Seung-taek Lee is a pioneer of the Korean avant-garde and the first generation of Korean experimentalists. Lee is known for his innovative and diverse practices that often question established political, social, and artistic values. Much of Lee’s paintings, sculptures, and environmental intervention share a close tie with both American land art and Korean shamanic traditions, as they embrace contingency and ephemerality in its attempts to collaborate with transient natural phenomena such as fire, water, wind, and smoke. These notions of negation also known as ‘Non-materialization’, ‘Non-Sculpture”, and ‘Anti-Concept’ are the essential concept that encompasses Lee’s artistic achievements.
Of the artists whose work is associated with the Arte Povera movement, Giulio Paolini has distinguished himself as the most conceptual of the group. In 1984 he wrote, “Even if there has been a certain process which, over the last twenty years has achieved its own coherence in my work, I have never tried ‘a priori’ for this consistency. But I have always, little by little, picture by picture, searched for the ‘imagine,’ the absolute image, with careful control. This has placed me in a conceptual realm.”
Throughout his oeuvre, Paolini has, in his own words, focused on “an image of our system of focusing between picture space and object space: as in an ideal mirror which reflects phenomena but also lets us see what constitutes it.” His work is concerned with the tools and context of art and the exhibition space, and he has often utilized models of images or reproductive materials. Photography, lithography, and plaster casts of classical statuary are used to explore the canon of art history, the notion of authenticity, and the interchangeable roles of artist and spectator in the construction of meaning.
Marian Goodman Gallery press release for the exhibition Giulio Paolini: The Unknown Artist presented at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, in 2006–2007
Emerging in the 1960s and transforming Korean art through the 1980s, Dansaekhwa literally means “monochrome painting,” but it is defined by the diverse array of methods employed as much as its minimal aesthetics. While Chung Sang-Hwa created layered grids of cracked and chipped paint, Ha Chong-hyun pushed viscous paint through the back of hemp, smearing and scraping the residue across the surface. Kwon Young-woo scratched, tore, punctured, and sliced hanji paper, whereas Lee Ufan steadily and repeatedly pulled his brush down the canvas until the paint faded to nothing. Park Seobo dragged pencils through wet oil paint in rhythmic waves, while Yun Hyong-keun diluted paint with turpentine, allowing it to wash over and bleed into the canvas.
Like the Minimalists, the Dansaekhwa artists shared a desire to explore the object through its most basic material properties. However, they made their work amid starkly different conditions, enduring material deprivations experienced in the decades after the Korean War as well as an oppressive political climate in which civil liberties were suspended in the name of national security. They overcame these difficulties, and by the late 1970s Dansaekhwa had become the first Korean artistic movement to be recognized internationally. Although the artists achieved renown in Seoul, Tokyo, and Paris, it was not until recently that they gained exposure in the United States; thus, the aesthetic and contextual similarities and differences with American Minimalism have yet to be examined.
Excerpt from Blum & Poe press release for the exhibition Dansaekhwa and Minimalism, Los Angeles, CA, January–March 2016, traveled to New York, NY, April–May, 2016
This presentation suggests various ways in which — and reasons why — artists committed to social and political change during the 1950s and 1960s in Japan developed visual strategies based on collage, fantasy, popular illustration, and printed graphic narratives known as manga.
The 1950s and 1960s were decades of intense change and development in Japan that raised fundamental questions concerning the nation’s identity and culture following its disastrous defeat in World War II: How should Japanese society evolve to prevent a repeat of militarism? How did those who had fought assuage their guilt for acts committed? Was Japan’s aggression due to traditional, patriarchal culture or to a thoughtless embrace of modernism?
As the nation recovered from the immediate consequences of war, successive events complicated these existential concerns. In the 1950s, Japan became a staging ground for American involvement in the Korean War. The political climate became increasingly conservative, leading many to fear a return of old authoritarian tendencies. Despite mass protests, the Japanese government renewed the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty in 1960, and initiated policies to increase living standards to assuage popular dissent. Mass consumer culture began to supplant individuality and popular government.
