SooJin Lee reviews Joan Kee's Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013), the first English-language scholarly book on tansaekhwa (‘monochrome painting’), South Korea’s first abstract painting movement.
Joan Kee, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2013
Written by Joan Kee, a leading scholar of contemporary Asian art history, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013) is the first English-language scholarly book on tansaekhwa (‘monochrome painting’), South Korea’s first abstract painting movement that emerged and became enmeshed in the country’s national identity programme in the 1960s and 1970s. While tansaekhwa has since remained a controversial strand in Korea’s art history discourses, Kee unpicks and details its exceptional story of establishment, promotion, and reception in Korea and abroad by focusing on particular groups of work that reveal the particular circumstances and ideas that are vital and critical to the understanding of the history of Korea’s modern and contemporary art. This thoroughly researched and richly illustrated book is not just an important contribution to the scholarship and public knowledge on Korean art; Kee’s exemplary method and writing also make it an important reading highly recommended to all art historians. The way she approaches the past and develops it into a convincing history demonstrates a refreshing exemplar of how art-historical research and writing can be done: she interlaces factual information and original arguments with sincere observation, penetrating analysis, and sensitive writing.
Most essential and distinctive is her attention to ‘method’. Kee argues method as the key concept in the art of tansaekhwa and as a key element in her own analysis. This book, as she affirms in Introduction, relies ‘heavily on close formal reading’ of artworks (p 28), which she carries out in a meticulous manner, which helps the reader to appreciate each painting’s unique details and each artist’s unique method, by this means the paintings’ hidden contents and contexts are unraveled and explored. Kee utilises formal analysis – which in fact is the fundamental methodology in the discipline of Art History – at the core of her examination powerfully and deliberately, proving that this ‘return to the basic’ is itself a game changer in the current scholarship of art history, a field where the role of theory and interpretation is privileged over that of observation and description and where writings on non-Western art are dominated by an ethnographic approach. However, Kee explains that deploying a formal analysis methodology was a logical decision required by the very subject of tansaekhwa:
… it is because of the way artists like Kwon Young-woo, Yun Hyongkeun, Ha Chonghyun, Lee Ufan, and Park Seobo saw form as a particular kind of action by stressing certain aesthetic and material fundamentals in order to simultaneously engage with and push against specific distinctions symptomatic of what they understood as the ‘world’. Such distinctions included the segregation of oil from ink painting, a division that was brought into play during Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, the period when most tansaekhwa artists were born. Also crucial was the distinction between legibility and illegibility, a divide with critical implications during the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-hee, the deeply controversial army general who ruled South Korea for almost twenty years, from 1961 to 1979. (p 2)
In fact, tansaekhwa works were often called ‘methods’ (bangbeop, a Korean word that also refers to technique) rather than ‘paintings’ or ‘artworks’. At a time when the strict government’s policies on economic and industrial development and national security intensified, tansaekhwa artists invested much time and labour to produce a work that viewers see as unfinished. Kee argues the paintings reflect the artists’ view of ‘painting as an inverted teleology’ (p 3).
The great ambition of many tansaekhwa artists was to make work that could function as an integral, and not symptomatic, means through which viewers could more readily discern the physical and social connections upon which their worlds were based. (p 28)
For every artwork discussed in the book, Kee provides a vivid and detailed description of how the work was made (method) and how it appears (form), and a careful and precise analysis of how the work reflects or reveals its physical and social relations with the outside world (context). See, for example, how she writes about Kim Ku-lim’s Corpse of the Sun II (1964), a work she highlights in the Introduction to argue for the link between the rise of everyday materials in art and the government’s drive for industrialisation in the early 1960s, and the link between the emergence of abstract painting and its socioeconomic realities:
Kim first painted a rectangular wooden panel a rich black that appears to shine under overhead or direct illumination. To this panel, he attached an expanse of thin black vinyl, upon which he then bonded small plastic washers, thin plates with holes in the middle often used to prevent leaks or corrosion. He set fire to the washers, which caused them to partially melt and permanently fuse to the surface of the vinyl and the panel. He drew a large circle on the panel with gasoline, which he also set on fire. The result was a surface of variegated textures... (pp 15–16)
Most striking of all was the juxtaposition of black vinyl, a material that could be cheaply procured in early 1960s South Korea, with oil paint, an expensive substance by then inextricably associated with notions of fine art, or yesul. The divide between fine art and the quotidian was further made palpable by the addition of a wooden frame to the work some years later. Relatively wide, the frame clearly distinguishes the events taking place within its borders from the realm outside. The wooden panel is set apart as a unique object, but the use of the washers and vinyl, along with the very unmarketable nature of abstraction in South Korea, brings it back to the realm of the everyday (p 18).
