Korean monochrome: Suh Seung Won

Suh Seung Won, Simultaneity 16-910, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 259.1 x 193.9 cm

Contributed by Raphael Rubinstein / Among the most welcome developments of the past few years in the U.S. art world has been the appearance, long delayed, of substantial numbers of works by two avant-garde groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Tansaekhwa painters of Korea, often referred to as Korean monochromatic painters, and the Supports/Surfaces artists from France. During the decades of American hegemony (which was also New York hegemony) of the contemporary art scene, little attention, and less exhibition space, was given to art made in other countries, in other capitals. As a result there is much catching up and filling in of the historical record to be done. (In a period when it often seems as if art criticism plays a marginal or secondary role in determining value—artistic or monetary—it is salutary to note how one book by a contemporary art historian, Joan Kee’s 2013 Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, was the driving force behind the subsequent enthusiastic embrace of Korean monochrome painting by the U.S. and European art market.) Following recent New York gallery exhibitions by Chung Sang-Hwa (at Lévy Gorvy and Greene Naftali) and Park Seo-Bo (Perrotin), a current show at the Korea Society offers a compelling introduction to another figure, Suh Seung Won. Although Suh, who is in his late 70s, has long been recognized in Korea, this is his first New York solo exhibition. (For viewers interested in deepening their knowledge of Supports/Surfaces, don’t miss the Pierre Buraglio show at Ceysson-Bénétière—like Suh, Buraglio, who just turned 80, is having his first New York one-person exhibition.)

Suh Seung Won, Simultaneity 06-1109, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 193.9 x 259cm

Suh was included in what many consider to be the first exhibition articulating something like a Tansaekhwa esthetic, “Five Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White” at Tokyo Gallery in 1975. The title of the Korea Society show, “Simultaneity,” derives from the term Suh has been applying to his works since the 1960s. Although early on Suh made some strictly monochrome work, such as a 1970 series created by attaching blank sheets of Korean paper to canvas, most of his work involves sets of muted, closely related colors rather than a single hue. For a number of years his canvases have been filled with rectangles of color, adjacent or overlapping, that seem to glow from within. I say “rectangles” but the contours of the shapes are soft and blurred, the geometry is emphatically handmade. Somehow Suh makes his acrylic paint appear to have been breathed onto the canvas, looking like it is closer to a gaseous state than to a solid one. The colors seem to arrive as if through mist or fog. Often you can’t be sure where one starts and another ends. As a result these are slow paintings, wonderfully so. Like an Ad Reinhardt painting or a James Turrell room, they reveal their visual riches slowly. Suh’s gentle handling of shape edges, his quest for increasingly subtle tonalities, for more ambiguous transitions, can make Rothko seem hard-edge by comparison. The only painter I have ever had a similar experience with is Carol Haerer (1933-2002), an American artist whose “White Paintings” of the 1970s deserve to be better known.

Measuring over eight by six feet, paintings such as Simultaneity 16 -910 (2016) Simultaneity 06 – 1109 (2006) lure the viewer into a symphonic field of floating yellow, pink,red and green shapes. The longer you look, the more notions of inside and outside, figure and ground, color and shape begin to dissolve. I’m not exactly sure what Suh means by “Simultaneity”—the exhibition brochure speaks in mystical terms of a “truth beyond the limits of visible human reality”—but there is a marvelous sense of oneness awaiting the patient viewer within these paintings.

Suh Seung Won: Simultaneity 1970-Present,” The Korea Society, 350 Madison Avenue, New York, NY. Through April 19, 2019. NOTE: On Thursday, March 14, 6:30 pm at the Korea Society, in a special recorded commentary, Raphael Rubinstein will address the work of Suh Seung Won in the context of 20th century abstraction and contemporary painting.

About the author: Raphael Rubinstein’s books include The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). With his wife Heather Rubinstein, he recently co-curated “Under Erasure” at Pierogi Gallery. He is Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art.

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