Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 24, 2024
Yeon Shim Chung, Sunjung Kim, Kimberly Chung, and Keith B. Wagner Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction Phaidon, 2020. 360 pp.; 410 color ills. Cloth $79.95 ('9780714878331)
Virginia Moon, ed. The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art Exh. cat. DelMonico Books in association with Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2024. 328 pp.; 228 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781636810584)

Amidst the international recognition of South Korean art since the 1990s, scholars have devoted increasing attention to Korean modernism and contemporary practices. Following pioneering studies such as Youngna Kim’s Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea (2005) and Charlotte Horlyck’s Korean Art from the 19th century to the Present (2017), two recent publications present English readership with additional insights into the styles, mediums, and subjects of Korean art from the past century: Korean Art From 1953: Collision, Innovation and Interaction (Phaidon, 2020) and the exhibition catalog The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art (2022). The year 1953, marking the beginning of the Korean postwar period, serves as the starting point of the Phaidon volume, while the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) catalog brings together the pre- and postwar eras. These books, richly illustrated, written in an accessible scholarly language, and organized thematically, hold appeal for both specialists and nonspecialists alike. That these Korean art histories are only now being written is notable, and the reasons for the delay can be gleaned from their pages. 

The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art was the title of LACMA’s, and the United States’ first large-scale exhibition devoted to Korean art since 1897. Held between September 11, 2022, and February 19, 2023, the exhibition featured one hundred thirty works encompassing oil and ink painting, photography, sculpture, and more. This exhibition represents the second major Korean art exhibition at LACMA in the course of its decade-long partnership with the Hyundai Motor Company. It was coorganized with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Korea, with support by the Samsung Corporation. Support from these influential entities not only offered financial advantages but also facilitated essential art loans, such as some never-before-seen works from the collection of the late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee. LACMA’s associate curator of Korean art, Virginia Moon, serves as the volume’s editor and pens three essays, including the introduction. Curators and scholars based in Korea and the United States—Mok Soohyun, Kwon Heangga, Kang Mingi, Kim Inhye, Kim Yisoon, and Joan Kee—are the other contributors. The Space Between conceptually alludes to the interval between the traditional era, marked by the end of the Joseon period (1392–1910), and the contemporary epoch, defined by Moon as following the 1980s. During this “space between,” the country experienced Japanese colonization (1910–1945), the Korean War (1950–53), and the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (1961–79). Those traumatic decades have hitherto rendered the art of this period, states Moon, “emotionally difficult to address” (9). To be more precise, certain historiographical tensions have likely hindered the telling of this history.

One such tension could involve setting aside the suffering Korean nation-state as the dominant subject. Doing so, as demonstrated by this exhibition, allows us to gain a wider perspective. This transnational Korean art history features men and women, foreigners active in the country and natives seeking overseas opportunities, Western-style abstract artists and the minoritized practitioners of literati-style painting, and other major actors who contributed to modern art in Korea. The exhibition acknowledges well-known figures while also introducing those who have slipped into relative obscurity. Even where biographical information is scant, this volume still honors lesser-known artists such as Chu Kyung (1905–79) with full-page illustrations. This editorial choice deserves special mention. As readers ponder the creators behind these interesting works, they also see a fuller range of practices. No doubt, this strategy is also meant to invite further research into what is little-known but still illuminating for the era. Achieving a more equitable gender representation is another distinctive objective. Besides the prominent figure of Rha Hye-Seok (1896–1948), this exhibition presents six additional female artists. Notably, Paik Nam-soon (1904–94) was the first Korean woman artist to show her art in Europe through participating in the Salon des Tuileries in 1929. Rhee Seundja (1918–2009), another adventurous woman, made France her home after being forced to separate from her family. Creative and personal autonomy is a prevailing theme in the exhibition’s curatorial choices. The decades under examination saw artists frequently breaking with their initial training and their prescribed roles, to forge individual expressions.

The Space Between is organized into five thematic sections that follow a rough chronological order, with essays that focus on early twentieth-century ink and oil paintings: “Photography;” “The New Woman movement,” which is accompanied by an interview with the fashion designer Nora Noh; “Polychrome ink painting and sculpture” by artists working overseas; and “The emergence of contemporary art in Korea.” The attention given to photography, sculpture, and fashion design in particular, is to “restore balance to all the artistic media emerging in Korea during this time” (16). As the international art worlds became more interconnected, the catalog describes how Korean artists engaged with both direct and indirect transmission of foreign art, while some artists’ styles defied neat categorization. Within an artist’s career, clean developmental trajectories are often difficult to identify, as multiple possibilities could become available all at once. For example, the painting titled Family (1930–35) by the German-educated Pai Unsoung (1900–78) amalgamates Korean aesthetics, Dutch group portraits, and nineteenth-century photography. Nevertheless, The Space Between succeeds in locating the missing link to contemporary Korean art in the experimental spirit, technical innovations, myriad art collectives, and cosmopolitanism of the previous era—a stated goal of this exhibition.

