshihara’s viewing of Jackson Pollock’s works at the 1951 3rd Yomiuri Independent Exhibition. Two years after the founding of Gutai, Yoshihara instructed Shimamoto Shozo to mail the group’s publications, Gutai 2 and 3 to Pollock, along with a letter that entreated the artist to provide suggestions as to how Gutai could further their improvement. In Paris, the Japanese Artist Domoto Hisao passed on Gutai to the French art critic Michel Tapié in 1957, who would end up playing a pivotal role in bringing Gutai to Europe and the West, as well as participate in many of the group’s activities in Japan. In part due to Tapié’s proliferation of Gutai, the West viewed their efforts as mere imitations, interpreting it in tandem with an existent Western art history. Gutai’s first exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958 in New York was thus ill-received for this very reason: “Gutai (Jackson [Gallery]) Group, a number of Japanese artists much influenced by New York Abstract-Expressionism, and much in awe of Europe, were introduced in a fancy exhibition that was generally disapproved of as derivative and trivial.”1 It can be argued that it was not until the performance artist Allan Kaprow, who in his book Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings (1966) gave credit and precedence to Gutai’s art forms, that the West formally acknowledged the group’s eminence.
In actual fact, Yoshihara always strove for interaction with, rather than mere emulation of, the international art world. In the same show held at Martha Jackson Gallery, Yoshihara announced in a statement, “We are following the path that will lead to an international common ground where the arts of the East and the West influence each other. And this is the natural course of the history of art.”2 That Gutai grew out of post-war Japan strengthens this wish to create a movement that was quintessentially “Japanese” rather than a mere proponent of Western ideals of art.
In the fifties and sixties, Korea too underwent rapid reconstruction of their country, having been crippled by hardships during the Korean War. One of the major areas of society which suffered was its universities, remaining shut even in the period following ceasefire. Kim Whanki was a figure who was instrumental in the rebuilding of such institutions, first teaching as a professor, then becoming Dean of Faculty at the College of Fine Arts at Hong-ik University. Under his tutelage and influence, many great artists such as Park Seobo would undergo great maturation in terms of stylistic direction, and, coupled with exposure to international art news, the Korean Avant Garde gradually took shape. Born out of this environment, Dansaekhwa, literally meaning “Monochrome Painting” grew as a response to reaffirming “Koreanness”, and fashioned for itself a unique artistic language analogous to Korea’s aspirations of country-rebuilding. Breaking down Asian aesthetics and breathing new life into them, the Korean post-war movement pursued abstraction with a twist.
Post-war Korean art was much less “international” than Gutai, and was more meditative and reserved in this respect. Its rise to international prominence was relatively slow, in part due to its later commencement, in part due to its Asian focus. Viewing Japan as a pathway to the international art field, many Korean artists turned to the country for this very purpose. One exhibition that was crucial to the growth of post-war Korean art was held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, entitled “Contemporary Korean Painting”, in 1968, where works such as the simplistic and minimal Landscape I, II, III by Lee Ufan was exhibited. Coincidentally, such artists were too accused of being mere copies of their European contemporaries, just as the Gutai group were charged with the same assault ten years prior in New York. The then widely circulated Asahi Journal, a leading and widely distributed paper, denigrated the works to mere reproductions of the latest artistic trends in New York and Paris.3 Perhaps such negative criticism simply highlighted the depth of Korea’s search for its own identity.
The first influential international exhibition of Korean art as showcased by Japan, however, is largely agreed to have been the 1975 show, Five Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White, held at Tokyo Gallery. Jointly curated by the Japanese critic Nakahara Yusuke and the Korean art critic Lee Yil, the show situated contemporary Korean art beyond merely a general synopsis as was the case in the 1968 show, rather, it was centred around the inherently Korean colour white and the minimalistic qualities of Dansaekhwa.
Lee Yil’s curatorial statement poses the question, “What does white mean?” and answers: “white has long been traditionally associated with the Korean people. It has been not only the representative colour of our traditional aesthetic sensibility, but also a symbol of our spiritual bearing…In short, white has been more than that [which] it manifests. In other words, it is something spiritual to us before it is a colour. White represents to us a small cosmos before it assumes a colour.”