Kee continues to narrate how Kim created this work while working as a manager at a textile factory, a signifying fact behind the painter’s then shocking use of unconventional materials. Kee also notes Korean artists’ limited access to canvas and oil paint at the time. Out of financial hardship, Korean painters in the 1950s and 1960s experimented with materials like barbed wire (Ha Chonghyun), hemp (Yun Hyongkeun), cotton (Kim Whanki), vinyl, newspaper and cigarette butts (Kim Ku-lim), treating such objects as if they were oil and canvas or ink and paper, but not as makeshift substitutes for the latter, but as materials in their own right. Kee argues that their works reveal that the artists recognised and used everyday objects ‘in terms of their forms’ and reflect the degree to which ‘abstraction itself was already imbued with social purpose by means of the materials with which artists had to work’ (p 21).
In the Introduction, Kee clarifies her focus and direction of exploration as such, and illustrates the historical, socio-cultural and conceptual background of tansaekhwa’s emergence. In Korea, as in many other non-Western countries, abstract art’s history is complexly intertwined with discourses and histories of ‘modern art’, modernisation, Westernisation and colonialism. This was because the first generation of abstract painters in Korea (which include Kim Whanki and Yoo Youngkuk) were those who had studied art in Japan in the 1930s during Japan’s colonisation of Korea (1910–1945). They were all young males who were privileged enough to study abroad and who returned with a knowledge and experiences of modernity and modernism. After the Korean War (1950–1953) ended, South Korea was built on the infrastructure left behind by the Japanese colonial government, which included the Japanese system of art education and discourses that strictly separated ink painting (which was called ‘Oriental painting’ and associated with tradition) from oil painting (which was called ‘Western painting’ and associated with modernism). Tansaekhwa artists emerged out of those who attended art school in the 1950s during the period of postwar reconstruction, for whom ‘the process of reconstruction meant embracing abstraction more vigorously than ever before’. ‘A large proportion treated abstraction as a language in which they needed to gain fluency in order to communicate with their overseas counterparts’, despite the insufficient funds and difficult in accessing information about overseas artistic activities and trends (p 7).
In Chapter One, Kee discusses how Kwon Young-woo (1926–2013) and Yun Hyongkeun (1928–2007) each took up abstraction as a means to explore the then emerging questions of medium, materiality and viewership, and how in so doing they invented new and unique methods of painting. Many painters in postwar Korea who hoped to contemporise art practice and discourse not only eagerly embraced abstraction but also felt the need to challenge the aforementioned Japanese-influenced segregation of ink/Oriental painting from oil/Western painting. In the mid-1960s, Kwon, an ink painter, began to create abstract compositions by cutting, puncturing and covering objects with Korean paper (hanji). Unlike other ink painters such as Suh Se-ok who practiced abstraction in order to reclaim ink painting and Korean art from what they saw as Japanese influence, Kwon did not reject but utilised the distinctions between different media, producing works that directly demonstrate to the viewers his serious experimentation with paper and its materiality. In contrast, Yun produced work that advanced the possibilities of oil paint’s materiality. As Kee describes, Yun would apply heavily diluted paint on a thick, low-grade canvas usually used for tenting, so that the paint moves and appears like ink on absorbent paper. Such a method allowed him to be disassociated from the then prevalent rhetoric in Korea that characterised abstract painting as mark making. In particular, Kee argues that Yun’s Umber Blue series of the 1970s reveal his intense experimentation with different combinations of pigments and binders – resulting from his consideration of the viewer’s awareness of painting both as a pictorial composition hanging on a wall and as an object existing and partaking in the viewer’s space.
