Joan Kee publishes Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method


Dec 19, 2013 Bookmark and Share

Contemporary Korean Art cover

Click here to read the ocula.com conversation with Joan Kee.

Korea Herald interview with Joan Kee.

Starting in the mid-1960s, a group of Korean artists began to push paint, soak canvas, drag pencils, rip paper, and otherwise manipulate the materials of painting in ways that prompted critics to describe their actions as “methods” rather than artworks. A crucial artistic movement of twentieth-century Korea, Tansaekhwa (monochromatic painting) also became one of its most famous and successful. Promoted in Seoul, Tokyo, and Paris, Tansaekhwa grew to be the international face of contemporary Korean art and a cornerstone of contemporary Asian art.

In this full-color, richly illustrated account—the first of its kind in English—Joan Kee provides a fresh interpretation of the movement’s emergence and meaning that sheds new light on the history of abstraction, twentieth-century Asian art, and contemporary art in general. Combining close readings, archival research, and interviews with leading Tansaekhwa artists, Kee focuses on an essential but often overlooked dimension of the movement: how artists made a case for abstraction as a way for viewers to engage productively with the world and its systems. As Kee shows, artists such as Lee Ufan, Park Seobo, Kwon Young-woo, Yun Hyongkeun, and Ha Chonghyun urgently stressed certain fundamentals, recognizing that overwhelming forces such as decolonization, authoritarianism, and the rise of a new postwar internationalism could be approached through highly individual experiences that challenged viewers to consider how they understood their world rather than why.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, decolonization, and the declaration of martial law in South Korea, these artists asked questions that continue to resonate today: In what ways can art matter to the world? How does art exert agency when its viewers live in times of explicit or implicit duress? How can specific social and political conditions inspire or influence methods and styles?

Joan Kee, who joined the University of Michigan's History of Art department in 2008, is a specialist in modern and contemporary art. Her second book project, provisionally titled What Art Has to Say About the Law and based in part on Kee's experiences as a lawyer, considers artistic responses to the law in the context of legal developments taking place in post-1965 America. Other current interests include the problem of scale, revisionist histories of postwar abstraction, particularly of monochrome painting, issues of globalization and form, and modernity in ink painting. Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method is a finalist for the Charles Rufus Morey Award