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7 Contemporary Korean artists you need to know

BY Susan Gray

3rd Aug 2023 Art & Theatre

7 Contemporary Korean artists you need to know
With Yun Hyong-keun's work on display for the first time at Hastings Contemporary this summer, we look at seven contemporary Korean artists you should know about
Overshadowed by the Second World War and much more televised Vietnam War, the Korean War (1950–1953) is known as the Forgotten War for good reason. But the conflict’s permanent splitting of the Korean peninsula, between North and South, and high level of civilian casualties and destruction of cities and infrastructure greatly influenced Korean artists in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Yun Hyong-keun

At Hastings Contemporary, the first UK public gallery exhibition of Yun Hyong-keun (1928–2007) exemplifies the elements associated with Dansaekhwa, the non-figurative, monochrome style that evolved in mid-century Korea. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the country found itself isolated from the rest of the world’s art markets and movements. This led South Korean artists to create their own set of rules derived from Korean tradition in the field of abstraction.
Yun Hyong-keun portrait
Yun Hyong-keun, 1989 © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery.
Born in Cheongju, South Korea, Yun enrolled at Seoul National University to study Western painting in 1947, but the Korean War disrupted his studies, and he eventually graduated ten years later from Seoul’s Hongik University.
Yun’s distinctive style emerged in 1973, when his work was not only informed by nature but also by calligrapher Chusa Kin Jeong-hui. Yun also engaged with Western art—in the early 1980s he relocated his family to Paris for two years, and in 1991 he met with celebrated American minimalist Donald Judd (1928–1994).
"South Korean artists created their own set of rules derived from Korean tradition in the field of abstraction"
Yun used these influences to create his signature palette of umber (the colour of earth) and ultramarine (the colour of heaven) to create rectilinear (that is, consisting of straight lines) compositions, reminiscent of traditional East Asian ink wash paintings.
Pigment diluted with turpentine allowed Yun to layer paint over weeks, sometimes months, to create fields of intense darkness. Hastings Contemporary has screened its lower gallery’s window and rooflights to create a chapel atmosphere, bringing out the intensity of the hues.
Yun Hyong-keun Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue 1999 Oil on linen 209 x 291.4 cm © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery
Yun Hyong-keun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1999. Oil on linen © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery.
On one wall a triptych of works—Burnt Umber & Ultramarine (1978), Umber-Blue ’78 -33 (1978) and Untitled ’93-23 (1993)—has a broad sweep of beige in the centre, representing an expansive approach to the gates of heaven. By contrast three works on the opposite wall, Umber Blue 77 (1977), Umber Blue (1977), and Umber Blue ’77-25 (1977), have a narrower stripe of central light colour, resembling an arrow slit in a castle wall.
Strangely the light feels easier to comprehend, and more accessible, in the second set of paintings than the first. Yun explained: "The thesis of my painting is the gate of heaven and earth. Blue is the colour of heaven, while umber is the colour of earth. Thus I call them ‘heaven and earth’, with the gate serving as the composition."

Other prominent artists

Ha Chong-Hyun
Other prominent artists in Dansaekhwa include Ha Chong-Hyun (born 1935), who came to prominence with his "Conjunction" series in the early 1970s. These early experiments led him to build his signature style, pushing the paint from the back to the front of hemp cloth.
"Other prominent artists in Dansaekhwa include Ha Chong-Hyun"
He has used material experimentation and innovative studio processes to redefine the role of painting, playing a significant role bridging the avant-garde traditions between East and West
Hur Hwang
Hur Hwang (born 1946) lives and works in South Korea. His paintings are characterized by his use of the colour white, which he believes invokes diverse psychological responses.
He creates his own paint out of a thick mix of natural stone powder, which he pours onto the canvas, marking the surfaces without intervention from the artist. His paintings are characterized by the many shades of white he achieves. 
Park Seo-Bo
Park Seo-Bo (born 1931) is credited as being the father of the Dansaekhwa movement, and best known for "Escritures" series.
Park Seo-Bo
Park Seo-Bo at the group exhibition of the Young Painters of the World in Paris, 1961 © 선의의 바람, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
After experimenting with Western abstraction during his time in Paris in 1961, Park began to explore a more introspective methodology that had its origins in Taoist and Buddhist philosophy and also in the Korean tradition of calligraphy.
Lee Dong-Youb
Lee Dong-Youb (born 1946) participated in a group show entitled "Five Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White" held at Tokyo Gallery in 1975, which is often credited as the exhibition introducing Dansaekhwa for the first time.
Lee Dong-Youb created white surface Dansaekhwa for over 50 years. For him, the colour white is a void for consciousness and a vessel for thought. His white canvas reminds the viewer to fill the work with thought and interpretation.
Lee Ufan
Lee Ufan (born 1936) studied calligraphy and painting in South Korea, and went on to work in Japan. The artist came to prominence in the late 1960s as one of the major theoretical and practical proponents of the avant-garde Mono-ha (Object School) group.
"The artists of Mono-ha present works made of raw physical materials, rejecting Western notions of representation"
The Mono-ha was Japan’s first contemporary art movement to gain international recognition. The artists of Mono-ha present works made of raw physical materials, rejecting Western notions of representation.
Nam June Paik
The subject of recent documentary Moon is the Oldest TV Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) experimental, innovative, yet playful work has had a profound influence on today’s art and culture.
He pioneered the use of TV and video in art and coined the phrase "electronic superhighway" to predict the future of communication in the internet age.
Cover image: Yun Hyong-keun No Title, 1972, Oil on cotton © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery
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