In the period following the end of the Korean War (1951-1953), Korean art was marked by significant changes. In the late 1950s, a younger, progressive generation of artists began to reject the academic realism featured in large art exhibitions established under Japanese colonialism and sought an artistic practice that would reflect the radical transformation of Korean society and the soul-searching of a traumatized, post-War generation.
Park Seo-bo (b. 1931) was a key figure in establishing this modern Korean art. Born in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, Park was a principle leader of the Art Informel movement, which began in the late 1950s. Art Informel rejected realism and featured abstract compositions and expressive brushstrokes, influenced by the Art Informel movement in Europe as well as American Abstract Expressionism. Art Informel is considered the foundation of modern art in Korea, and Park’s early Informel work consists primarily of abstract compositions with thick impasto, some paintings featuring scraping and scratching application techniques. This unusual method of “painting” by inscribing into the surface material would come to fruition in Park’s later works, particularly in the Écriture series begun in the early 1970s, when Park was at the helm of an emerging movement known as Monochrome art, or dansaekhwa.
Monochrome art signaled a more self-conscious examination of the act of painting among Korean artists and the search for an art grounded in Korean tradition. Monochrome paintings used a single color, usually white, grey or other neutral shades, which were believed to reflect a meditative state of mind rooted in traditional Eastern thought and culture. Other formal characteristics of the movement include an emphasis on the canvas as a planar support structure and experimenting with surface texture by incorporating different materials, such as earth, natural fiber and hanji, or Korean mulberry paper. For monochrome artists, the process of painting was seen as a meditative act that brought the painter closer to nature and thus opened up his practice to the wider world.
In works of Park’s Écriture series from the early 70’s, thick, gesso-like layers of white paint are inscribed with repeating pencil strokes. Park thus marked the canvas with pencil at the same time that a layer of paint was removed, revealing the “background” of the painting. Such a repeated act of both erasure and marking lends the painting a meditative quality but also undoes the artist’s initial painterly act, serving as a self-assertive form of self-negation. Over the years, Park’s Écriture series has shown substantial development within the same underlying concept of erasure/marking. Écriture No. 901201 from 1990 (Lot 54), for example, shows a considerably more complex composition and bold use of dramatic color. Écriture No. 060525 from 2006 (Lot 55) continues this act of marking/erasure but in the opposite, reductive direction, with narrow vertical stripes scraped away in the exact center by a single broad, grey stroke. These later works beautifully demonstrate Park Seobo’s continuing evolution.
One artist who profoundly influenced Park and others in the Korean monochrome movement is Lee Ufan (b. 1936). Born in a small village in South Gyeongsang Province, Lee studied the traditional subjects of poetry, painting and calligraphy in Korea before moving to Japan in 1956, where he gradually achieved widespread recognition through theoretical writings and his own works of art. Lee is well known for his involvement in Mono-ha, or “school of things,” an artist group begun in Japan in the late 1960s that is often compared with Arte Povera and Earth Art. Mono-ha artists believed that minimal acts of artistic intervention and a subsequent emphasis on the natural materiality of objects would open up new encounters and forms of perception. Lee’s theoretical writings helped shape the philosophical outlook of the movement and drew from Eastern thinkers, such as Nishida Kitaro of the Kyoto School of Philosophy, as well as Continental philosophers, such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. The introduction of Lee’s writings to Korea in 1970 and his first solo exhibition there in 1972 pushed artists in the Korean monochrome movement to theorize more rigorously and robustly about their work.
For Lee, there is no division between theory and practice. Concepts such as time and space exist in the world, and all things are connected through a series of interrelations, with ideas and reality conjoined through the body. For Lee, creation does not lie in forms of self-expression, but by simply “reinscribing what is already there slightly out of place.” Lee’s paintings do not overtly emphasize physical materials to the extent his Mono-ha period works do, but the paintings also deal with issues of time and space and form an important part of his practice. Like Park’s Écriture series, Lee’s From Point and From Line, two different series of paintings begun in the 1970s, have a meditative quality and reveal painting as an act of self-cultivation. However, whereas Park’s paintings entail a reduction of surface, Lee’s works build up a sense of tension through the contrast of blank canvas with organized accretions of brushstrokes or pencil marks. The elegant drawing offered here (Lot 58) displays Lee’s particular sensitivity to the quality of mark making, which calls to mind his early training in calligraphy.
In From Point (1978, Lot 53), the artist has made horizontal rows of short, orange strokes until the brush seemingly ran out of pigment. The process repeats again, covering the canvas with a succession of marks that fade to bare canvas then reemerge. This makes visible the artist’s process of painting but also reveals a specific sense of time, from the moment when the brush is fully loaded with pigment until repeated contact with the canvas has reduced its impact to bare trace. Simultaneously, the marks create a cyclical, universal sense of time through repetition, as though this specific work were only a small snapshot within an infinite project. The From Point series emphasizes this theme of repetition, but offers a range of expressive possibilities. From Point (1979, Lot 56) and Untitled (Lot 57), for example, replace the minimal tendencies of the 1978 work with a maximization of carefully-placed, repeated brushstrokes that leave only sparse portions of the canvas visible.
Lee’s From Line series, in which the short brushstrokes are elongated to linear marks, was a natural progression from the From Point series, and it is interesting to see Lee’s movement from one extreme (covering the entire canvas with brushstrokes) to the other (using just one or two brushstrokes). In his later series, such as From Wind and Correspondence, there is a heightened awareness of composition and sense of space within the boundaries of the canvas. Often employing just one or two brushstrokes, the Correspondence series serves as a key to unlocking his earlier three-dimensional works, too – in the way new perceptions of space and time are awakened in the viewer through simple, small acts of intervention.
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