Dansaekhwa has oftentimes been compared to other post-war monochromatic movements that arose from the West, most notably to works such as Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept series, or Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. While the colour white acts as a blank slate representing annihilation and the cathartic erasing of the traumas of post-war Europe and North America, the white that is prevalent in Dansaekhwa is a layered, multidimensional white, and is the result of repeated meditations on the establishment of “Koreaness” itself. Alternatively, where the blankness or “whiteness” of a canvas may represent positive space for artists such as Fontana, and the slashes as negative, it is the void in works of Dansaekhwa that are seen as negative space, a surface unto which one assigns meaning. For Lee, and many other Korean artists of his generation, it is the singular brushstroke that holds immense importance in painting, signalling the full life cycle of a single stroke, which also serves as a record of time itself.
The catalogue for the 3rd Paris Biennale included the following statement: “Informel painting happily admits its Far Eastern ancestry, what with its emphasis on Character, Gesture, Sign...[as] instrument[s] for painting with and, of course, more or less imperfectly understood Zen.” Although it does not specifically name Gutai, Korea, or indeed Dansaekhwa, nor even goes into any detail past the general attribution of “Zen”, it can be said that the growing influence of Asian aesthetics began to be recognised in the West by mid-century, and the tendency to merely equate Asian developments as outgrowths from European movements began to dissipate. The revaluations of the two countries’ artistic developments are a growing trend, and with the recent Guggenheim Museum’s seminal show Splendid Playground in 2013 as well as the inclusion of Dansaekhwa in the upcoming Venice Biennale, it goes without saying that their reputation will simply grow. This present sale includes phenomenal works from the Gutai movement and the developments of post-war Korea, each of which denote a unique insight into the psyches of their creators, and which can be taken as representative of the beginnings of Avant Garde Asia itself.
1 Thomas B. Hess, “Reviews and Previews: New Names This Month”, Art News 57, November 1958, p.17
2 “A Statement by Jiro Yoshihara: Leader of the Gutai,” Martha Jackson Gallery press release, 17 September 1958, Archives of the New Gallery, Bennington College, Bennington, VT.
3 “Ajiateki seikaku wa kireruka” (Can An Asian Sensibility Arise?), Asahi Journal, August 18, 1968, p.47
Spiralling Beyond Tradition
Park Seobo's name is one that is indisputably entwined with that of contemporary Korean abstract art. Considered by many to be at the forefront of the Dansaekhwa movement, Park is an artist who has dedicated more than fifty years to his art and the exploration of a mode that is in equal parts ground-breaking as it is quintessentially Korean. Park's works have been shown at the Musée d'Art Modern in France, at the Singapore Art Museum, as well as at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. These are but some indications of his far reaching renown and the depth of his influence in the world of contemporary Asian art. On offer in the present sale is an early work from Park Seobo's artistic career, Ecriture No. 9 – 75 (Lot 1051) from 1975, a piece that stems from a series of the same name, which was to last for over four decades. Such an early piece serves as an exemplary remnant of a pioneering series, and is a rarity not to be neglected.
Park's talent was recognised early on in his artistic career. In his mid-thirties, he was chosen to represent Korea at the Paris Biennial, as well as at the prestigious São Paulo Biennial. Later, in 1961, Park participated in the UNESCO International Young Painters exhibition held in Paris as a representative of his country, at a time when Korea sought to open its gates to the world. The most important international exposure that Park received, however, was in 1975, when he was amongst only five artists who would be invited to show their works at a pioneering show, "Five Korean Artists: Five Kinds of White" at the Tokyo Gallery, an institution that is now associated with the best of contemporary Asian art. The show is considered the first official international showing of Dansaekhwa artists, and is regarded as an official inauguration and recognition of their stylistic achievements—to have participated in this show undoubtedly underscores Park’s prominence. Created in the same year as this pioneering show, Ecriture No. 9 -75 is an art-historically important work, as well as an extremely early example of a style and technique that would remain integral to the artist’s oeuvre for decades to come.
The early sixties saw Park produce dark, brooding pieces of work called the Primordialis series, which were composed of dark oils and nebulous shapes. The artist would look back on this period as ruminations on the tragedies of the war and the wake it left behind, perhaps equally as a reminder of the difficult times of his past. Immediately following this, Park had begun creating the Ecriture series in the mid-sixties.
