Think of South Korea today – K-pop, karaoke and plastic surgery will surely come to mind, followed by images of Seoul’s cutting-edge districts, where the latest trends in food, fashion and art are being cooked up and served to a public hungry for the new.

It’s almost hard to imagine that 40 years earlier, the avant-garde was embodied by a loose group of artists, among them Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo, Chung Chang-Sup and Kim Whan-ki, whose meditative monochrome paintings were inspired by processes, materials and nature.

And perhaps even harder to understand why they have recently emerged as some of the hottest and most desirable names on the art market. Now referred to as part of the Dansaekhwa movement (literally translated as “monochrome painting”), these painters have created something of a storm in the art world in the space of only two and a half years.

It all started with a book. In 2013, Joan Kee, associate professor of history of art at the University of Michigan, introduced Dansaekhwa to the West with Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, the first publication on the topic written in English. Shortly thereafter, in late 2014, three major shows with Dansaekhwa artists opened in Seoul, Paris and Los Angeles, at Kukje Gallery, Galerie Perrotin and Blum & Poe, respectively, the latter curated by Kee. Still going strong and with five shows by Korean artists under its belt since, Galerie Perrotin is currently showcasing works by Chung in its Hong Kong branch.

World-renowned museums like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Paris’s Centre Pompidou and Hong Kong’s very own M+ soon began to acquire works for their permanent collections, further cementing the group’s already strong global presence.

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In response to such institutional success, Kukje Gallery, in collaboration with Tina Kim, New York and Boghossian Foundation, Brussels, mounted the highly-praised group exhibition “Dansaekhwa” as part of the official Collateral Event programme of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Describing this show as “strikingly memorable”, Jonathan Crockett, Phillips Asia’s deputy chairman and head of 20th century and contemporary art, cites it as a personal favourite and one of the strongest presentations that year.

According to Kee, much of Korean art’s commercial and critical popularity is, in fact, the result of a more general “turn to art history,” or in other words “the commitment to think more broadly about histories of modernism and abstraction”. Similar to the Gutai movement in Japan, Dansaekhwa rose to attention due to a desire to explore significant movements, which were previously overlooked in the grand, usually Western, art historical narrative.

Despite their often-mentioned resemblance to American abstraction of the same period, these works are profoundly Korean. “They are original modes of expression discovered autonomously by a post-war generation of artists who grew up experiencing the Japanese occupation and military dictatorship without the privilege of freedom of expression,” explains Kukje Gallery founder and chairwoman Hyun-Sook Lee.


They are original modes of expression discovered autonomously by a post-war generation of artists who grew up experiencing the Japanese occupation and military dictatorship without the privilege of freedom of expression
Hyun-Sook Lee
 

In their own way, these artists looked to nature as a reaction to their disappointment in, or perhaps disillusionment with, humanity under such political conditions. Materials were central to their works and it is their raw, earthly qualities that these artists extracted and highlighted in a simple and restrained aesthetic. Chung used traditional Korean paper Hanji instead of canvas, while Ha Chong-Hyun worked with coarse, plain-woven hemp on the back of which he applied a thick layer of paint that he then pushed through the holes. Park scribbled with a pencil on freshly-painted canvases and Lee painted lines down canvases until his brush ran dry.

For now, this wave has not lost any of its momentum. According to the Blouin Art Sales Index, no less than 250 works by these artists went under the hammer in 2016 alone, a steep increase from the 80 works sold in 2013. This year also saw the record of the highest price achieved for any Korean artist break when Kim Whan-ki’s 1970 painting Untitled fetched a solid US$4.2 million at Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong sale in April.

Sotheby’s, leveraging Korea’s incredibly popular music industry, invited K-pop icon and avid collector T.O.P to curate #TTTOP, an evening sale of Western and Asian contemporary art. Though the social media buzz it created could have sufficed to measure its success among a new, younger generation of collectors, the exercise also proved fruitful as it earned the house a total of US$17.4 million for 28 lots, with a work by Lee selling for US$1.403 million and another by Park for US$830,502.

This winter, Phillips Asia also offered works by these same artists in its inaugural sale in Hong Kong, after witnessing strong demand by both established and emerging collectors in its New York and London sales.

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If the last two years have seen Korean artists showcased outside their home country, recent developments suggest that galleries are looking to make their way in to build strong relationships with local collectors. Taking the lead in April was Galerie Perrotin which opened a space in Seoul on the ground floor of the building that also houses Christie’s’ decade-old outpost.

When asked if Seoul was on its way to becoming a global contemporary art hub, Alice Lung, the co-director of the gallery in Hong Kong and Seoul, said she was confident in the city’s commitment to diversifying its artistic programme through international shows, adding that South Korea in fact counts the world’s greatest number of private art museums. Following this lead, fellow blue chip dealer Pace Gallery, already present across the United States, Europe and Asia, announced its plan to expand by opening an office in the capital.

Could Dansaekhwa’s popularity eventually be dismissed as yet another commercial fad? It’s unlikely, Lee says, because “the overwhelming consensus is that Dansaekhwa is still underappreciated.”

With critical acclaim and prices soaring, a fresh crop of collectors will have to take over for the market not to plateau. And it could very well be found soon in China, where the first Dansaekhwa exhibition will take place at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai next year.

New Dansaekhwa artists to look out for

Our experts tell us which contemporary Korean artists they believe will be the next big thing, following in the footsteps of the Dansaekhwa painters who have paved the way to international opportunities and recognition. 

Jonathan Crockett:
“There is certainly a selection of up-and-coming Korean artists who are starting to receive recognition on the world stage, including mid-career artist Suh Do-ho, Suh whose monumental welcome mat created from hundreds of tiny figures featured in our inaugural sale in Asia.” 

Hyun-Sook Lee:
“I would like to point to Haegue Yang and Kyungah Ham. Yang recently held exhibitions at the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, while Ham received terrific attention in response to her exhibitions at the Encounters sector of Art Basel, Hong Kong and the Taipei Biennial, both in 2016.” 

Alice Lung:
“Anicka Yi is arguably one of the most noteworthy contemporary Korean artists. She is known for her works that stimulate the olfactory senses, which is a fairly rare concept in the dominantly visual world of conceptual art. She was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize in October, and as a result, her works will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum next year.”

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