Wook-kyung Choi, This is what you see, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 70 1/2 × 96".

Wook-kyung Choi, This is what you see, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 70 1/2 × 96".

Wook-kyung Choi

Wook-kyung Choi, This is what you see, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 70 1/2 × 96".

Silence can speak volumes. The eloquence of the unspoken may help explain the recent resurgence of interest in the artists of dansaekhwa (Korean for “monochrome painting”), a loosely affiliated group of painters working since the late 1960s, whose meditative, “empty” canvases elevate the organic pull of materials over the individual artistic statement. This type of work rose to prominence at a time when Korea was under pressure to formulate a new postwar cultural identity, bolstered by a narrative that was not reliant on either the Japanese occupation or encroaching interference from the West in order to “explain” Korea’s modernism. In the late ’50s, the country’s artists had flirted with European art informel, but countering imperialist influences from abroad required something more politically expedient than a Koreanized franchise of so-called Western art. Whether they agreed or not, the artists of dansaekhwa fit this bill. Theirs was a practice with ambitions at once both universal and inward facing, whose spare gestures could be traced to the traditions of ink painting without the burden of a cumbersome ideology.

Silence can also be deafening. Wook-kyung Choi had no interest in dansaekhwa’s programmatic rejection of outside influences. Having graduated from the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University in 1963, she resolved to continue her studies in the United States, where she pursued degrees at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Brooklyn Museum Art School before securing a teaching job at New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University. This time abroad afforded her the chance to openly experiment with a wide range of aesthetic influences, an experience Choi would pass on to her students (first at Yeungnam University in Gyeongsan, then at Duksung Women’s University in Seoul) after she returned to Korea in 1978. Choi’s own development as a painter was cut short by her sudden death in 1985.

“Wook-kyung Choi: American Years 1960s–1970s” broke from the typical format of the “rediscovery” survey, dispensing with “greatest hits” to focus instead on an artist in her most formative period. The seventy drawings and paintings selected by curator Sungwon Kim showed the artist testing out the stylistic syntax of other painters, trying on their modes of artmaking as if slipping on different pairs of gloves. While Abstract Expressionism held the most dominant sway over her brush (with particular traces of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell), Choi dabbled in collage, stenciling, and ink drawing. There was even a figurative series of socially and politically minded works on paper bearing titles like In Peace or Who Is the Winner in this Bloody Battle?, both 1968.

Choi draws her visual vocabulary from varied sources, from the mesas of the American Southwest to the Korean folk architecture from which she lifted her feisty palette of yellow, crimson, kelly green, and royal blue. Her work is at its best when these colors are allowed to chime and hum without distillation. She applies them in fat strokes, spatters, smears, and soft swoops, keeping her compositions close to the surface. This denial of depth can complicate the reading of her more figurative forms. For instance, in Untitled, an acrylic on paper from 1968, the artist slathered mustard yellow and marigold across bulbous, near-biomorphic forms in black, white, and gray. Thick black outlines carve shapes approximating animal heads and torsos, but the figures cannot be fixed, since their forms break apart as easily as they come together. A similar effect can be observed in This is what you see, a 1975 acrylic on canvas, in which the deep contours of what appear to be a row of goats or sheep unspool into shared swaths of white and gray. It is in these moments of visual push and pull that Choi demonstrates the raw strength of her own voice.

Kate Sutton