Park Seo-Bo was a leading figure in contemporary Korean art. Born in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang province, in 1931, he was among the first generation of artists to build their careers in the wake of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53). Park began his artistic training at the Hongik University, where he studied under Kim Whanki, the pioneer of Korean abstract painting. Graduating in 1955, Park was one of the emerging artists who reacted against the academic conservatism of the Kukjon, the National Art Exhibition system. This marked the start of Park’s pioneering role in Korea’s ‘Art Informel’ movement, spearheaded by the young artists of the Contemporary Artists Association (Hyeondae Misul Hyeohoe). Despite the limited information then available in Korea about Art Informel in Europe and Abstract Expressionism, Park challenged the assumptions of the dominant representational Korean art style, and explored conceptually and materially abstract forms and experimentation. 

Park Seo-Bo, working in the HANSEODANG studio of Anseong 1981. Photo Courtesy The Seobo Art Foundation.

Known for his “Écriture” series, Park developed an unconventional new technique. This began in the early 1970s as ‘pencil-écriture’, inspired by his three-year-old son’s rudimentary penmanship. Witnessing his son’s frustration during a handwriting exercise, Park began to emulate his mark-making by drawing numerous delicate repetitive graphite lines on a canvas coated with gesso and wet, white paint. The gentle movement of Park’s ‘graphisme’ creates a vibrating effect in which the artist emphasised the meditative aspects of an art technique derived from endless repetition – to the point of “emptying oneself out”. “Écriture” is French for writing, though Park preferred the Korean “Myobop”, which translates as “method of describing”. In this process, Taoist and Buddhist philosophies underpin the spiritual journey intrinsic to this approach. Through repetitive action, Park was able to harness a flow of energy which focussed his restless creativity and mind on a path of self-discipline and self-improvement, akin to the scholar-monks of ancient Korean tradition.

Park Seo-Bo, “Écriture No.55-73,” (1973). The series has tight graphite rows flowing across an expanse more than 9 feet wide. Photo credit Park Seo-Bo and Solomon R. Guggenheim. Photo Courtesy The New York Times.

Parallels can be drawn between Park Seo-Bo’s 'Ecriture' and the work of his contemporaries, including Lee Ufan, Chung Chang-Sup, and Kwon Young-Woo, who also employed monochrome colour palettes and repetitive gestures. Park was the founding figure of Dansaekhwa or Korean Monochrome Painting. He once said that “Without reaching that spiritual realm, painting becomes something that’s merely pretending to be Dansaekhwa,”. Throughout his life, Park saw art as a tool for spiritual contemplation, and during the 1980s, he applied the gentle technique of his Écriture to traditional Korean hanji paper. Made from mulberry bark, hanji preserves the ancient scriptures of Korean Buddhism. To Park, the material offered endless opportunities of experimentation but most significantly, represented a connection between his works and the natural world. The artist would add layers of hanji underneath the paint and use his hands and wooden sticks to create lines. The artist believed his work was not an expression of himself but instead implied that his role as an artist was to allow the material to speak for itself. As he once said, ‘My pieces are products of a dynamic harmony between the material properties of hanji and my Myobop technique’.

Park Seo-Bo’s atelier at Hapjung-dong, Seoul, 1977. Credit Ryu Kisung, via GIZI Foundation Photo Courtesy The New York Times.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Park Seo-Bo worked primarily with black and white, as they represent profound East Asian philosophy. Black as a metaphor for time and pure emptiness; white as a symbol of spirituality and the void. Park’s ambition was to use ‘colours that heal’ in an attempt to create paintings that restore peace to a world of rapid change. In the 2000s, the artist became inspired by the radiant autumn colours around Mount Bandai near Fukushima, his colour Écriture works on hanji paper became imbued with sculptural bursts of colour, marking a clear transition from his early natural tone paintings. The result is a striking meditation of materials and textural contrast, which calms the viewer and brings one closer to the pure beauty of nature. 

“Écriture No. 110502,” 2011, mixed media with Korean hanji paper on canvas. Credit Park Seo-Bo and Kukje Gallery. Photo Courtesy The New York Times.

Park Seo-Bo was recognised throughout his career. Between 1962 and 1994, he taught at Seoul's Hongik University, his alma mater and one of the most prestigious art institutions in Korea. In 1991 Park had two major retrospectives at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, titled "Park Seo-Bo's Painting: Its Forty Years," and the second in 2019, titled "Park Seo-Bo: The Untiring Endeavourer". At the 2015 Venice Biennale, his work received international recognition at the Dansaekhwa exhibition. In March 2021, White Cube presented a large solo exhibition of Park's work. Later that year, the painter was awarded the Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit, bestowed by the South Korean government for services in the fields of culture and art that promote national culture and development. His works are in the collection of prestigious museums around the world, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Chicago Art Institute, Pompidou Center in Paris and Hong Kong's M+. Today, the Seo-bo Art and Cultural Foundation, which Park Seo-Bo founded in 1994, continues to support young Korean artists and contemporary Korean art. In 2024, two museums will be dedicated to Park’s work: one in Jongno-gu, Seoul and the other a private museum in Jeju Island, to be opened in March.

Park is survived by his wife Yoon Myeong-sook, two sons and a daughter.