"Ecriture", which means "Writing" in French, is an apt name for a body of works that are posed between writing and painting. By naming the series as such, Park comes vis-a-vis his position as the modernised calligrapher-cum-abstract-artist. In this series, the artist uses pencil to repeatedly draw patterns onto the still-wet white surface of the canvas; patterns at times resembling spirals, or helixes. Positioned somewhere between art forms, the Ecriture series conflates various paradigms: of writing and drawing; of calligraphy and oil-painting; of the abstract and the figurative; of traditions from the East and West. According to the art critic Oh Kwang-Su, "Park took a pencil, repeatedly drawing lines of a particular length. The pencil drawing upon the still wet canvas creates a factor between the tracks where the lines are drawn and the paint that touches those lines creating an inner design echoed throughout the painting."1
Somehow, such opposing forms and lines are reined in to become one on Park's canvases, bound by the artist's identity as both calligrapher and painter. By creating these works, Park uncovers the founding pillars of his art. As writer Soon Chun Cho ascertains, “By moving beyond image and expression, and focusing on the gesture, he learned to control himself and his surroundings. More important, he learned how to extend himself onto his canvas and become one with his work."2
Park Seobo's highly calligraphic Ecriture series is one that finds the middle-ground between many different planes, a characteristic that is immediately perceivable in Ecriture No. 9 – 75. On the one hand, it negotiates between what is considered "Eastern" and "Western" media in Korean artistic discourse: whereas the former, ink, is considered traditional and aesthetically "Eastern", the latter, more "foreign" medium is oil. After all, oil painting is still described as soyanghwa (“Western painting”), whereas ink painting is tongyanghwa (“Eastern painting”). In this way, Ecriture No. 9 – 75 is a deep representation of the oft-used phrase "East-meets-West". Furthermore, the effect of the Ecriture works are reminiscent of both Hanji (traditional Korean paper), as well as canvas; further accentuating Park's ability to morph between styles. Its colour palette too is situated between tradition and modernity. Evoking porcelain from the Choson dynasty (1392 - 1910), which was an off-white colour (hi kumuri), Park's pieces mix together black and white in an attempt to modernise tradition.
The most important aspect of Ecriture No. 9 – 75 is of course its relation to Tansaekhwa. Literally meaning "monochrome art", Dansaekhwa was born out of a post-war, post-colonial Korea that was adamant to solidify its cultural identity. Dansaekhwa artists were sensitive to their international contemporaries, including the Informel movement in Europe, and Abstract Expressionism in the States, Arte Povera in Italy, or even yet, Colour Field Painting. Situated against this, it is unsurprising to learn that many scholars have tried to contextualise the Monochrome style, some going as far as dubbing it the “Korean Informel”. Others have even compared Park’s works to Cy Twombly’s works of romantic symbolism. Though all such similarities loom large, the Korean Dansaekhwa is a stylistic endeavour that stresses the physical nature of materials and artworks, and seeks to establish itself between tradition and modernity, while at the same time espousing an aesthetic that is in its essence Korean, and only Korean.
As the vanguard of Dansaekhwa, Park Seobo sought to marry conceptuality with physicality. Placing his canvases on the floor, the artist first coated the surfaces with white pigments, and then proceeded to repeat the same circular motions in pencil throughout the works. The strict lineal reproductions, erasing the distinctions between paint and pencil, mirror the amalgamation of artist and artwork, where Park and the materials fuse into one. Such a seamless union is at the heart of Dansaekhwa, where creativity and creator emerge as one, and which can be fully grasped in Ecriture No. 9 – 75. Considering its early date, the piece is an example of not only the early blueprints of an artist’s oeuvre, but of the entire development of Avant Garde Asian abstraction.
1 Oh Kwang-Su, “The Methods and Times of Park Seo-Bo,” in Park Seo-Bo, exhibition catalogue (Beijing: Arario Gallery, 2007), p.124
2 "L'art Informel and Park Seo-bo's Early Career", Soon Chun Cho, in Empty the Mind: The Art of Park Seo-Bo, Soon chun Cho and Barbara Bloemink (New York: Assouline Publishing, 2009), p.20
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