The artist lifts his brush. Before him is an empty canvas, significantly larger than the artist himself. The only other thing in the room is the large can of blue paint. The artist begins. A patch of blue pigment is laid on the canvas. The artist continues. There is another patch of blue pigment, only this time thinner. The artist continues again, and again, until the entire canvas is filled with fading dots of blue. The painting as a whole is rhythmical and dynamic, like raindrops hitting the ground; but the process is an arduous repetition of humble, uncomplicated movements. It’s a spiritual and meditative method. What it reminds us of is not the confidence of avant-garde artists. What we see is the devotion of medieval monks copying manuscripts word by word.
This meditative repetition is one of the important features of Korean Dansaekhwa(단색화/literally “monochrome paintings”). On the surface, it shares much similarities with later abstract expressionism and minimalism. However, the movement is unique in terms of process and principle. The process of painting is turned into a ritual towards transcendence. It is unlike Minimalists who worked with strict adherence to grids, using precise and industrial materials where the artists’ hand had only a secondary role. The Dansaekhwa artists used hands and rote repetition. The techniques of meditation ranged from endlessly repeated dots of paint, to unending pencil strokes that cover the entire canvas. No such characteristics can be found in the works of Frank Stella or Donald Judd.
Tactility is another defining feature of Dansaekhwa. It’s the opposite direction of post-painterly abstraction. Whatever choice of media the artist used, it reveals itself in the form of grooves, scratches and textures. The artists used various techniques and media to produce this effect. Ha Chonghyun applied paint behind the canvas and pushed it through. Kim Kirin airbrushed paint layer after layer, Park Seobo used pencils to draw and scratch through freshly painted canvases. Their works were not limited to traditional painting canvas. Surfaces such as hanji(Korean traditional paper) and even old newspapers were painted on. The result is abundant texture that is protrudes from the flat surface. Danseakhwa invites our fingers to touch it. It challenges the hegemony and victory of “pure” paintings, and introduces a tactility into a field dominated by strictly visual elements.
There are speculations and theories as to what gave rise to this movement of art. Some attribute the movement to the political landscape of 70s Korea. The military dictatorship that lasted from the 1970s to the late 80s. Under the oppressive regimes where dissent was not tolerated. Frustrated or afraid, the visual arts turned to ascetic and disinterested meditation. The movement is often criticized for deliberately staying away from the contemporary sociopolitical issues. It also took a leap away from the stylistic legacies of Choseon Art Exhibition(조선미술전람회/ 朝鮮美術展覽會) during the colonial period. The adherence to figurative art and primitive, regionalistic themes was replaced by meditative abstraction. Modern art movements like abstract expressionism and art informel is arguably an important influence. The abstract art movements were probably seen and interpreted by the artists, who in turn invented the unique style of Danseakhwa. Notable pioneers of this movement include Chung Sangsup, Chung Sanghwa, Ha Chonghyeon, Hur Hwang, Kim Whanki, Kwon Young-woo, Lee Ufan, Park Seobo and more.
The Korean group of artists only recently gained international attention. Most prominent artists of the movement produced their works during the 1970s. Though Dansaekhwa was already an important part of Korean modern art, it debuted in the international art world with Joan Kee’s Book Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method(2013), the first text in English to discuss the movement in depth. Following a series of exhibitions, the Dansaekhwa paintings received considerable attention. Their value increased greatly in the art market. According to the Korean media Munhwailbo, the works of four renowned Dansaekhwa artists increased twentyfold from 2005 to 2015. There are some disputes as whether the new fame is a belated appreciation of an important movement or a ephemeral commercial success. Regardless, its rediscovery certainly is an important event for Korean art and its identity in the past and present.