THE URGENCY OF METHOD
The term Dansaekhwa (also transliterated as Tansaekhwa) was only coined and applied in 2012 by the curator Yoon Jin Sup. Dansaekhwa “did not unfold as a conscious movement with a defined set of goals underpinned by an aesthetic position. It was a result of an organic process.” “Dansaekhwa was a movement that was largely invented to fulfill various agendas, most of which had very little to do with abstraction—or even painting—for that matter…. What all these very different artists had in common was a commitment to thinking more intensively about the constituent elements of mark, line, frame, surface and space around which they understood the meaning of painting.” Moreover, “a sense of tactility is ‘the outstanding feature’ of Dansaekhwa.”
Conceptually, Dansaekhwa figures significantly in this monograph because “most integral to the conceptual paradigm underpinning the practice of the Dansaekhwa members was the championing of the physical nature of the artwork.” Instead of a “schematic whereby the artwork passively transmits the artist’s intention to the equally passive viewer, the artwork is activated only upon the viewer’s sustained engagement with the terms of its material and physical presence.”Jacobs’s work has real empathy with Dansaekhwa. To stand before it—to view it—reveals a simultaneous modesty and benign strength.
To be able to associate Jacobs with the Dansaekhwa community and its artistic output is a gift of the Internet and the result of a small number of prescient galleries in Korea and the United States. Before 2014, Dansaekhwa was largely unknown in North America. There were (and are) few scholars of modern and contemporary Korean art conversant with this community. Even the work of Lee Ufan, perhaps the best-known member of Dansaekhwa, is only familiar to a small number of connoisseurs. In fact, Lee Ufan is often mistakenly identified as Japanese, since he resides in Kamakura, Japan.
Korean monochrome painters—like most contemporary artists—were fully aware of emerging artistic trends of the 1950s and ’60s: abstract expressionism, art informel, color-field painting, minimalism, and arte povera. In fact, postwar Korea has been a conduit for receiving and disseminating ideas from North America and Europe to and throughout Asia, with Seoul emerging as the hub of exchange. But, attaining “fluency” in the Western languages of abstraction does not mean replicating them.
Each of the Dansaekhwa artists developed and perfected a unique approach to or process for art making. Dansaekhwa works were referred to as “‘methods’… rather than ‘paintings’ or even ‘artworks.’” Critics referred to Dansaekhwa as
“methods of drawing,” “methods of spreading,” “methods of bleeding,” “methods of spilling,” and “methods of pushing” as well as “methods of painting.”What all these diverse methods really had in common, despite disparities in approach and technique, was “an awareness of the three-dimensionality of the artwork and a relentless insistence on highlighting and engaging with the physical qualities of the materials that were used.”
Joan Kee, a University of Michigan art historian who has championed Dansaekhwa, has used the phrase “the urgency of method” to describe the various approaches of Dansaekhwa artists. In summarizing the work of Park Seo-bo, for example, Kee wrote, “His marks… impart no demonstration of skill, a central aspect of technique, nor do they communicate anything other than the artist’s physical presence and, perhaps, his investment of labor.” Even the selection and use of materials by Dansaekhwa artists reflected “necessity rather than studied deliberation.”
Traditional Korean art is based on the contemplation of the natural world, a concept that aligns well with Jacobs’s work within the physical landscape. “Korean artists emphasize the virtues of the materials they manipulate, achieving beauty and a profound spirituality through simplicity, repetition, and gesture.”
Art history as usually discussed is conceived as a history of styles…. [Art] exists in preestablished formulas like national style, group style, international style, individual style, and the like. But in a contemporary art [field] that is subdivided and localized in the extreme, it has the effect of conflating each artist’s individual artistic worlds to past group styles. In this situation… it is of utmost necessity that we focus on the newness of how each artist individually attempts to produce work. The question is not what is depicted or made, as it has been for art of the past, but how to depict.Whether researching Dansaekhwa or the individual artists generally associated with the community, like Lee Ufan, Park Seo-bo, and Ha Chong-Hyun, the redefinition of art as art, deemphasizing “identity” art labels, such as African American and Chinese art, has been accelerated by the Internet. Quite simply, art is art wherever it is made. Despite its affinities, Jacobs’s work defies specific categorization— whether it is method, technique, geography, or any other criteria. It shares a genuine “urgency of method.”