What is Dansaekhwa? Art Radar explains

As part of our “What is…?” series, Art Radar introduces the basics of Dansaekhwa.

Read on as we define Dansaekhwa as an artistic form proper to Korean art, including a brief history, a selection of representative artists and recent seminal exhibitions in Asia and worldwide.

Lee Ufan, 'From Line No. 78149', 1978, oil on canvas, 90.9 x 116.7 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Lee Ufan, ‘From Line No. 78149’, 1978, oil on canvas, 90.9 x 116.7 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

What is Dansaekhwa?

Dansaekhwa literally means ‘monochrome painting’ in Korean, and the term refers to the style of painting that arose during the second half of the 1970s in South Korea. Visually, Dansaekhwa ruptures from tradition and the past, becoming a new stylistic tendency in a significant period of time in Korean socio-political history. Superficially, its characteristics seem to point towards an assimilation and emulation of Western modernism, and a ‘liberation’ from the strict traditions of Korea’s artistic heritage.

Noh Sang-kyoon, Sequin paintings at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008. Image © C-Monster/Flickr.

Noh Sang-kyoon, Sequin paintings at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008. Image © C-Monster/Flickr.

Yet, an analysis and reading of Dansaekhwa according to influence and appropriation from Western models is not accurate, as British art historian Simon Morley writes in his article “Dansaekhwa. Korean Monochrome Painting” (Third Text, Vol. 27, Issue 2, 2013):

[…] a reading of Dansaekhwa in terms of influence and appropriation from Western models involves superficial stylistic comparisons and the assumption of a single master chronology. It fails to take into account the differentials within the temporality of modernity as it impacted on, and unfolded within East Asia itself and South Korea in particular.

Moon Beom at Kim Foster Gallery, New York, 2007. Image © Tim McFarlane/Flickr.

Moon Beom at Kim Foster Gallery, New York, 2007. Image © Tim McFarlane/Flickr.

In her book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013), Joan Kee, curator and Professor of Art History at the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor, wrote that the experimental painting that emerged in the early 1960s was both a refusal of the earlier colonial legacy as well as a response to Western modes of abstraction. However, it is important to recognise Dansaekhwa’s uniqueness as distinct from the Western canon of art history. The book is the first in-depth examination of the movement in the English language.

Yun Hyongkeun, 'Umber Blue', 1978, oil on cotton, 229.5 x 181.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist's estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Yun Hyongkeun, ‘Umber Blue’, 1978, oil on cotton, 229.5 x 181.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Dansaekhwa: a brief history

Origins

In the mid-1950s, a decade after Korea’s 1945 independence from the Japanese, the end of the Korean War and the 1953 separation between the North and South, a younger generation of artists sought to escape the devastating social situation through new art styles. During this time, Korea saw the birth of its own abstract art with the founding of an art movement influenced by Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism in 1957.

As Seoul Museum of Modern Art curator Jung Yu-Jin wrote in the curatorial essay for “Korean Painting Now” (2012) at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Korean abstraction went through various stages. Its beginnings in the mid and late 1950s were inspired by Expressionism, then there were newer possibilities offered by geometric and colour field abstraction in the 1960s, and finally the rise of the newest trend in the 1970s — the monochrome style of painting also known as Dansaekhwa.

Chun Kwang-Young, detail of painting on show at Kim Foster Gallery, 2006. Image © mercurialn/Flickr.

Chun Kwang-Young, detail of painting on show at Kim Foster Gallery, 2006. Image © mercurialn/Flickr.

Dansaekhwa versus Western minimalism and monochrome art

As Jung points out, Dansaekhwa, in some ways comparable to Western minimalism and monochrome art, “accentuated ‘going back to nature’ instead of the logical modernism of the West.” While Western minimalism and monochrome art reached the apex of formalism, Korean monochrome paid attention to the property of objects, and particularly soft objects, such as colours and paper—hanji or Korean paper.

