HONG KONG - For many non-Westerners, “modernity” is often inextricably associated with Westernization and its attending cultural hegemony. The selling exhibition Avant Garde Asia: Lines of Korean Masters, currently on view at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in Hong Kong, traces the footprints of the Korean artists active in the 1960s and 1970s and indicates their awareness of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Color Field Painting. But these Korean artists responded to the question of Modernism in their own way.

The minimal and abstract approaches espoused through the Korean masters’ largely monochromatic works, commonly referred to as Dansaekhwa (literally, “monochrome painting”), nod to traditional ink paintings and also suggest the spare decoration and monochrome glazes of the Joseon period (1392–1910). The neutral tones and understated brushwork of the Dansaekhwa masters are in striking contrast to the vibrant colours and flamboyant compositions that of some of their Japanese counterparts, as seen the other half of the S|2 show that focuses on the Gutai group and its legacy. Shown together, the Japanese and Korean works create a fascinating dialogue but I was particularly fascinated by the Dansaekhwa artists, which were new to me.


PARK SEOBO, ECRITURE NO. 51-79.

Historically, the discussions of the Dansaekhwa aesthetics have often been embroiled in a debate about “Koreanness” and national identity: whether it being a reactionary aesthetic against the figurative propaganda instituted during the totalitarian rule of Park Chung-hee during the 1960s and 1970s or a response to the Western modernist movements.

Lee Ufan, an artist and philosopher who had emigrated to Japan early in his career and whose seminal works such as From Line (1979) and several versions of From Point (1974) are represented in the S|2 show, famously critiqued any attempt to equate a cultural production with a search for a national identity. His paintings, deriving from the abstract potentials of the calligraphic brushworks, emphasize the singular repetitions of lines and points as embodying the aesthetic encounters between the viewers and the artworks.


Park Seo-Bo’s Ecriture No. 51-79 (1979), with repetitive pencil lines over layers of white pigments on canvas, naturally lends itself to a comparison with Cy Twombly’s scribbled markings in his large-scale “grey paintings” (1967–71). But the quiet energy of Park’s paintings drew from the kinesthetic movements of the traditional calligraphy whereby the artist became one with his medium.

All of those artists have been shown at the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, one of the most important spaces in the capital and known for showing both Korean and Western modern and contemporary masters. At the reception for Avant-Garde Asia in Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of meeting Madame Hyun-Sook Lee, the well-known collector-turned-gallerist who founded Kukje in 1982. A regular on Art + Auction’s Power 100, Madame Lee is in town because Kukje is a participating gallery of the Art Basel Hong Kong (15–17 March).


MADAME LEE, HER DAUGHTER SUZIE KIM AND CHIU-TI JANSEN, PICTURED WITH LEE UFAN’S WITH WINDS (1987), AT THE S/2 SHOW OPENING.

Perhaps Madame Lee’s own approach is not unlike the aesthetic underpinning of the Korean modern masters: she transcends the binary opposition between the Western modernity and the Korean tradition. Through her daughter Suzie Kim, director of Kukje, I asked Madame Lee what the gallery would be showing at the Art Basel Hong Kong this time. “Dansaekhwa!” was the resounding answer.

 

AVANT GARDE ASIA: LINES OF KOREAN MASTERS and GUTAI & ITS LEGACY
Selling Exhibitions, Sotheby’s Hong Kong
March 13-27, 2015

LEAD IMAGE:  Lee Ufan, From Point, 1978 (detail).