Seeing the Deep Resonance - Korea Modern Contemporary Abstract
Kyuseong HWANG, Korea Institute for Culture Industry (KICI), Deputy Director
Insik QUAC, Youngwoo KWON, Youngjoo KIM, Tschangyeul KIM, Whanki KIM, Hyungdae KIM, Kwan NAM, Kyungchai RYU, Shin MOON, Nosoo PAK, Rehyun PARK, Sukwon PARK, Seobo PARK, Youngsu SONG, Moonseup SHIM, Taijung UM, Youngkuk YOO, Hyongkeun YUN, Dongyoub LEE, Seundja RHEE, Seungjio LEE, Ufan LEE, Ungno LEE, Sungsoun CHANG, Kookkwang CHUN, Sanghwa CHUNG, Changsup CHUNG, Wookkyung CHOI, Indoo HA, Chonghyun HA
Korea Institute for Culture Industry (KICI)
A few years ago, an exhibition of a famous painter was held. The gallery ambitiously developed new items for its shop in commemoration of the special exhibition. One day, that painter became quite angry at the gallery’s shop. One of the new products that they developed was an ashtray and it had a person’s face on the bottom. It was as if ashing or killing a cigarette on someone’s face. It would not have been a problem if they did not put anything or simply filled it with color.
When we walk on sidewalks, we can notice that something is imprinted on the pavement block. The imprint is rarely a specific shape but mostly a geometric expression made up of simple lines and patterns. It seems to replace the fear of emptiness. In large construction sites, they often set up metal screen fences composed of simple lines and planes. At a distance, they look like color-field or geometric abstract paintings. You can imagine the Nucleus series by Lee Seung-Jo from the shutter that opens or closes the door of a building.
As such, the art or abstract motif that we took too seriously has already been expressed in every possible way in everyday life. The abstract motifs are in bathroom tiles, living room floors, and every corner of the house, as a part of our life.
It is not clear who began using the term, "abstract." Also, it is somewhat unclear what is regarded as abstract because it has not been clearly defined. However, the term has been commonly used such as abstract painting and abstract art.
The Chinese characters for abstract (抽象) can be literally translated as "inference of a form" and "extraction from a form." It means that abstraction is about inferring or extracting something from the original form of an object. In English, the word, abstract, was derived from ab (=from) + stract (draw), and it also means that it is about drawing something from somewhere. Taken together, abstract is about extracting something from somewhere.
In the modern concept, it was reported that the very first abstract painting was created by Kandinsky in 1910. It is a painting that looks as though it is violently pouring invisible energy, wriggling and fluctuating on the inside of people without a specific form, on to the canvas. They noticed that it was a genre of painting that would make sense even when it is hung upside down. From then on, artists explored the vast world of art at their will using only the essential elements of art such as point, line, plane, and color.
There have always been arguments and assertions that abstract paintings were produced even before Kandinsky. For each argument or assertion, many scholars and artists ignored the concept of abstract during the antiquity or the Medieval times or regarded them as a completely different area in the aspect that modern and contemporary abstract artists were aware of the concept of “abstract.” And they had the “artistic will” or “artistic desire” to pioneer “abstract art.” However, there are arguments raised against them as well The Durubong (Heungsu) Cave was excavated in Cheongju-si, Chungcheongbuk-do, in the winter of 1982. The remains of a five to eight-year-old child, presumed to have died 40,000 years ago in the Paleolithic Era, were found inside the cave. However, there were strange objects scattered around the remains. They were identified as petals of chrysanthemum. It transmitted the sorrow of parents who lost a child to us across time. It shows that the people in the Paleolithic Era were as emotional as people today.
Korea is widely known for petroglyph. The petroglyph is mostly found on rocks or cliffs by the river. It is estimated that religious rituals for gods were held before the petroglyph. They prayed for peace, fecundity, success, and affluence through the worship of invisible, spiritual, and transcendental beings. That may be the reason various geometric abstract patterns such as circles, triangles, rectangles, crosses, straight lines, diagonal lines, and horizontal lines are expressed on the petroglyph. The images in mind in the inner world such as aspiration and wish toward invisible beings were extensively expressed through abstract patterns and languages through the long prehistoric era. As figurative patterns of people, animals, and plants were also represented with them, both concrete and abstract picture languages coexisted. These expressions make Korea the world’s repository of prehistoric abstract art.
Based on such cultural tradition, the comb-pattern pottery was produced massively and mainly along the coasts across the country during the Neolithic Era. Later in the Bronze Age, the Bronze Mirror with Fine Linear Design, which is not replicable even with modern science and technology, was produced. Multiple lines, incised at an interval that is thinner than a strand of hair, alongside a number of triangles, circles, and geometric drawings make us think about the nature of ancient abstract art once again.