Korean artists worked with such objects on canvas, in contrast with the Western minimalist tendency to move towards hard objects or sculpture. While Dansaekhwa renounced pictorialism, figuration and the subjectivity of art, like Western minimalism and other abstract forms of the 1960s, it did so as an attempt to return to nature by denying the artist a subject.

Ha Chonghyun, 'Work 77-15', 1977, mixed media, 129 x 167.3 cm, 129.9 x 168.3 cm framed. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Ha Chonghyun, ‘Work 77-15’, 1977, mixed media, 129 x 167.3 cm, 129.9 x 168.3 cm framed. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

In an interview with WhiteHot Magazine, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented, curators of a recent exhibition at Alexander Gray Associates, New York, explain that rather than a passive copying of styles, Dansaekhwa’s inspiration and influence from Western art forms was

a negotiation whereby the artists had the freedom and sensitivity to a wide array of formal, aesthetic and socio-political factors which they perceived and employed as catalysts in formulating a unique language that is rightfully theirs to contribute to the advancement of contemporaneity in their immediate environment.

Chung Chang-Sup, painting at the Seoul Museum of Art, 2012. Image © debbie ding/Flickr.

Chung Chang-Sup, painting at the Seoul Museum of Art, 2012. Image © debbie ding/Flickr.

A return to Korean roots

As curator and art writer Henry Meyric Hughes points out in “The International Art Scene and the Status of Dansaekhwa” (Art in Asia, 2014), Korean modernist styles arose from the painful experiences of colonialism and war, a powerful sense of tradition and the relative isolation of the country from foreign influences, up to the period of rapid economic development in the 1970s.

As opposed to Western modernists, who revolted against mainstream academic art and aesthetic idealism and wanted to be provocative, subversive, obscure and defiant of systems of hierarchy and authority, Dansaekhwa artists sought to connect to their roots. They did this, as Hughes writes, through a combination of elements from the cultural traditions of the Chosun Dynasty and oriental spiritualism, including Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

Noh Sang-kyoon, sequin painting detail, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008. Image © C-Monster/Flickr.

Noh Sang-kyoon, sequin painting detail, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008. Image © C-Monster/Flickr.

Characteristics of Dansaekhwa

Materiality and tactility

Dansaekhwa’s apparently minimalistic style is not one of reduction, but rather of accretion and layering, and an exploration of the physical limitations of materials and their ability to interact with the viewer.

Characteristics of Dansaekhwa are

  • energetic, naturalistic materiality and tactility – as Morley points out in “Touching the substrate” (TK-21 La Revue, no. 39)
  • exploration of soft objects, such as Chung Chang-Sup’s ‘tak’ or mulberry paper, hanji or Korean paper and colour, oil, acrylic, ink and pencil, powder colour and iron, black coal; and their application to various supports, like canvas and board.
Park Seobo, 'Ecriture No. 5-80', 1980, pencil and oil on canvas, 161.6 x 194.6 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Park Seobo, ‘Ecriture No. 5-80’, 1980, pencil and oil on canvas, 161.6 x 194.6 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Relief, texture and repetition of seemingly random yet ordered patterns within the composition are central to its visuality. This can be seen in the work of Chung Sang-hwa, who divides space into thickly painted uneven rectangles in relief, or in Park Seo-bo’s iconic linear patterns. Although limited to monochrome, Dansaekhwa evokes a vivid feeling of the colour’s texture through multiple brushstrokes.

Later Dansaekhwa artists, in addition, use synthetic and natural resins, stainless steel, faux pearls, Plexiglas, sequins (such as artist Noh Sang-kyoon) and other industrial materials. They also expand onto the three-dimensional field, both through optical effects, such as Jeong Sook Ahn in her Tension series, and sculptural forms, like in the work of Chun Kwang-Young.

Chung Kwang-Young, 'Aggregation 06', 2006, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, diameter 250 cm. Installation view at Kim Foster Gallery, New York, 2006. Image © mercurialn/Flickr.

Chung Kwang-Young, ‘Aggregation 06’, 2006, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, diameter 250 cm. Installation view at Kim Foster Gallery, New York, 2006. Image © mercurialn/Flickr.

