For the last couple of decades, both academia and the general public outside Korea have shown increasing interest in the contemporary art of Korea and this along with the expanding curiosity about Korean pop culture in general has germinated much scholarship on Korean art history. Correspondingly, Korean art historians and curators have made great efforts to introduce modern Korean art to English readers and to discuss it in terms of the international discourse on art. The fruit of such efforts to date includes two concise survey books on twentieth-century Korean art: Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea (2005) by Kim Youngna and Modern Korean Ink Painting (2006) by Chung Hyung-Min. Joan Kee’s Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013) is the first specialized scholarly book on contemporary Korean art published in English outside Korea and also the first book on contemporary Asian art to be nominated for the Charles Rufus Morey award and to become one of the four finalists for that prize.
As the book’s subtitle makes clear, it is about tansaekhwa (單色化, monochrome painting), the most significant trend in Korean art during the second half of the twentieth century. Korean art critic Yoon Jin-sup, who curated the large-scale retrospective Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome [End Page 157] Painting (2012) at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, has long advocated the use of the term tansaekhwa. Joan Kee employed the Korean term in a way that goes far beyond its literal meaning, using it for those various characteristics of Korean monochrome paintings during the 1970s and onward that make them a recognizable and contestable movement in Korean art equal to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, or Japanese Mono-ha. Tansaekhwa was similar in outlook to Cartesian, conceptual, and visually oriented forms of abstraction in being self-referential but was very different in its perspective and in its objectives because it was based on ideas accumulated from abstractionism and experimental avant-gardism in the preceding art movements in Korea of the 1950s and 1960s. In order to highlight the materiality, tactility, and temporality of tansaekhwa, which were achieved by the artists’ obsessive concern with painting method, a large portion of the book is dedicated to the meticulous formal analysis of selected artworks. The silent and authoritarian abstract paintings are deconstructed by the microscopic description of their artists’ involvement in the process of painting each painting, particularly their labored experiments with materials that changed with time and gravity. Moreover, the thorough examination of the documentation on the artists, paintings, exhibitions, institutions and critiques empowers the discussion on tansaekhwa, giving it both historicity and objectivity. Such a writing strategy creates narratives about tansaekhwa that complete its multi-layered communication with its viewers and its ambivalent negotiation with its social and global context.
The horizontally evanescing yet rhythmically resurging dots of the frontispiece by Lee Ufan invites us into the exciting journey offered by this elaborately structured narrative of tansaekhwa. The main chapters of the book focus on five first-generation tansaekhwa artists: Kwon Youngwoo, Yun Hyungkeun, Ha Chonghyun, Lee Ufan, and Park Seobo. Each case study is linked in a web to the others and to their art-historical and sociopolitical surroundings.
The first chapter introduces how Kwon Young-woo and Yun Hyongkeun questioned the view of Oriental ink painting and Western oil painting as dichotomous and how they sought to reveal and overcome the distinction between the two through new methods of painting. Kwon challenged the distinction between ink painting and oil painting by making abstract ink paintings constructed mainly of traditional Korean paper. Likewise, Yun achieved the resonating effect of ink painting in his Umber Blue series that he did in oil on canvas and displayed them in a way that involved their viewers in a mutual dialogue with these works that dissolved the very realm of distinction. The second chapter extends [End Page 158] the discussion into Korea’s colonial legacy and into tansaekhwa’s connection to...