Korea is one of the regions that have developed the most varied abstract art movements in Asia. Rhee Seundja, Kim Tschang-Yeul, and Lee Ufan featured here, are the Korean modern masters who merged Western style abstraction with themes from Eastern philosophies. Individual artists have their own signature styles. But there is a commonality among them in that they pursued abstraction based on content. For many Western abstract paintings, the artist distills and deconstructs a composition into the most basic elements of form, color and line. But for these Korean artists, abstraction without substance or meaning, one that solely focuses on the form and colour, becomes a mere decorative surface without a more profound significance. These Korean modern abstract painters are the artists who probe more philosophical themes in the context of abstraction. Through ceaseless experimentations of styles and technical executions, they look to a dimension beyond visual abstraction, reinterpretating nature as a reflection of their own mind by creating geometrical forms. The works by Rhee, Kim, and Lee featured here, exemplify Korean modern abstract art.
Contrary to the simplicity in its geometrical form, Rhee Seundja's work belies a painstakingly time consuming process, filled with a myriad of lines and points produced by painfully repetitive brushstrokes. This sale will provide an opportunity to relish the exquisite beauty of Rhee's work, encompassing six decades from the 1950s to the 2000s. Kim Tschang-Yeul gained an international recognition in the 1970s with his signature style and motif of the water drop. His work is figurative in that it is the representation of water drops, yet at the same time, it is abstract, since every circle is metaphorical and spiritual, referring to the vitality of universe beyond mere water drop. Recalling the literati principles that he had absorbed as a child, Lee returned to the notion of the point and line in search of a new abstraction. Through his From Point and Line (1972-84), From Wind (1982-86), With Winds (1987-91), Correspondence (1991-2006) and Dialogue series (2006-), Lee created an entirely new abstract painting of spirit and material unified into one. Revealing the essence of Asian philosophy, the works by Korean masters engage in a dialogue with Western abstract art on a formal level.
Rhee Seund-Ja has been relatively underappreciated in Korea. There are many reasons for this negligence - one being gender discrimination which was common in Korea during the modern era. She was also isolated from the other contemporary Korean artists in Paris mainly because, unlike others who had already established their artistic careers in Korea before going to Paris, Rhee started painting a slightly over the age of thirty. Her work discloses her diligence and relentless devotion, which later on came to fruition. Ultimately, she not only substantiated herself as a successful artist, but became a true master of her artistic expressions.
Rhee decided to leave Korea for Paris in 1951 after an unwanted separation from her beloved three children due to marital discord. Only one year after her arrival, Rhee began to study painting under Henri Goetz at the Acad?mie de la Grande Chaumi?re, where he appointed her as his teaching assistant. Goetz saw her genuine creativity, talents and sincerity towards art. During this period she vigorously absorbed diverse techniques of oil paintings, further explored her own palette and compositional forms, and succeeded in such a short amount of time. Rhee's accomplishments were outstanding; her work was exhibited at the Mus?e National d'Art Moderne in 1956, drawing the attention of a noted art critic Georges Boudaille. He volunteered to write a review for her. After this exhibition, Rhee gradually moved on to the discourse of abstract painting. Pont des Abeilles (Lot 150) and Composition Prairie (Lot 151), offered in this sale exemplify her transformation from figuration to abstraction. In these works, she reinterpreted the landscape as she saw it and reconstructed it based on her own perception as well as imagination. She remarked, "I wanted to fuse the Asian mindset with Western materials."
Rhee never ceased to develop her own style of abstraction. She wanted to explore the content of abstraction, which was in opposition with the goals of most European abstract painters of the time. Painted in 1959, Plus Beau Moment (Lot 152) shows Rhee's interest in combining form and content. A simple composition with a few geometric shapes in the work illustrates her comment, "I employ geometrical marks to express and explore my subject, Mother and Earth. I choose triangle, square and circle as universal signs transcending time and borders." Contrary to its simple refined appearance, the painting has gone through a painstakingly time consuming process. It results in exquisite texture as well as a careful examination of the material. Plus Beau Moment is filled with a myriad of lines and points produced by repetitive brushstrokes. Every brushstroke was a way for her to connect with her three sons who could not have been with her in Paris. The staggering repetition required to create this piece was the only way to salve an irresistible yearning. Conceivably a hope to relieve her agony, this treatment is similar to the infinite repetitions in Yayoi Kusama's paintings which serve as a remedy to her nervous disorders and hallucinations.
In 1965 Rhee returned to Korea after spending 15 years in Paris and having exhibited more than 75 works. She returned for one of the biggest scale solo exhibitions to showcase abstract art in Korea, breathing new life into the local art world. Rhee set out on a trip to the US in 1968, determined not to sit on her success. New travel experiences combined with the sudden death of her mother led her to a new style. Id?ogrammes Nouveaux (Lot 153) painted in 1969 expressively exhibits Rhee's constant quest for innovation. Through the combination of Hangul (Korean alphabet) with geometric forms, she documented the dynamic change in her world. This style had evolved into the Superposition and City series with a few other series throughout the 1970's. They continue to the Road to the Antipodes series that explores the subject of the earth from 1980 to the early 1990s. Rhee then expanded her interests to the entire universe with her Cosmos series which lasted until her death in 2008. The subject matter of her paintings evolved from the earth to the cosmos, reflecting a shift in her perspective from her personal reality to probing universal truths which transcend the emotions of physical existence. Cosmos en F?te, Novembre N.1 (Lot 154) from the Cosmos series embodies her consistent conception of yin and yang, which was the leading thread in her artistic career. Rhee's signature ideograms and colours are not only aesthetic manifestations but invented codes which express the harmony of these two opposite forces.
Numerous noted critics and contemporary artists in Europe highly commended Rhee's oeuvre. For instance, Bernard Schnerb stated, "Rhee Seund-Ja reconciled the conflict between East and West, and further sublimated it into universal art." She had won multiple international prizes and awards including the National Medal of Arts by the French government in 1991 and 2001. The five paintings offered in this sale provide an opportunity for collectors around the world to appreciate the philosophical depth and technical dexterity of Rhee's mesmerizing paintings.