The abstract patterns and languages that have developed since the prehistoric era are the cultural heritage of Korea. They have been spreading diversely into the tomb murals of Goguryeo, grayish-blue powdered celadon, patchwork wrapping cloth, folklore painting, ink-and-wash painting (literary style painting), and shamanistic art, and the outcomes are also divided into geometric abstracts, color-field abstracts, and letter abstracts.
There were professional painters called “hwasa” during the Joseon Dynasty. They were public servants of the Painting Bureau hired to produce paintings with clear purposes as instructed by the government and official institutions. There was almost no room for creativity for these professional painters because the figures were fixed within strict regulations, they belonged to the bureaucratic organization, and they were paid to paint.
This is the same for religious art. The Buddhist paintings of the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties had a clear purpose: worship. Also, hwaseung, or the priest painters, and his staff were given appropriate consideration or rewarda by the person who requested for the painting as a way of offering prayer or from the donor. The painter was given almost no room to display creativity as an artist because the doctrine was strict and the figures to paint were fixed in religious art. This appears to be common in eastern and western religious art.
Nobles and aristocrats used to produce portraits of ancestors to honor them. The painter were not allowed to make the smallest mistake, down to even a strand of a mustache, when painting the portrait of the figure (ancestor). It had to be precise, more than hyper-realist paintings somehow, because the purpose was clear, to worship the ancestor, and the painter was paid to do the job.
On the contrary, paintings by literary artists were more liberal and had more room for creativity. Because they were paintings produced for self-satisfaction as a hobby or entertainment, and not painted for money, they were quite free from other people’s criticisms. Modern abstract painting was able to spring up from the paintings in the literary artist’s style. Mark Tobey, an American artist who traveled through the east, pioneered new abstract paintings within Chinese art.
To the eyes of literary artists, the works of professional painters who produce precise and concrete figurative paintings based on fixed rules and figures might have seem constrained. So the literary used to treat paintings by professional painters disrespectfully, saying they lack “the aesthetics of characters and aura of books." We could feel the sorrow that the genius painter Jang Seung-up must have felt at the time.
Full-time artists, who take care of their own livelihood and support their own creative works without any assistance from the state, nobles, and sponsors, emerged in the 20thcentury. It made an enormous contribution to the birth and development of modern abstract art. Artists, who had been restricted by doctrine, fixed figures, and clients and their requests, could work freely, and they had to create new styles in order to survive, which became one of the elements that promoted the development of abstract art.
It is understood that Korean artists living in Japan time in the late 1930s such as Yoo Young-kuk and Kim Whan-ki attempted abstract paintings initially and Kim Whan-ki’s 'Rondo' (1938) became the beginning of modern abstract art in Korea. After the 1950s, it was reported that Korean artists were able to learn about the abstract art of France and America through ‘Bijutsutecho’, a Japanese art magazine.
Before 'Rondo' by Kim Whan-ki, a number of abstract cover designs were produced by Ahn Seoko-joo, Kim Gyu-taek, and Lee Sun-seok in the 1920s to early 1930s. If we take a closer look at their works, they could be categorized as an independent style or school, which would enrich the world of Korean modern abstract art a bit further.
It is presumed that the individual artists were engaged in creative activities with a strong artistic will to pioneer Korean abstract based on the pride of the excellent cultural tradition of Korea rather than mimicking western abstract art. Kim Whan-ki’s pointillist works can be associated with the abstract stamped patterns found on grayish-blue powdered celadon. He was immersed in collecting white porcelains among various traditional artworks from the 1950s. Notably, the patterns on the grayish-blue powdered celadon that create an abstract ambiance by making images on the entire surface of the celadon with the flower pattern stamp are quite similar to the moderate expression in his pointillist works.
Kim Young-joo, who pioneered Korean abstract typeface, searched for his unique world of art through many troubles and much wondering, and finally, he embraced hangeul (Korean alphabet), characters, and symbols as the starti of his creative world. Hangeul made his spontaneity and originality stand out.
This exhibition includes western paintings as well as abstract artworks derived from oriental paintings and sculptures. Surely, the mode of development and the development of style in abstract art may be different in each genre, but the works in similar styles were grouped together so that they may correspond with the historical flow of Korean modern art as much as possible. It will give a chance to see how Korean modern abstract art developed in a broader sense of the genre.
With regard to time, this exhibition selected pieces produced from the 1950s, when abstract art developed in full scale in Korea, up to the present. The pieces were divided into three sections regarding philosophy, concept, and technique. Abstract artists experimented and pioneered various styles of abstract art by reflecting the circumstances at the time after the 1950s, which means that one artist’s works cannot be defined by a particular style. Nevertheless, the works are divided into specific sections regarding the style they represent, the relationship with other artists, and the layout based on the exhibition space.