Chapter Two begins with a discussion of the rapid development of the Korean art scene in the 1960s, which, propelled by the increasing access to information about the international art world, led to a debates about the position and how to position ‘contemporary Korean art’ in the international field. While many Korean artists and critics remained ambivalent about the colonial past and faild in their attempts to define Koreanness, they were attracted to the works of contemporary Japanese Mono-ha artists. The loosely formed Mono-ha (‘School of Things’) group emerged at the end of the 1960s in Japan based on a shared commitment
to present a world to which access was contingent not on the identity, background, or knowledge level of the viewer but instead on the viewer’s capacities to see, touch, and perhaps even hear. (p 113)
Especially inspired by the Mono-ha’s emphasis on ‘thingness’, Ha Chonghyun (b 1935) began his Conjunction series of oil-on-hemp works in the mid-1970s, in which ‘the main event was not the application of pigment to a receptive support but, rather, the application of objects that might otherwise be used as supports for paint’. (p 127) For example, by pushing lumps of oil paint through the weave of the hemp support from the back, so that the forced paint’s movement can produce a shape, Ha explored the relationship between two- and three-dimensionality ‘as a function of raw materiality’ and resulted in paintings that when hung would prompt the viewers to contemplate the relationship between the painting and its physical surrounding (p 30). Linking Ha’s work to his notion of simultaneity, Kee interprets the Conjunction series as a response to Korea’s perception of the international artworld, a response which was ‘less about the circulation and reception of overseas artistic developments than about recognising different rates of change’ (pp 30–31).
Chapter Three focuses on the work of Lee Ufan (b 1936), the Korean-Japanese member and the primary theoretician of Mono-ha who played an important role between the Japanese group and Korea’s tansaekhwa artists. In particular, Kee explores his From Line and From Point series (both of which debuted in 1973), paintings comprised respectively of repeated lines or points that he produced by dragging his brush from the canvas’s uppermost edge to the bottom or by pressing the tip of the brush against the canvas until the pigment supply exhausted. Based on extremely detailed descriptions of how the paintings can be experienced by the viewer, Kee interprets them as Lee’s negotiations with place and being placed, especially since he was keenly conscious of his ambiguous identity and that of his viewers in both Japan and Korea – two countries complicated by the thirty-five-year colonial history. For example, though the artist had lived in Japan since 1956, he could not represent Japan in biennales because of his Korean nationality; but in Korea, where he quickly became influential and successful as early as the 1970s, he was still viewed as a Japanese artist and with suspicion. Kee discusses how Lee’s process and technique of mark making, his play with arrangement and scale, together with his professed refusal of ‘making’ and ‘creation’, would set up situations where the viewers can rethink the relationship between subject and object, the questions of power and authority, and their own perception of objects and the material world.
Chapter Four focuses on Park Seobo’s (b 1931) Écriture series, of which Kee offers an unprecedented political reading. Park began the series in 1973 by marking short, straight lines with a pencil on supports covered with layers of white oil paint. Initially titled Myobop (‘method of drawing’), the Écriture works challenged conventional binaries between abstraction and figuration and between painting and writing. Analysing Park’s mark making as being ‘suspended between the literal enactment of physical presence and its potential function as a means of legible communication’, Kee highlights the ways Park’s paintings may have appeared both physically and visually meaningful to viewers oppressed under the authoritarian government (p 192). The Écriture series began just a few months after the new president Park Chung-hee declared the Yushin Constitution, which granted him unlimited powers and suppressed civil liberties by practising intense censorship and monitoring of civil activities, especially of written communication. While Park has never made specific reference to the politics – and while tansaekhwa in general has been criticised in Korea for having ignored the political circumstances of the 1970s – Kee closely analyses how Park’s thin, lightly penciled lines, inscribed on painted surfaces, exude a sense of presence and imminence (rather than resistance), inviting the viewer to become aware of his/her presence and ability to see (if not read and write).
Chapter Five chronicles tansaekhwa’s overseas reception and promotion in the second half of the 1970s by illuminating the problem of cultural and national difference. In particular, Kee shows how tansaekhwa ‘lay at the intersection of two streams of identification’:
between the desire expressed by some Korean critics and certainly the Korean state to establish a visibly recognizable national identity and the will of certain Japanese commentators to imagine an Asia in contradiction to the West. (p 235)
It is examined that tansaekhwa’s promotion in Japan dangerously yet inevitably involved the rhetoric developed during the colonial era. For example, writings of Lee Yil, a Korean art critic and tansaekhwa’s advocate, would emphasise tansaekhwa’s use of white colour and Korean art’s aesthetics of simplicity and imperfection – the characterisations attributed to Yanagi Museyoshi, a Japanese critic who theorised Korean art and culture in the 1940s during the Japanese colonisation of Korea. Exhibitions of tansaekhwa in Japan, such as ‘Five Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White’ (1975) and ‘Korea: Facet of Contemporary Art’ (1977), were actively promoted and well received. But when tansaekhwa debuted in the West, in Paris in 1979, it received no comment in the press, while Korean reporters criticised it for failing to express or promote a distinct Koreanness.
