The Modern Rise of Dansaekhwa

Lee Fan, From Point, 1976. Artwork Copyright Lee Ufan.

The mysterious movement of Dansaekhwa was born in the Republic of Korea in the early 1970s. Although at the time it didn’t actually bare the name Dansaekhwa, it was representing a unique style of painting, more precisely – monochrome painting. It was an artistic expression which grew under a military dictatorship that enforced its views onto everything, including art. The aesthetic norms and artistic practices were defined and regulated by the regime, and it was Dansaekhwa that lead the way of a quiet rebellion. So, what is the mystery behind this unique style, and why is it reemerging into the international art scene more than 40 years later?

Up until a few years ago, this contemplative style of subtle and textured layers of minimalism and abstraction was rarely seen in the Western world. It was only the leader of the movement, Lee Ufan, who secured representation with Pace Gallery in New York and the Lisson Gallery in London, and still just his works alone were widely well received in exhibitions and auctions. Slowly, but surely, other artists associated with Dansaekhwa started emerging and achieving moderate success in Korea, but not yet in the global market. As the art market twists and turns, digs back in the past to rediscover gems, it was only a question of time before this group of Korean artists broke into the spotlight and receive worldwide recognition.

It was the art fairs that proved to be a fertile ground for this movement to flourish and gain some more acceptance. Art Basel Hong Kong, Frieze Masters, independent galleries and dealers have all made their mark with promoting Dansaekhwa lately. It wasn’t long before the works hit the auctions and left an indelible mark. The works from 1970s were fetching up to $200,000, and then upwards to $500,000, and eventually a retrospective exhibition of Lee Ufan at the Guggenheim in New York boosted his auction record to $2.2 million. With the interest in these artists exponentially growing, the dealers and gallery owners started realizing the problem wasn’t finding clients, but deciding which ones to sell to.

Now, the market has reached a point where the interest shifts towards the newer or most recent works, rather than the historic ones. Various galleries are showcasing and offering lots by Dansaekhwa artists, with prices ranging from $100,000 to $1M. Since 2014, this Western interest in the simplistic style of Dansaekhwa has been building up, and it achieved a meteoric rise throughout the years. Dealers and collectors are still expressing general interest in the work by artists who have gone underappreciated and undervalued in the past, but as every obsession, it comes and fades away. The art market is notoriously difficult to predict, and no one can claim with certainty what will be the next hit, or how long it will last. Still, Dansaekhwa seems to be generating a steady interest and achieving quite successful sales both in the East and West. Perhaps this newly discovered connection through the old works will spawn a closer relationship with the modern and contemporary Korean artists who are yet to gain global attention.

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