Among the art and artists featured are many “firsts” in Korea: the earliest extant oil painting, the first artist to study in Paris, the unprecedented representation of women as the sole subject, the unheard-of artist self-portrait, the trailblazing solo exhibition of artistic photography, the first woman to establish herself as a painter in oils, the first woman to exhibit in Europe, the pioneering movement to show nationalistic pride while employing imported Western mediums, the first art group that specialized in nihonga or Japanese-style modern paintings, the earliest cross-fertilization of painting and photography, and so forth. But to say that there was total artistic freedom would be misleading. In the colonial period, the genre of miinhwa (paintings of beautiful women) often adhered closely to established models in Japan’s bijinga. Korean artists differentiated themselves from the colonial system by exhibiting with nongovernmental exhibitions run by Koreans. With the start of the Cold War, Limb Eung-Sik who photographed the “desolation and despair of the post [Korean] war environment” risked being compared to socialist realism which was condemned in South Korea. He coined the term saenghwal-juui (life-oriented realism) to clarify his approach yet was still criticized by subsequent generations. We see not just the traumas of subjugation and military conflict, but a divided community along ideological lines, including the long-time silence in South Korea about artists who defected to the North. Works by defectors like Lee Qoede (1913–65) remained inaccessible for study and exhibition in the South until 1988. 

It would have been useful to see some contextualization of the relationship of Korea to its neighboring countries.  Hanja or Chinese characters are commonly used with a corresponding Korean pronunciation in most names, and they could be seen in some of the artworks in the exhibition, such as the iconic photograph Job Hunting by Limb Eung-Sik, but the glossary omits Chinese names of artists. Of course, a book on Korean art need not have Chinese characters, but there seems to be a general downplaying of Chinese factors in accounting for the history in question. In Kang Mingi’s analysis of polychrome ink painting, for example, the artist Lee Sangbeom is described as having developed a unique technique, a novel twist of the “‘rice dot’ style of his 1930s work and ‘axe-cut’ texture of his 1940s work.” For those unfamiliar with the Korean ink tradition, “rice dot” refers to the “Mi dot” named after Mi Youren (1086–1165) of China’s Song dynasty (960–1276). While “Mi” can be literally translated as “rice,” the dotting style itself is an idiom intrinsic to the Chinese ink painting tradition. However, this crucial context is omitted from the text. Despite the enduring Sinitic relationships developed during the Joseon dynasty that inflect modern and contemporary art, especially in calligraphy and ink painting, this connection is only fleetingly addressed.  Given the overarching principle of inclusivity applied throughout the catalog, the evasive treatment of any kind of Chinese-inspired tradition raises questions. Hanja is similarly left out in the glossary of Korean Art From 1953.

Korean Art From 1953 focuses on the postwar period, especially art movements and collectives. Like the LACMA study, this book deals with both art in Korea and the Korean diaspora, alongside intersections with global trends. Thirteen chapters by eleven writers make up the volume to explore a broad range of themes: postwar contexts, experimental art, Dansaekhwa (painting in a single color), Minjung art (the People’s art), photography, socialist realism in North Korea, New Generation art, biennales, gender, media art, and Korean American art. Some overlaps are apparent between the two volumes, notably concerning the areas of photography and gender discourse. However, their time frames and foci of inquiry are quite different. Read together, they are complementary and serve purposes ranging from public education to scholarly research and university-level references.

Colonial discourse around “Koreanness” opens the first chapter by Cary Park. The Japanese authority’s promotion of lyrical and romanticized landscape paintings—termed hyangtosaek (local color), joseonsaek (the color of Joseon), and simply saek (color or local color)—aimed to relegate Korea as a primitivized ideal, as Japan did to its other colony Taiwan. But ironically, as Park demonstrates, this colonial aesthetic opened the door to resistant indigeneity. Artists such as Park Sookeun (1914–65) and Kim Whanki (1913–74) expressed a love for Korean heritage by depicting rural scenery and the incorporation of formal elements borrowed from Korean ceramics. These artists carved out some personal space for individualism without completely exiting the approved colonial framework. These types of work helped lay the foundation for the postwar inventiveness. In 1963, Kim’s involvement in the seventh São Paulo Biennale unveiled before him the potential for the “internationalization” of Korean art. Towards this goal, his paintings grew larger and more abstract, culminating in his “dot” paintings done in New York between 1963 and 1974. The foundation of Mukrimhoe (Association of the Forest of Ink) in 1960 was also grounded in the concept of an avant-garde centered on reinterpreting the traditional ink medium and not only in oil painting.

