E mphasising a cool and detached approach to art making and favouring pared down, purely self-referential geometric forms, American Minimalism emerged in the 1960s as a rejection of the heroic narratives of Abstract Expressionism so dominant in the previous decade. Inspired by Constructivism, De Stijl, and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, Minimalist artists in the West favoured materiality and precision over emotion and overt action. Often employing the forms of hard-edged squares and rectangles, Minimalist artists devised nonhierarchical, mathematically regular compositions, eschewing external references and instead focusing on the art object’s literal presence.
Concurrently in the East, artists in Japan and Korea began to embrace a Minimalist aesthetic, seeking new methods to reflect the desire for regeneration and nation-rebuilding after the Second World War and subsequently, the Korean War. Specifically, Dansaekhwa—which literally translates to “single colour painting”, i.e. monochrome painting—emerged in Korea in the 1970s, a movement that embraced minimalist aesthetics yet remained firmly rooted in tradition and the context of the aftermath of the Korean war. As in works by the American Minimalists, Dansaekhwa paintings invited and deflected the viewer’s gaze in ways that enabled audiences to affirm their own sense of presence, yet with significant political implications against the backdrop of authoritarian South Korea. Drawing upon Taoist and Buddhist ideologies, this unique brand of minimalist abstraction has established the significance of the Korean avant-garde within the narrative of Contemporary art.
This April, Sotheby’s Hong Kong offers an impressive selection of Minimalist artworks from the East and West, including outstanding works by Mary Corse, Mark Grotjahn, Ha Chonghyun, Jiro Takamatsu, Yun Hyongkeun, Lee Ufan, Chiyu Uemae and Natee Utarit.
One of the leading figures of the Korean Dansaekhwa movement, Yun Hyongkeun represents a calm yet resoundingly influential voice in the Korean post-war avant-garde. A first generation Dansaekhwa artist, Yun’s iconic oeuvre traces out a singular spirit of silence and purity entrenched in Eastern philosophies of nature and spiritual practices. His work powerfully reflects the Korean sentiments that emerged after the Korean War (1950-1953), and the renewed investigation of materiality, tactility and more meditative approach to art making that drew upon Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. Umber - Blue, executed in 1985 is a mature work by the artist, and represents his signature aesthetic that he had been developing for over forty years. To create his mesmerising works such as Umber - Blue, Yun Hyongkeun added layer upon layer of paint onto raw canvas and later hemp and linen, often applying new pigments before the last layer had dried. As such, his works embody time, and epitomise key aspects of Dansaekhwa including tactility, spirituality and performance.
Sharing Yun’s focus on materiality and repetition, Ha Chonghyun was a leading member of the Dansaekhwa movement, emerging in the early 1970s with his seminal Conjunction series. Enigmatic and contemplative, Conjunction 17-15 is a highly exemplary archetype of Ha’s iconic and acclaimed aesthetic. Executed in deep crimson hues, the thick smears of oils are achieved through a technique called bae-ap-bub, or ‘back-pressing method.’ These works are created through a unique process in which Ha applies thick layers of paint on the reverse of a canvas and then pushes them through to the coarse, woven hemp, brushing or smearing the protrusions on the front in a laborious process. The resulting composition, governed by intuition and chance, manifests the meaning of painting as a tool of mediation and bodily process.
In 1975, Dansaekhwa moved into international spotlight via an exhibition at Tokyo Gallery. The facilitator was Lee Ufan, a South Korean artist based in Tokyo from 1956 and a pioneer of the Japanese-Korean Mono-ha movement. Mono-ha is noted for the exploration of natural and industrial materials including stone, glass, cotton, paper, wood, wire, oil, and water, arranged in their natural states. Lee’s Correspondence is an important series of monochrome paintings defined by meditative brushstrokes of powdered mineral pigments. Lee’s technique is seeded in controlled breathing, rendering an effect that ostensibly faded into infinity. Art historian Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe said of the series, “Correspondence reveals an open reciprocal relationship between what is done and what is not done, between fullness and emptiness.” Against an East Asian philosophical backdrop, the series suggests fullness and emptiness, not as two sides of the same coin, but as von Berswordt-Wallrabe explains, “contraries [that] can merge into each other, as in progressions from warm to cold.”
The creation of patterns through the act of repetition and the importance of materiality are not only fundamental aspects of the work of Dansaekhwa artists, they are also evident in the paintings of Chiyū Uemae, a founding member of the Gutai Art Association in Japan. Uemae, developed a unique aesthetic of painstakingly built up paint strokes, inspired by his extended years working at a steel casting factory. Compared with his fellow first-generation Gutai artists who favoured explosive, expressionist and performative action-painting works, Uemae’s quieter, more labour-intensive methods involved patient and painstaking effort, as exemplified by Untitled (1970). The extraordinary significance of Uemae’s art is finally receiving renewed critical attention in recent years; perhaps more so than any other Gutai artist, Uemae’s art demonstrates a profound understanding of and devotion to material – the one true ode to the Gutai spirit of imparting life and human spirit into matter.
Jiro Takamatsu and Natee Utarit
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan saw the emergence of a new crop of artists whose oeuvres were veiled forms of rebellion. In particular, Jiro Takamatsu, examined the notions of the Zero Dimension, which emphasised the geometric proportions of an object or form, as seen in Space on the Plane (1982). Takamatsu’s focus lay on highlighting the unseen or the absent, with the space in between symbolising “emptiness itself”. The Tokyo native was drawn equally to Western and vernacular art histories, allowing him to meld culturally agnostic conventions on the canvas, much like Thai painter Natee Utarit, whose oeuvre embraces Surrealism and Western art themes in equal spirit. In a departure from Utarit's colour-rich canvases, his monochrome Tom and Jerry series (2002) presents a painting within a painting, his attempt at turning an artwork into an object. Similar to Takamatsu’s work, the painting is an expression of oblivion, meant to simply coexist with the observer.
In the 21st century, Minimalism in America has undergone a veritable metamorphosis, absorbing styles from various cross-century movements. Beaming with an irrepressible energy and complex perspectival logic, Grotjahn’s Untitled (Canary Yellow and Crimson Red Butterfly 823) from 2008 is a striking example of the artist’s highly accomplished butterfly compositions. In this series, the artist employs the butterfly motif as a means of investigating Renaissance perspectival techniques with dual and multiple vanishing points. Demonstrative of the crossover of influences and inspirations from East and West, Untitled was once in Takashi Murakami’s personal collection.
A pioneering manipulator of the visual and conceptual properties of light, Mary Corse began producing her compelling body of work in the 1960s, utilizing reflective and refractive materials in order to create works that change as the viewer moves around them. One of the few women associated with the West Coast Light and Space Movement, the artist employs glass microspheres in works such as Untitled (White Inner Band with White Sides, Beveled), collecting and reflecting light, and bearing witness to the shifts of light and atmosphere. In 1968, Corse obtained an MFA from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, having studied painting, philosophy and Tibetan Buddhism, indicative of the shared influences from East and West and the encouraged reflection on the metaphysical experience of being when viewing Corse’s works.
Today, the threads of Minimalism are enmeshed in a way that inspire and allow artists to draw from influences across the world, achieving a powerful visual language that is understandable and relatable to a universal audience.
A special thanks to Vaishnavi Nayel Talawadekar for her contribution to the article.