The first section is titled Hot Abstract and Cold Abstract. Hot Abstract consists of informel (informal) works created after 1957, and entries include the works of Kim Hyung-dae, Yoon Myung-ro, Chang Seong-soun, Cho Yong-ik, Song Soo-nam, Park Suk-won, and Song Young-su. Cold Abstract consists of the works that express geometric abstract centering on geometric drawings and techniques from 1965, and entries include the works of Yoo Young-kuk, Rhee Seun-dja, Lee Seung-jio, Ha In-doo, Han Mook, Kwon Young-woo, Park Re-hyun, and Moon Shin.
The second section is titled Color-Field Abstract and Letter Abstract. Color-Field Abstract expressed the abstract art centering on colors than drawings. Entries include the works of Kim Whan-ki, Ryu Kyung-chai, Yoon Hyung-geun, Choi Wook-kyung, Pak No-soo, and Chun Kook-kwang. Letter Abstract consists of the works of Kim Young-joo, Nam Kwan, Lee Ung-no, and Suh Se-ok, who pioneered the field of letter abstract ingeniously.
Finally, the third section is titled Monochrome. This section consists of the works that established Korean monochrome by elevating the level of modern abstract art a step further. Entries include the works of the masters of monochrome paintings such as Quac In-sik, Kim Tschang-yeul, Park Seo-bo, Lee U-fan, Chung Sang-hwa, Chung Chang-sup, and Ha Chong-hyun.
It seems that figurative art and abstract art coexisted for an extended period, repeating rise and fall depending on the ideology of the times and the actual demand. A number of abstract motifs and relics that appeared in the prehistoric era should be categorized as 'Abstract Art of the Prehistoric Era' and be re-examined. The abstract art that emerged later in the historic era should be categorized by period and closely re-examined by comprehensively considering the circumstances at the time the works were produced because the history of Korean art has focused on figurative art until now.
Meanwhile, abstract art in the modern sense led by Kim Whan-ki should be subdivided by styles or trends in artistic senses apart from conventional divisions such as abstract art of the prehistoric and historical eras. Artists like Mark Rothko, who pioneered the field of color-field abstract wanted to create art as an absolute being beyond time and the empirical world and showed great interest in primitive art and myths. From this, we can see that the color-field abstract created in America has permeated with the abstract visual experiences from the long past.
Figurative painting is a painting of an image that people can recognize. Take pine trees, for instance. Pine trees were depicted as small objects in a huge mountain (or mountain ranges) until the early Joseon Dynasty and it was also true for blue-green landscape paintings of the Tang Dynasty. Still, however, we could recognize that they were pine trees. From the mid-Joseon Dynasty (1550-1700), pine trees were depicted on a larger scale like a close-up of a snapshot and we could recognize the pine trees more readily. The figures and pavilions that were almost hidden in old paintings were drawn larger for better recognition from then. This phenomenon appeared similarly in the west also from the Renaissance period. Today, there are paintings that solely focus on pine trees. We view all of these paintings of pine trees as figurative painting.
However, we would not recognize the pine tree if we are presented with a painting of its trunk, magnified by 1,000-2,000 times under an optical microscope. We would not recognize it and take it seriously because we would be unable to see it with the naked eyes. It can be felt from Ha In-doo’s 'Soul of Fire' series, and we take these paintings as abstract paintings. On the other hand, we have a hard time recognizing the pine trees of the Diamond Mountain, photographed by a satellite in the space far away from the mountain and presented on Google Earth. They would only look like a group of small dots.
Eventually, the minute and geometrical abstract image of the pine trunk under an optical microscope would turn into a figurative painting when it is magnified to a recognizable level. Yet, if we look at it from far away, it can turn into an abstract painting again at the level of small dots. Whether it is concrete or abstract depends on the distance and angle at which an object is presented to the human eyes. In other words, concrete is in abstraction and abstraction is in concrete. They are in complementary and close relations, not antagonistic relations, and they continue the dialectic development of thesis-antithesis-synthesis along with the advancement of the times. This trend is also expected to promote concrete and abstract as well as 'semi-abstract', which is between concrete and abstract, a bit further. It is like "Matter Itself is Voidness and Voidness Itself is Matter (色卽是空空卽是色)" as they say in Buddhism.
‘Seeing the Deep Resonance – Korea Modern Contemporary Abstract’ supported by Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Korea Sports Promotion Foundation and the Korea Arts Management Service is in cooperation with participating galleries in KIAF ART SEOUL 2020 and Art Museum, the bereaved family of artists.
- PKM GALLERY, GANA ART, GALLERY BATON, GALLERY HYUNDAI, KWANHOON GALLERY, KUKJE GALLERY, DADOART, DONG SAN BANG GALLERY, BON GALLERY, WELLSIDE GALLERY, ARARIO GALLERY, WOOSON GALLERY, GALLERY JUYOUNG, HAKGOJAE GALLERY
- JONGNO PAK NO SOO ART MUSEUM, SEUNDJA RHEE FOUNDATION, Jeeyoung JANG