The 1960s also saw the staging of social protests materialized through performance art, particularly emblematic with the “4.19” generation, denoting the democratic movement that erupted on April 19, 1960. Yeon Shim Chung discusses artists’ rebelliousness as not being aimed solely against political repression in Korea, but also at Westcentric paradigms that prevailed during the zenith of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism. The latter is epitomized by collectives such as the Origin Group, which advocated logical order and geometric restraint over pictorial expressiveness. This attitude engendered geometric abstraction laden with illusionistic effects and concepts steeped in Buddhist philosophy. Developments in antiart, postmaterialist performance, and environmental art collectively subverted the dominant Gukjeon (National Exhibition). In May 1968 the woman artist Jung Kang-ja asked the viewers to press sticky transparent balloons onto her near-naked body. Another performer who was supposed to participate failed to show up because of a rumored crackdown by the police. Gendered censorship was commonplace. Government authorities and the conservative general public alike took an antagonistic stance toward the avant-garde.

Beyond the emergence of new Korean vernacular, the 1960s was when the voices of pioneering art critics such as Lee Yil (1932–97) and Oh Gwang-su (b. 1938) first resonated. They published essays in Hondaehakbo, Space magazine, and the journal of the association of the Avant-Garde (AG) (est. 1969). Lee is here highlighted as a champion of emerging artists. As a Sorbonne-educated and Paris-based correspondent, he found inspiration in the exhibition Les jeunes peintres coréens at the Galerie Lambert in 1963. This event showcased the works of young Park Seo-bo, Kim Chong-hak, Chung Sang-hwa, and Kwon Ok-yeon. The Paris Biennale (inaugurated in 1959) further played a role in introducing young Korean artists to the West in the postwar era. A noteworthy effort of this volume lies in its attention to the interplay among artists, critics, and art publishers. Equally valuable are the extensive archival materials included, such as rare exhibition and performance photographs, affording readers a glimpse into the historical context in which artworks were experienced. This holds even greater significance considering the substantial losses incurred under South Korea’s surveillance state, which tightly controlled private and public discourses.

Kim Yisoon undertakes a nuanced exploration of Dansaekhwa, which stands as the most internationally renowned among Korean’s contemporary postwar art movements. Lee Yil hailed it “the representative art style of the 1970s.” The movement was called several different names, while its exact origins and nature are sometimes misunderstood. In contrast to a mere engagement with flat surfaces, Dansaekhwa artists consistently pushed the boundaries between two- and three-dimensionality, simultaneously redefining “painting.” Even though from earlier discussions it seems quite a few Korean artists ventured abroad, the majority had very little exposure to international art until the 1990s. This era also marked the proliferation of private and corporate museums, a phenomenon analyzed in this book for its profound impact on the Korean art landscape. Within this context, Sunjung Kim offers a glimpse into the shift effected by the new art spaces and how they have expanded the scope of art from the point of view of the general public. By the 2010s, art has evolved into a potent soft power tool in South Korean nationalism.

Five chapters delve into the concept of Korean art as a dynamic process of cultural interpenetration. The topics of Keith B. Wagner and Sunjung Kim’s chapter: Gwangju Biennale, Busan Biennale, and Mediacity Seoul (Korea’s first international media art biennale) serve as prominent exemplars wherein the art world’s center and periphery—Global South and Global North—become linked. Turning to feminist art, Dong-Yeon Koh traces the roots of Korean feminism to protest the unfair treatment of female workers and laborers during the democratic Minjung Movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Recurrent themes include the definition of womanhood and the prevalent exploitation of the female body in art history and popular culture, both locally and internationally. Moreover, feminist theories from France and the United States inspired a slew of important art festivals and exhibitions in Korea as the 1990s progressed. In another chapter, Jung E. Choi posits the existence of a distinctive third space inhabited by Korean media artists (besides Nam June Paik) from the 1980s to the present. Within this realm, interests in the interplay between the man-made and the natural world unfolded with great originality.

Yeon Shim Chung and Kimberley Chung hone in on Korea’s long-term struggles with the imperializing discourses in the post-1980s contemporary milieu. Their final chapters examine the contributions of diasporic Korean artists and Korean American artists in dismantling the dichotomy of local versus global, center versus margin. The authors argue that these artists’ transgressive practices crossing geographical, national, psychological, and gender lines diverge markedly from the construction of a “Korean” identity seen in Dansaekhwa or Minjung art. However, one could contend that the process of hybridity also underpinned these movements, with differences existing primarily in degree. It is plausible that the consciousness of one’s “intermediary position” is simply more acute in Korean diasporic and Korean American art. Overall, Korean Art from 1953, beautifully designed with a sumptuous cloth cover, fulfills its ambition of presenting Korean art in the broadest terms. The superb writing and editing effectively bring out the intricacies of this multifaceted history, making this book an indispensable resource for scholars and enthusiasts.

Aida Yuen Wong
Brandeis University