Many artists working in the country during this period strove to understand how art could be cogent after the war. However, a number of left-leaning figures, including several of the artists here, sought to link art directly to contemporary reality and to use it to encourage social and political change. Tatsuo Ikeda, along with several film producers and fellow artists, including On Kawara, founded the Producer’s Discussion Group in 1955, one of several cultural organizations dedicated to understanding how the arts could both reflect and influence current events. He wrote, “I thought of my brushes and pens as swords with which I could cut my way into the consciousness of the people who saw my work and reform them.”
These artists believed that reality was not determined by events alone but by their emotional impact on individuals. Conversely, violence, war, and oppression originated in habits and feelings as much as in political structures. Depicting this dynamic in a concise, compelling way required styles and imagery that did more than represent events. Deformation of forms and the use of popular iconography were keys to doing so.
Junzo Ishiko (1929–1977), a literary theorist who studied mass culture, wrote that “Kitsch is where the ‘breadth and density’ of collective desire manifests itself in an allegorical fashion.” In the 1950s, Ikeda created pen and ink drawings of grotesque creatures and characters. The Arthropod, which belongs to a series titled Genealogy of Monsters and is included in the current installation, is a visceral rendition of a person reduced to a faceless creature, capable only of grasping and eating. Ikeda’s renderings of such malformed figures were made around the same time as the 1954 film Godzilla, the tale of a monster awakened by underwater atomic tests — a metaphor for nuclear weapons. In a similar way, Ikeda’s beasts symbolized the malign forces of a damaged society.
Collage was also understood as a prerational means of communication. Kikuji Yamashita described it as similar to language. He said, “Photographs are visual images that I do not intervene with; collage connects them through the relationship between things.” His works, such as those included in this installation combining floating eyes and skyscrapers, comment caustically on the alienation generated by rapid urban development. They also mimic the swirl of information in an increasingly mediatized culture and the internal state of confusion that visual overload can induce.
Tiger Tateishi worked both as a painter and as a draftsman of comics and in the late 1960s incorporated the sequential form of manga in his paintings. Along with Hiroshi Nakamura, who had been involved in 1950s leftist artist discussion groups, Tateishi formed the Kanko Geijutsu Kenkyujo (Sightseeing Art Research Institute). To mock the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, they staged a street performance during which they ate donuts forming the iconic five-ringed emblem. That same year, they carried their paintings along a busy thoroughfare near Tokyo’s main railroad station. By removing painting from the traditional spaces of museums and integrating it into everyday life, they asserted the quotidian as the basis on which politics and art should operate. And, as Doryun Chong wrote, they created “an ambiguous zone where art and popular culture are porous to one another.”
Nakamura’s imagery of airplanes and schoolgirls in various disturbing poses, subject matter he developed in the 1960s, also suggests a society deformed by consumerism and conformity — much like Ikeda’s drawing from the 1950s. As the scholar Justin Jesty argues, it also embodies a time when mechanization had penetrated existence so fully that even seeing had become an industrial product or process.
Reflecting a similar sense of the omnipresent influence of commerce on contemporary life, in 1962 Tetsumi Kudo described his work as “an image of the way humans exist in this society within some sort of mechanism.” That same year, Kudo moved to Paris where he remained almost continuously until the 1980s when he began traveling to Japan regularly. Already skeptical of mass consumption and critical of what he deemed Japan’s uncritical acceptance of Western culture, he came to believe that World War II and the rise of the market economy had rendered European Humanism invalid. In contrast, he suggested that pollution, technology, and humanity had become a symbiotic whole in which each affected the other in an intertwined “new ecology.”
Kudo conceived of his works as models of these realities. His inclusion of industrial-produced everyday objects such as plastic, store-bought plants, as in Your Portrait, renders his pieces outtakes of contemporary life rather than artworks existing in a separate category labeled “culture.” But as the scowling face and title of Your Portrait indicate, he was also presenting a personal and existential condition. To Kudo, as well as other artists whose work is featured here, the individual and personal were inseparable from universal networks of politics and economics. And like these other artists, Kudo intended his work to be an allegory of that complex mix that would encourage viewers to consider their positions within the networks of the internal and external to which, ultimately, all people are subject and of which we are part.