In the Epilogue, Kee examines tansaekhwa and abstract art of the 1980s and 1990s. By the early 1980s, when Korea’s democratisation movement was emerging across the country, tansaekhwa had become a major trend dominating group shows of contemporary Korean art, but its continued success also attracted criticism, which increasingly framed tansaekhwa in opposition to the emerging Minjung (People’s) art movement and as an elitist art movement lacking in ethical concerns with the social and political realities of the time. Such criticisms were not unreasonable, however, according to Kee:
The initial examples of tansaekhwa work, made prior to the introduction of tansaekhwa rhetoric, had been compelling because they used materials in ways that enabled viewers to think outside the taxonomic structures to which painting was subject, especially in Korea. But as tansaekhwa works were promoted overseas, an increasing number of them gave the impression that their makers were unable to think about painting without also thinking about their promotion as exemplars of Koreanness, nature, or tradition. Tansaekhwa rhetoric came to determine the way artists looked at painting, which is why many examples of tansaekhwa made after 1980 lacked the curious potency of their predecessors. Ironically enough, those who criticized tansaekhwa did so in order to sustain the core mission of many tansaekhwa works: the urgency of perpetually reconsidering the assumptions on which the making and reception of artworks were based. (pp 267–268)
Kee concludes by pointing out the distinction between form and context in Korean (and non-Western) art discourses, which she traces to the opposition between tansaekhwa and the Minjung art movement formed in the 1980s. She argues that ‘a kind of neo-formalism’ she finds in the work of some contemporary artists who came to prominence in the 1990s, such as Yang Haegue (b 1971) and Byron Kim (b 1961), suggests these artists are consciously working through the ‘unpalatable bind where form and context are cast as antinomies’. Their use of monochromes and abstract compositions reflects the challenge they face in the international artworld: ‘though they do not wish to be seen primarily as Korean or non-Western, they realize they will always be regarded to some extent as such’ (p 290).
Kee’s concluding remarks bring us back to what I highlighted ath the beginning of this review: the importance of her method. As she fruitfully demonstrates throughout the book, a close observation and formal analysis of artworks can be a most faithful and productive method in art history that can bring together form and context. Writing about art, particularly abstract painting, can often be all about giving philosophical meanings to abstract ideas, theories and perceptions – things that are incorporeal. But Kee’s book, through close formal reading, not only gives concrete meanings and corporeal evidence to tansaekhwa paintings, but also reveals untold stories and neglected aspects of tansaekhwa. Especially, her argument and demonstration to connect form and context makes a significant breakthrough in Korean art history discourses. Tansaekhwa has so long and predominantly been viewed as an art for art’s sake that even a major twentieth-century Korean art history survey text would write that the Tansaekhwa movement’s formalism ‘had nothing to do with the reality of Korea at the time’, as if its seeming unconcern with social and political issues was a true fact.  Counter to such a stereotype about tansaekhwa, Kee’s book offers new perspectives and interpretations, which she presents convincingly and firmly, based on thorough research and close formal analysis.
It is not mere coincidence that tansaekhwa has been a strong rising star in the international art market since this book’s publication in 2013. In conjunction with this publication, Kee curated the 'From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction' exhibition at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles in 2014, after which the group of artists (Chung Sang-hwa, Ha Chonghyun, Kwon Young-woo, Lee Ufan, Park Seobo, and Yun Hyongkeun) quickly rose to the highest commercial attention of their careers, with blue chip galleries such as Blum & Poe, White Cube and David Zwirner beginning to exhibit and represent them. Riding on tansaekhwa’s wave of sucess, Korean galleries that have long represented tansaekhwa artists, such as Kukje Gallery and Gallery Hyundai, have recently been focusing on exhibitions not only of tansaekhwa painters but also of their contemporary and next generation of artists. Although the market interest has not so far yet involved or helped spark an intellectual interest in tansaekhwa, the growing worldwide recognition and appreciation of tansaekhwa and contemporary Korean art will continue to prove and understand the tremendous importance of Kee’s book.
 Youngna Kim, 20th Century Korean Art, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London, 2005, p 261
SooJin Lee is an assistant professor at Hongik University’s Sejong campus in South Korea, where she teaches interdisciplinary courses on art history, cultural studies and media theory. She received a doctorate in Art History from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2014, and is currently researching the intersection of art history and consumer culture.