In the late 1950s, South Korean artist Suh Se-ok, born in 1929, embarked on a painterly practice that borrowed from traditional Korean ink painting and modernist Western abstraction. What’s striking about his early work (which launched a noteworthy career that continues to this day) is not only its melding of “East” and “West” but how Suh dismantles the assumptions on which these two modes were then operating. Using the traditional tools of the ink painter—brush, ink and paper—he developed a language of marks and ink application that rejected the conventions of Korean ink painting in favor of stripped down, seemingly haphazard sets of links and blots. At the same time, Suh declined the muscular gesturalism and labored scaffolding that pervaded so much Informel and Abstract Expressionist painting at the end of the 1950s. His late 1950s-early 1960s paintings, often done on mulberry paper, but also sometimes on cotton fabric, are speculative, “weak” and provisional; they anticipate the radical deconstruction of painting that would only get underway some years later in the U.S. and Europe.
Suh banded together with other South Korean artists to form the Mungnimhoe or Ink Forest Group, whose aim was to forge a new kind of Korean painting. Most viewers are familiar with the notion that Informel and Abstract Expressionism were indebted to Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, but too little attention has been paid in the West to the emergence of a vibrant abstract practice in postwar East Asia. This may explain, in part, why such an important painter as Suh Se-Ok is so little known in this country. My own accidental discovery of his work came on a visit to “Where Clouds Disperse,” a condensed 2008 survey at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston. Since the review I wrote of the show for Art in America isn’t available on line, here’s a paragraph from it on Suh’s recent work:
“More than half of the show was devoted to large ink paintings on mulberry paper dating from 1997-2007. Although these gridded and stacked compositions of linear forms initially appear abstract, their titles (usually People or Person) point to their figurative content. Thus People (2000), 91 by 54 inches, for instance, shifts from reading as a loose net of brushstrokes to a depiction of dozens of human figures linked by their outstretched arms and legs. Possibly taking clues from Korean ideographs, Suh’s intertwined formations oscillate between representation and sheer mark-making. Even after having grasped the figurative function of his strokes, it remains easy to reengage with their abstract qualities. What helps here is the amazing variety of things he can make ink do—sometimes it hovers like a cloud of iron filings held in place by an unseen magnet, other times it seeps deeply into the paper, but it can also pulse with dark, quasi-sculptural presence. I especially like the way he often seems in no hurry to dip his brush back into the ink again, allowing successive marks to grow lighter—an ‘imperfection’ that adds immeasurably to the power of his work. Two fascinating videos included in the show (one made by Suh’s son Doh-ho Suh, an artist who is better-known in this country than his father), showed Suh at work in his Seoul studio, sometimes wielding baseball bat-sized bamboo brushes to apply strokes to large sheets of paper laying on the floor.”
In a provocative article titled “The Curious Case of Contemporary Ink Painting” (Art Journal, Fall 2010), art historian Joan Kee has recently suggested that despite being chosen to represent South Korea in international biennials in the 1960s, Suh and other Mungnimhoe painters were marginalized in their own country by being classed as “ink painters” rather than as contemporary artists. (She also links the birth of the Mungnimhoe style to a traumatic period of Korean history, noting that the Ink Forest painters grew up under Japanese occupation and that for them “ink painting was an opportunity through which to free the mark from what its members saw as the obligations imposed on it via the dominance of nihonga, the body of paintings made according to traditional Japanese artistic conventions.”) Happily, any attempts at marginalization haven’t prevented Suh from creating an outstanding oeuvre of primary importance to the (still unwritten) global history of postwar abstraction. Let’s hope viewers outside of South Korea will soon have a chance to see much more of it.