Kwon Young-Woo Breaks on Through

Today's post is about the Korean artist Kwon Young-Woo (1926-2013). If you aren't familiar with his work you are in for a treat. In my opinion Korean art is often overlooked and put into art history books as what feels like an after thought to Chinese and Japanese art, which is unfortunate. While the art of the three countries do share similar aesthetic characteristics they each have an individual identity. My beverage for this blog is the Skinny Dipper (Midori and cranberry juice) because I had the ingredients on hand, it has been a looooong week and I am lazy. OK  ... I have my beverage so away we go! 



Kwon's work is pivotal in the establishment of a 'Korean voice' in the art world after WWII and the Korean War. So ... After the chaos of two devastating wars and Japanese occupation it is no surprise Korean artists of the era were drawn to calm monochrome works and paintings with muted colors. This style was called Dansaekhwa (Korean: 단색화) or "Tansaekhwa." A lot of these pieces used whatever materials were on hand because one of the many things obliterated during years of war was the Korean economy.1


So mid-century Korean artists like Kwon were grappling with the aftermath of two wars, their economy was s$*tty, and they were relatively cut off from the outside art world. Most of the Western art Korean artists had access to was filtered through Tokyo because it was the center of the Asian art market.2 This caused Kwon Young-Woo and his contemporaries to be torn between starting a dialogue with the international art scene and maintaining their Korean roots. Kwon has a unique way of working through this duality.   


In Untitled, 1965 Kwon manipulates traditional Korean paper in a very modern way.

Kwon Young-woo, Untitled, 1965

Korean paper on panel, 130 × 110 cm. 


Kwon examines the  limits of what the material can do and pushes past them. He is cleverly using tradition to carve out a place in the post war, modern art world. It is similar to ab-ex artists like Jackson Pollock who pushed the boundaries of what paint 'did' in fine art.  


Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956)
Number 1, 1949
Enamel and metallic paint on canvas



Kwon's playing with the function of materials also really reminds me of Eva Hesse's work with fiberglass and resin in the late 1960's.

Eva Hesse (American, b. Germany, 1936–1970)
Right After, 1969
approximately: 5 × 18 × 4 ft (152.39 × 548.61 × 121.91 cm)



Dan Flavin also did similar experiments with light and manipulated its properties in his art.


Dan Flavin (American, 1933-1996)

Untitled (in Honor of Leo at the 50th Anniversary of his gallery), 1987.

Red, pink, yellow, blue and green florescent lights. SFMOMA





Kwon's work with paper was also very personal. He would often scrape through the paper with his fingers to create his art. So Kwon Young-woo showed  both a disconnect from the outside world when he used traditional Korean media and connected to the modern art world by focusing on the properties of the materials. Kwon's merging tradition and modernity is beautiful and had an impact on developing an international dialogue in the 20th century.


You can check out more of his work here, here and see a great video hereFor more on Kwon I recommend reading Contemporary Korean Art Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method by Joan Kee. I love Kwon's  work and I hope you do too. Cheers!


1) Kee, Joan, Contemporary Korean Art Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, 2013, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London. pg. 21


2) Kee, Joan, Contemporary Korean Art Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, 2013, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London. pg.107




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