Last September, the art world gathered in the Korean capital for the much-awaited inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul. The fair proved to be an immense success, drawing some 70,000 visitors across four days. It also signalled a heightened global interest in the Korean art market. But long before the recent international attention, a thriving ecosystem of public institutions, art schools and private museums such as Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art, APMA (AmorePacific Museum of Art), Horim and Art Sonje Centre have nurtured the Korean art scene. Over the past five years, major international galleries such as Pace and Lehmann Maupin have opened spaces across Seoul. Most recently, White Cube joined the roster among Thaddeus Ropac, Peres Projects, Esther Schiffer, VFS and others. Ahead of this year’s Frieze, here is everything you need to know about the Korean art market and some of the most important artists shaping Korean visual culture today.
The South Korean art auction market is also experiencing its biggest boom in decades, as Dansaekhwa (dubbed the ‘Korean monochrome painting movement’ or simply ‘Korean Abstraction’) became the international face of contemporary Korean art. The heightened interest from euro-american collectors and institutions have also increased domestic demand. Everything started in 2006 when Lee Ufan, the pioneer of the movement exhibited at Pace Gallery in New York and Lisson Gallery in London. The success of the now 85-year-old artist catapulted other artists associated with the Dansaekhwa movement to international fame. Dansaekhwa shares many traits with modernism – with American Minimalism in particular – combined with meditative calligraphy and Confucian and Buddhist philosophy. Many artists associated with Dansaekhwa developed their distinctive style, but their work is united by a timeless visual language and a strong emphasis on materiality and production techniques.
Demand for these restrained and refined abstract works, mostly made in the 1970s, have been soaring. In the Christie’s Hong Kong auction, May 2023, Park Seobo’s Écriture No. 15-76 fetched almost $1 million, almost $300,000 over the high estimate and Lee Ufan’s Dialogue recorded $1.4 million, also more than $400,000 over the high estimate.
The interest in Korean art is not limited to the art market; The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York collaborated on an exhibition on Korean experimental art in the 1960s and 1970s. After Seoul, the travelling exhibition will be in New York from September to January 2024 and move to Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from February to May. LACMA’s recent exhibition surveying Korean Modernist art, a first of its kind, and other Korean contemporary artists such as Lee Ufan, Park Seobo and Do Ho Suh demand sustained curatorial interest across the world. Here are a few noteworthy Korean artists, Dansaekwha and beyond.
Lee Ufan (b.1936)
Lee Ufan is perhaps one of the most famous living Korean artists today. As one of the leaders of Mono-ha (School of Things), the painter, sculptor, writer and philosopher working across Japan and Korea is a central figure of Dansaekhwa. His works belong in some of the most prestigious art institutions around the world, and the artist founded a museum in Arles designed by Tadao Ando as an extension of his foundation based in New York.
Park Seo-bo (b. 1931)
Along with Lee Ufan, Park is widely acknowledged as the father of the Dansaekhwa movement. Drawing inspiration from Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy as well as the Korean tradition of calligraphy, his new works from the Écriture series were exhibited in Fondazione Querini Stampalia to coincide with the 2022 Venice Biennale.
Ha Chong-Hyun (b. 1935)
Like many Dansaekhwa artists, Ha Chong-hyun continues a labour-intensive, process-based body of work to redefine the materiality of canvas. In the 2022 Venice Biennale, Ha held a solo exhibition at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa and his works are in some of the most prestigious collections around the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Centre Pompidou and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929-2021)
Spanning the early 1970s to the present day, Kim Tschang-Yeul devoted his career to water droplets to confront the dichotomy between nature and contemporary culture. Large paintings of the water droplet series achieved $1.26 million in 2021 while many of his works are in notable public collections such as Centre Pompidou, Hirshhorn Museum, LACMA and the National Museum of Modern Art, Japan. La Goutte et le Trait, a solo exhibition dedicated to the water droplet series will be on display in Musée Cernuschi, Paris until 30 July 2023.
Lee Bae (b.1956)
On 8 June, a giant 21-foot charcoal sculpture was unveiled in the Rockefeller Centre Channel Gardens, New York. Lee Bae is the first Korean artist presenting in the iconic space. Charcoal has become synonymous with the artist as it becomes a metaphor for the cycle of life. Lee’s latest series of charcoal ink on canvas and paper crystallises random elemental gestures, recording his movement and time.
Beyond Dansaekhwa: Some of the Leading Artists Working Today
Do Ho Suh (b. 1962)
Best known for silk sculptures of his former homes in Korea, New York, Berlin and London reconstructed to scale, Do Ho Suh works across various media, creating drawings, film, and sculptural works that confront questions of home, physical space, displacement, memory, individuality, and collectivity. His popularity is shared across collectors and institutions alike across the world, from Art Basel to the Guggenheim. Tracing Time, Suh’s solo exhibition in the National Galleries of Scotland will open in February 2024.
Lee Bul (b. 1964)
Lee Bul is a leading contemporary sculpture and installation artist, recently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre (2018). Her work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalisation of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres. In 1999, Lee was awarded an honourable mention at the 48th Venice Biennale for her contribution to both the Korean Pavilion and the international exhibition curated by Harald Szeemann.