Art as meditation

Dansaekhwa focuses on the meditative aspect of art production, and the relationship between materials, materials and creator, artwork and viewer.

Yoon Jin-sup, critic, curator and professor at Honam University, who curated an exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012, explains how Dansaekhwa’s holistic and meditative nature is in contrast with Western monochrome and Minimal art’s rationality and logic. The latter’s ‘empty painting’ is the opposite of Dansaekhwa’s intensity of thought and labour, and its depth of silence.

Kwon Young-woo, 'P80-103', 1980, Korean paper on rag board mounted on panel, 162.6 x 129.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist's estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Kwon Young-woo, ‘P80-103’, 1980, Korean paper on rag board mounted on panel, 162.6 x 129.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist’s estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Korean artists express a transcendental state of mind onto the canvas by cultivating their spirit and seeking to internalise the aesthetics of “Korean spirituality” such as blankness, contemplation, movement within stillness, inaction of nature and moderation – all based on a traditional principle of “going with the flow of nature.” Koreana quotes Yoon as saying:

While Western monochrome painting focuses on the visual, Dansaekhwa is of a tactile quality and expresses the Korean philosophy of assimilation with nature. It is created from an ecological, cosmological, and earthly viewpoint, in contrast to the formalistic perspective of the West.

Chung Kwang-Young, detail of work at ARCO 07. Image © Alberto Santomé/Flickr.

Chung Kwang-Young, detail of work at ARCO 07. Image © Alberto Santomé/Flickr.

As Art Reoriented points out, Dansaekhwa paintings are essentially ‘incomplete’, as they require the presence of the viewer and the viewer’s gaze to complete them. Their movement, and the shifts in materials, colours and light are activated by the act of looking, upon which their static appearance reveals its real transformative nature.

Chung Sang-hwa, 'Untitled 73-A-15', 1973, acrylic on canvas, 162.2 x 130.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Chung Sang-hwa, ‘Untitled 73-A-15’, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 162.2 x 130.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Dansaekhwa artists: a selection

The pioneers

The pioneering artists, founders of the Dansekhwa movement, include:

  • Chung Chang-Sup (1927 – 2011)
  • Chung Sang-hwa (b. 1932)
  • Ha Chong-hyun (b. 1935)
  • Hur Hwang (b. 1943)
  • Kim Guiline (b. 1936)
  • Kim Whanki (1913-1974)
  • Kwon Young-woo (1926 – 2013)
  • Lee Dong-Youb (b. 1946)
  • Lee Ufan (b. 1936)
  • Park Seo-bo (b. 1931)
  • Quac In-sik (1919-1988)
  • Yun Hyong-keun (1927-2007)
  • Youn Myeung-Ro (b. 1936)
Noh Sang-kyoon, Buddha sculpture covered in sequins, detail at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008. Image © C-Monster/Flickr.

Noh Sang-kyoon, Buddha sculpture covered in sequins, detail at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008. Image © C-Monster/Flickr.

The younger generation

A generation of younger Korean artists who work within the Dansekhwa style includes:

  • Chun Kwang-Young (b. 1944)
  • Jeong Sook Ahn (b. 1961)
  • Kim Tschun-su
  • Koh San-Keum (b. 1966)
  • Lee Bae (b. 1956)
  • Lee In-hyeon
  • Lee Kang-so (b. 1943)
  • Moon Beom (b. 1955)
  • Noh Sang-kyoon (b. 1958)
Chung Kwang-Young, 'Aggregation 02', (detail), 2002, mulberry coloured paper, at Gallery Landau, Art Basel, 2009. Image © waltercolor/Flickr.

Chung Kwang-Young, ‘Aggregation 02’, (detail), 2002, mulberry coloured paper, at Gallery Landau, Art Basel, 2009. Image © waltercolor/Flickr.

Selected exhibitions

Below is a selection of recent exhibitions focusing on or featuring Dansaekhwa:

 C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Korean artists, abstract art, painting, sculpture, paper, definitions, art in Korea

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