Ha Chonghyun

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It’s been a breakthrough year for Ha Chonghyun. Though the 80-year-old painter has been revered for decades in his native Korea, he is at last enjoying a long overdue surge of interest in his work in the United States and Europe alike.

Ha is one of the key figures in Tansaekhwa, otherwise known as the Korean monochrome movement. Emerging in the late 1960s, this group of influential artists created minimal works with the sparest of actions. Lee Ufan (who has achieved worldwide renown following his Guggenheim retrospective in 2011) pulled his brushes down the canvas in steady strokes until the paint ran out. Kwon Youngwoo perforated white hanji paper from the reverse to create eggshell-like protrusions on the surface. Park Seobo dragged pencils through wet paint in rhythmic waves, producing misty compositions reminiscent of heavy rainfall. In their varying ways, each artist rejected the conventions of traditional ink and state-sanctioned documentary painting that dominated Korea at the time. Though restrained, these affirmations of subjective authorship expressed individual resistance against authoritarianism.

Ha’s technique is highly distinct: he pushes oil paint onto the back of coarsely woven hemp cloth until it seeps through. In some cases, he allows the paint to dribble down the surface; at other times, he uses a brush or palette knife to smear and scrape the paint into a variety of textured compositions. These works were not conceived as typical abstractions: titled “Conjunction” and numbered sequentially within each year they were made, they dwell on the deliberate fusion of two materials, paint and cloth.

Ha’s works are in all major Korean museum collections, and he is also revered in Japan, where several galleries have showcased his work. But despite being included in a Tansaekhwa show at Tate Liverpool in 1992, widespread recognition in the West has eluded him and his peers until now.

The renewed focus on his work began last September, when his canvases were featured prominently in “From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction,” the first major survey of the movement in the United States, held at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles. The critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive: One of the most captivating pieces in the exhibition, Conjunction 7426 (1974)—composed merely of seven rows of oozing dots of white paint—was snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ha’s success in LA has been followed by a spate of milestone exhibitions: In November he held his first New York solo show at Blum & Poe’s elegant townhouse space on the Upper East Side, and during this year’s Venice Biennale his paintings were included in an expansive presentation of Tansaekhwa in a 15th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal. Most recently shown at Frieze NY and Art Basel, Ha’s works have become highly coveted on the art fair circuit.

Affirmations of subjective authorship express resistance against authoritarianism.

Now, with a solo show coming up at Kukje Gallery in Seoul, Ha is preparing to debut a new series of “Post-Conjunction” works. In recent months he has experimented with applying a flame to an all-white field of paint to discolor the surface, then scraping away segments of the upper layer to reveal the pure white underneath. It is rare that an artist maintains such consistent innovation for five decades. But with even more gallery and museum exhibitions in the pipeline and no shortage of fresh ideas, Ha Chonghyun will continue to impress.

Ha Chonghyun (Korean, b. 1935) is an artist who lives and works in Seoul. He is represented by Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo; and Kukje Gallery, Seoul. He has a solo exhibition coming up at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, from 17 September–25 October. In addition, his works are currently shown as part of “PROPORTIO,” a group exhibition organized by the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, on view through November 22.

Alan Miller is a freelance translator and writer based in Tokyo.

Image: Ha Chonghyun, Conjunction 96-020, 1996, Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo