Referred to as the “forerunner of Korean modern art,” Seung-Taek Lee cultivated his avant-garde practice throughout the 1960s and ’70s, on the edge of the mainstream modern art scene dominated by academic figurative painting. In fact, he once burned all of his figurative paintings and threw them into the Han River—transforming the destruction of works into a performance piece.
Having escaped North Korea to Seoul during the Korean War, Lee examines cultural consciousness, reflecting on what is traditional to Korean culture in a country that has been influenced by the West during the postwar era. His work is often cited as sharing similarities with American land art and Korean folk traditions.
One of Lee’s most significant early pieces is Godret Stone from the late 1950s. Used by traditional Korean artisans, Godret stones are tiny stones strung at various lengths along a wooden bar, to assist in tying knots when handcrafting woven mats. This craft technique inspired Lee’s work and the arrangement of the piece echoes this traditional tool. Godret stones continued to be a recurring theme throughout his work, and his 1957 piece, Untitled, a graphite-on-hardboard rendition of Godret Stone, serves as a starting point for his latest solo show, “Seung-Taek Lee: Drawing” at Gallery Hyundai.
A survey of the artist’s works spanning 1957–2015, the exhibition takes its name from the artist’s 1966 site-specific work simply titled Drawing, in which the artist created lines on a wall using ropes. The works are a departure from traditional notions of drawing and sculpture, demonstrating Lee’s preoccupation with cotton fiber ropes, as he explores different ways to use this material by placing the ropes on canvases or directly onto the wall space to create, what he calls, “drawings” and “non-sculptures.” His works embrace chance and the unconventional use of this mundane-yet-unique medium.
However, it was only relatively recently that Lee’s work started to spark critical acclaim and international interest. In 2009, he was awarded the prestigious Nam June Paik Art Center Prize and his work has since been acquired by London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney. It is justified recognition for an experimental artist who was ahead of his time.
—Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
“Seung-Taek Lee: Drawing” is on view at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, Sept. 16–Nov. 22, 2015.