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Korean monochrome art shines in Basel

Major collectors show heightened interest in Korean monochrome paintings

BASEL, Switzerland – At Art Basel, the world’s biggest high-end art fair, top artworks were sold in the first hours of its VIP preview. 

This year, 284 leading galleries from 33 countries brought some of their best artworks for the six-day event last week, including the two-day exclusive VIP showing before the official kickoff on Thursday. 

Some of the most expensive, top-quality works are sold quickly to major collectors from all parts of the world.

“It seems all the galleries brought very high-quality works and those high-quality works are selling well,” Christopher D’Amelio, partner of David Zwirner gallery in New York, said at the art fair held from June 18-21 in Switzerland. 

The gallery sold a 2002 Marlene Dumas painting for $3.5 million on the first day of the VIP opening on June 16.


Exhibition view of Kukje Gallery’s Basel display / Tina Kim Gallery (Galleries in Basel 2015/© Art Basel)
Exhibition view of Kukje Gallery’s Basel display / Tina Kim Gallery (Galleries in Basel 2015/© Art Basel)

Such popular choices of international art collectors include Korean monochrome paintings, commonly referred to as “dansaekhwa.”

“Most of the important dansaekhwa paintings were reserved even before the preview for VIP collectors, or sold in the first few hours of the preview,” said Lee Hyun-sook, president of Kukje Gallery, based in Seoul, which presented some 30 dansaekhwa paintings at Art Basel, held from June 18-21 in Switzerland.

The gallery, which has been at the forefront of promoting Korean abstract paintings in the international art market since last year, has seen heightened interest in Korean dansaekhwa paintings this year.

Dansaekhwa refers to Korean monochrome paintings that emerged among early modern Korean artists after the Korean War in the 1950s. The country’s first-generation modern artists led the avant-garde art movement in Korea while displaying distinctive abstract painting styles that were later categorized as dansaekhwa.

Starting with the dansaekhwa exhibition in 2014 in Seoul, the gallery has been actively promoting Korean abstract paintings in the global art scene. It currently holds a comprehensive showcase of dansaekhwa in Venice during Venice Biennale. 
Untitled by Kwon Young-woo. (Kukje Gallery)
Untitled by Kwon Young-woo. (Kukje Gallery)

In Basel, the yearlong effort seemed to pay off. They sold 24 dansaekhwa paintings during the exclusive opening for high-level buyers on June 16. Lee Ufan’s medium size “From Line” painting was sold at about $700,000. Park Seo-bo’s “Ecriture” painting was sold at around $500,000.

The gallery introduced some rare dansaekhwa paintings for this year’s Art Basel, such as the 1976 monochrome painting by dansaekhwa master Chung Chang-sup, whose work features two big white and black circles each placed against black and earthy brown backgrounds, respectively. It also introduced works of Kwon Young-woo, another dansaekhwa artist who hasn’t been largely showcased globally.

Lee Ufan’s paintings boast the highest prices among dansaekhwa paintings. Prices are about two to 10 times the other dansaekhwa paintings. During the fair, a Los Angeles-based gallery Blum and Poe sold his 1978 “From Point” for $1.1 million and his 1979 “From Line” for $950,000, the two highest prices for dansaekhwa paintings, according to the official sales records released by Art Basel fair.

“I think people really appreciate the simplicity of dansaekhwa and also western collectors are more and more interested in art history outside America and Europe,” said Ashley Rawlings, director of Blum and Poe gallery in Tokyo.

PKM Gallery, based in Seoul, devoted their booth to a single dansaekhwa artist Yun Hyong-keun. They presented 10 works of the late artist. Two of his large paintings were sold at $280,000 and $230,000 respectively.

“Our sales are better than previous years. I think collectors are getting serious about dansaekhwa paintings. They buy dansaekhwa paintings more than once and seem to be in the stage of building a serious dansaekhwa collection,” said Park Kyung-mee, president of PKM Gallery in Seoul.

The popularity of dansaekhwa has been strongly felt in the Asian auction art market recently. Paintings of leading dansaekhwa artists such as Kim Whanki and Lee Ufan fetched high prices at the spring sales of Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Hong Kong.

A director of Asian contemporary art at Sotheby’s Hong Kong predicted that the popularity of dansaekhwa was expected to continue and that prices would rise in the future.

“We feel that dansaekhwa artists are very much undervalued in terms of their importance in art history, their age and price. The market has just realized the importance and quality of the works. That’s why there are so many collectors, including new collectors, eyeing this market,” said Evelyn Lin, senior director of Asia head of contemporary Asian art at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, in an interview in Basel. 

By Lee Woo-young (
Korea Herald Youtube