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.
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.
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.
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.
Dansaekhwa: a brief history
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dansaekhwa artists: a selection
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)
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)
Below is a selection of recent exhibitions focusing on or featuring Dansaekhwa:
- “Empty Fullness: Materiality and Spirituality in Contemporary Korean Art” (2014-2015) | Korean Cultural Center, Beijing, China. Travelled to SPSI Art Museum, Shanghai, China; Koreanisches Kulturzentrum, Berlin, Germany; The National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta, Indonesia
- “From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction” (13 September – 8 November 2014) | Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
- “The Art of Dansaekhwa” (28 August – 19 October 2014) | Kukje Gallery, Seoul
- “Chung Sang-Hwa” (1 – 30 July 2014) | Gallery Hyundai, Seoul
- “Overcoming the Modern. Dansaekhwa: The Korean Monochrome Movement” (19 February – 29 March 2014) | Alexander Gray Associates, New York
- “60-70’s Korean Contemporary Painting” (7 – 24 March 2013) | Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea
- “Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting” (17 March – 14 May 2012) | National Museum of Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, South Korea and Jeonbuk Museum of Art, Jeonju, South Korea
- “Korean Painting Now” (14 January – 15 April 2012) | National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei
- “Korean Abstract Painting: 10 Perspectives” (14 December 2011 – 19 January 2012) | Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea
- “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” (24 June –28 September 2011) | Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York
- “Chang-Sup Chung Retrospective” (3 August – 17 October 2010) | National Museum of Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, South Korea
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- Nam June Paik: “Becoming Robot” in New York – in pictures – October 2014 – Art Radar looks back on the new media art pioneer’s long and innovative career
- 6 emerging South Korean artists to know now – October 2014 – emerging artists from South Korea are using everything from chocolate to Ultra Violet light to create mesmerising works
- 8 amazing artworks at the Gwangju Biennale 2014 – September 2014 – Art Radar picks 8 compelling art pieces from Asian artists showing at the Gwangju Biennale
- What is…string art? Art Radar explains – September 2014 – Art Radar’s “What is…?” series defines string art through the works of key Asian artists
- What is…digital art? Art Radar explains – June 2014 – Art Radar’s “What is…?” series brings you the basics of digital art through the work of the most prominent artists working in the field in Asia
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on abstract art from Asia