Behind Dansaekhwa’s Rapid Rise into a Blue-Chip Movement
On a hot summer day this past August, the market for Dansaekhwa artist Lee Ufan’s ethereal, monochromatic paintings reached a fever pitch at a Seoul Auction sale. The piece igniting interest was East Winds, an enormous 1984 work by Lee that featured calligraphic cobalt-blue brushstrokes on raw stretched canvas.
It was the second time this exemplary work by one of Dansaekhwa’s leading artists was the subject of a bidding frenzy. East Winds’s first appearance on the secondary market was just two years earlier in 2019, at a Seoul Auction sale in Hong Kong. There, it sold for HK$13.5 million (US$1.7 million), notching the seventh-highest price achieved by Lee’s work at auction. Impressive though its debut may have been, when East Winds reappeared at Seoul Auction in 2021, it sold for a whopping ₩3.1 billion ($2.6 million), making it the most expensive work ever sold at auction by a living South Korean artist.
This leap in price is symptomatic of the global craze around Dansaekhwa artists and their work, which has been building for decades. In addition to Lee’s historic record, artists like Park Seo-bo, Ha Chong-hyun, Chung Sang-hwa, and Kwon Young-woo have all seen the markets for their works explode in the last decade. “Over the years, with the ongoing worldwide recognition of this movement, the client pool has grown immensely, transcending all types of demographics and geographical borders,” said Bo Young Song, managing director at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery. It, along with a dedicated international cadre of gallerists including Tim Blum of Blum & Poe and Tina Kim of Tina Kim Gallery, was instrumental in developing the Dansaekhwa movement into a market force.
Ostensibly similar in terms of their formal and material approaches, the oft-made comparison between Dansaekhwa and American Minimalism is strictly superficial. Translating to “Korean monochrome painting” in English, Dansaekhwa developed its universe of austere abstraction of its own accord, inspired by the specific dispossessing trauma of the Korean War and its wake. “We have come to a point where it is no longer possible to represent anything,” Park Seo-bo said upon the debut of his essential “Ecriture” works in 1973. Like most Dansaekhwa artists, Park was born under Japanese rule and came of age during the war that left the Korean peninsula split in two.
The years that followed the Korean War were defined by continuing tumult and instability. By the time of Park’s statement, the newly established Republic of Korea had already seen its first democratically elected president, Syngman Rhee, resign and be forced into exile after a student-led revolution. What followed was a period of military rule and the establishment of a new constitution under a “fourth republic.” By 1972, the country was under martial law invoked by president Park Chung-hee. For Dansaekhwa artists, abstraction was a way to affirm concrete, natural materiality and create an avenue for freedom of expression in a society that was increasingly authoritarian and prescriptive. “I do not express anything,” Park said. “Therefore, I depict nothing.”
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Dansaekhwa artists made some of their most critical work, solidifying the core tenets of their collective practices. With few cultural institutions supporting abstract contemporary art in South Korea at the time, Dansaekhwa’s first important step on the international stage as a cohesive movement came in Japan, at Tokyo Gallery in 1975. This international debut is largely credited to Lee, who had been living in Tokyo since 1956 and had established himself within the burgeoning Japanese-Korean Mono-ha movement.
Titled “Korea: Five Artists, Five Hinsek ‘White,’” the Tokyo Gallery exhibition featured works by Kwon, Park, Lee Dong-youb, Suh Seung-won, and Heu Hwang. It was through this show—and his familiarity with the Mono-ha movement—that Blum, who was based in Tokyo between 1989 and 1994, first encountered the work of the Dansaekhwa artists.
Since then, Blum & Poe has become a global advocate for the movement via its New York, Tokyo, and flagship Los Angeles spaces. It currently represents Lee, Kwon, Ha, and Yun Hyong-keun. “I was a white guy from Los Angeles who had spent a lot of time in Japan and ended up in Seoul working with this group of Dansaekhwa artists,” remarked Blum. “For me, historically, it was really interesting. Why was this white dude from L.A. in this studio in Seoul talking to an 82-year-old Ha Chong-hyun about his practice in Japanese?” This communication was somewhat serendipitous; most Dansaekhwa artists were forced to learn Japanese as children, being born under Japanese occupation.
