Ansan, Korea

Park Seo-Bo

Gyeonggido Museum of Art

The phrase “Korean Modernism” has been unjustly burdened by its association with a series of overpowering, mostly foreign references, such as Monochrome, Informel, and Minimalism. The work of Park Seo-Bo is both a primary cause and the chief victim of such categorizations. Park, at age seventy-six, has often been called the strongest painter in recent Korean art history and a pioneer.

As with other artists in his milieu, Park’s earliest influences arrived from the West either directly from Paris or filtered through the Japanese press during or after the occupation. For the fledgling painter visiting Paris in 1961, a post–Korean War ethos could only be expressed by a pessimistic Informel featuring organic forms and a muddy palette symbolically expressive of the chaos and hardship so many had experienced. This was followed by a short phase of surrealistic figuration and Op-like stripe compositions. It was only in the ’70s that Park abandoned color and achieved his signature style, based on layers of thin lines where wet and pale paint has been scraped off the surface of the canvas in wavelike movements, in paintings he consistently titled Ecriture—a title he continues to use today. These works made a statement that was not so much visual as gestural and conceptual. Critics were quick to label these monotonous, achromatic surfaces as Monochrome, a term that came to represent an artistic style in Korea that began with Park’s works and gradually became identified with the spiritual connotations of Buddhist asceticism as well as marking a radical departure from prewar figurative painting to an advanced form of abstraction. Park’s early works have been interpreted as synthesizing the visual influence of Western artists such as Wols or Cy Twombly with an Asian concept of calligraphy as a practice of physical and mental training. The ongoing project has undergone structural changes since the ’70s, and it now consists of allover patterns of stripes impastoed with layers of cast hanji on canvas.

Park’s recent exhibition at the Gyeonggido Museum of Art presented a selection of one hundred paintings and drawings made since 2000. In his fifty-fifth year of exhibiting, Park still keeps to his fourteen-hour routine in the studio. But it is a surprise to witness the festive chromatic variety—fluorescent pink, purple, green, and more—now emerging from his once nearly colorless palette. Ecriture No. 061203, 2006, is a vast striped color field of lime green; Ecriture No. 030530, 2003, is a golden yellow; and Ecriture No. 050520, 2005, features an expanse of cadmium orange. From the ominously subdued tonal ranges of black, charcoal gray, and beige he used up to the ’90s, the artist has taken a great leap into a Klein-esque intensity of chroma, as if to make up for more than forty years of abstinence.

The change in the choice of colors suggests something more than a simple shift in mood in the artist’s later years; it signals a decisive break from the traditional aesthetics of modesty, delving into the language of visual effects based on a rich material reality. And yet, while the wide spectrum of colors used in the show seemed pleasantly up-to-date, the paintings lacked the depth of resonance typical of Park’s earlier, more subdued work. Paradoxically, the symbolic value of Park’s Monochrome style has faded with the intensification of its chroma, reducing the painting to something like an empty signifier.

Shinyoung Chung