While Blum was among the first Western gallerists to take interest in Dansaekhwa, gallerists in Japan and South Korea had been promoting the work for decades. “Our founder Hyun-Sook Lee has long been an avid collector of art, even before establishing Kukje Gallery back in 1982,” Bo said. “Our mutually supportive relationships with Dansaekhwa artists and their estates stem from her long-standing relationships with key figures of the Korean art scene from decades ago.”
Decades later, these deep roots would allow Kukje to help spearhead a wave of excitement around the movement. “The momentum began in 2013 when Kukje Gallery showcased significant works by Dansaekhwa artists at Frieze Masters,” said Song. “International clients were genuinely surprised by the quality and variety of Korean abstract paintings, as Asian abstraction was never a widely discussed field before then.” The next summer, Kukje Gallery held a group exhibition, “The Art of Dansaekhwa,” curated by Yoon Jin-sup. The show included works by Lee, Park, Ha, Yun, Kim Guiline, Chung Chang-sup, and Chung Sang-hwa—seven artists who, according to the gallery, spearheaded the movement.
Just a month after Kukje Gallery’s show opened, Blum & Poe debuted its own Dansaekhwa exhibition on the other side of the Pacific. At the gallery’s Los Angeles space, it staged “From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction,” curated by Joan Kee, who had published the first scholarly text in English on the group a year before. The exhibition was also the first major North American show dedicated to Dansaekhwa.
By 2015, the market for works from the movement exploded and Dansaekhwa was seemingly everywhere, from a collaborative presentation at the Venice Biennale put together by Kukje and Tina Kim Gallery, to solo exhibitions of Lee’s and Ha’s work in London and New York. “The initial interest from 2013 has snowballed incomparably over these past eight years,” said Song.
On the secondary market, 2015 marked the first time Park’s auction record breached $1 million. His 1975 canvas Ecriture No. 65-75 (Writing No. 65-75) sold for HK$9.4 million (US$1.2 million) at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Since then, major paintings by Park, particularly from his signature “Ecriture” series, have consistently sold for comparable prices. His current auction record sits at HK$16.3 million (US$2.1 million), set by Ecriture NO. 37-75-76 (1975–76) at a 2018 Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong.
Around the same time, Ha’s works were becoming auction fixtures. In 2015, the number of his works sold at auction more than doubled from the year before, jumping from 23 lots to 53. This leap is especially remarkable considering that in 2013, only two works by Ha were brought to auction and both were bought in. In addition to a dramatic increase in volume, the price of these works also skyrocketed. In 2014, Ha’s auction record topped out at ₩200 billion ($182,463). By the end of 2015, his record stood at HK$1.8 million (US$232,153).
This rapid acceleration plateaued by 2016, which was indicative of a movement that had up until that point been left out of the global art historical narrative. “It’s very rare for a significant group of painters to have never been seen in any big way,” explained Blum. “When you’re looking at some of this work, the historical significance is pretty obvious.”
These days, it seems that primary-market prices have largely caught up with the benchmarks set at auction. At this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, Kukje Gallery and White Cube both sold works by Park in the range of $250,000 to $300,000. Meanwhile, Almine Rech sold two paintings by Ha for prices between $130,000 and $200,000 each. Last month, at The Armory Show, Tina Kim sold paintings by Ha and Park for prices between $150,000 and $170,000, and $110,000 and $130,000, respectively.
While the Dansaekhwa market has steadied since the initial burst of interest in the first half of the 2010s, auction results from the past year suggest collector interest in the movement may continue to build in waves. This growth is evident on Artsy, where the number of inquiries on works by Dansaekhwa artists has continued to grow since a major surge in 2015. Lee’s trajectory, for example, saw the number of inquiries per available work by the artist nearly triple from 2014 to 2015. Thus far in 2021, the number of inquiries on Artsy for each available work by Lee is the highest it’s ever been.
“We’re positive that Dansaekhwa has been thoroughly embedded in not only modern and contemporary Korean art history, but also in global art history,” said Song. “We don’t see Dansaekhwa as a boom that will fade after a decade or two, but as a blue-chip name with a steady market for generations to come.”