Artist to Know: Choi Wook-kyung

Liz Catalano
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Rago/Wright to Present Untitled Paintings by South Korean Expressionist

South Korean artist Choi Wook-kyung often joked about her tenuous relationship with traditional gender roles. She sometimes gave her abstract paintings defiant or provocative titles, like La Femme Fâché (The Angry Woman). Choi was deeply conscious of the political and artistic trends of her time. The male-dominated Dansaekhwa movement of monochrome paintings overshadowed Choi’s more expressionist works. When she moved to the United States, she found another group of artists unprepared to welcome her perspective. American Abstract Expressionists inspired Choi but did not embrace her narrative style. As a result, Choi carved her own place in the history of modern art. 

Galleries and auction houses rediscovered Choi Wook-kyung in recent years. On May 19th, 2021, a joint auction from Rago and Wright will highlight two of Choi’s abstract paintings. Learn more about the artist and her history before placing a bid.

Choi Wook-kyung in her studio in 1971. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate/ Kukje Gallery.
Choi Wook-kyung in her studio in 1971. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate/ Kukje Gallery.

At ten years old, Choi Wook-kyung started her artistic journey. Traditional ink painter Kim Ki-chang and early Modernist Park Re-hyun trained the young Choi in Seoul. Choi continued her education at Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts in the 1960s. At the time, abstraction was on the rise throughout Korea. Artists such as Kim Whan-ki laid the groundwork for the Dansaekhwa movement. Choi’s contemporaries manipulated both paint and canvas to create abstract, monochrome works. 

Choi did not prefer that flavor of Modernism. She moved to the United States to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Brooklyn Museum School of Art. Inspired by American artists such as Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, Choi experimented with Abstract Expressionist techniques. Her work occasionally brought in collage and social commentary. Choi felt the press of both Korean and American social movements during this time, including anti-war demonstrations and the rise of second-wave feminism. Despite these strong influences, Choi felt that her paintings were all her own. 

“My experiences, as a woman and a painter, serve as a daily source for the creative inspiration necessary for my work,” she said, as quoted by Kukje Gallery. “My paintings are about my life but I am not simply telling stories. I am trying to express, visually, my experience of the moment lived. I hope to share, to communicate, and to create an empathy for the experience.”

Choi Wook-kyung, Untitled, c. 1975, lot #128. Image from Rago/Wright.
Choi Wook-kyung, Untitled, c. 1975, lot #128. Image from Rago/Wright.

Choi’s American years heavily influenced her artistic development. She worked with almost every possible medium, from oil pastel and acrylic to ink and conté. Two expressionist paintings from this period will come to auction with Rago and Wright in May. Choi created both untitled pieces around 1975. The first, lot #128, uses layers of blue, green, and yellow paint to capture subtle curves and movement. Errant paint drips pepper the sweeping brushstrokes. Lot #129 relies more heavily on deep blue colors. Short, frenzied brushstrokes dominate the painting’s lower-left corner, while the upper half offers glimpses of magenta, sky blue, and red. Each painting has a presale estimate of USD 6,000 to $8,000. 

Choi later returned to Korea to teach at Yeungnam University and Duksung Women’s University. Her emotion-based paintings gathered some attention in Korea through the late 1970s, but the Dansaekhwa movement soon eclipsed Choi’s work. Before securing a clear place in the Korean artistic canon, she died unexpectedly in 1985 at the age of 45. 

Posthumous exhibitions are changing that lack of recognition. Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art organized a retrospective shortly after her death. Kukje Gallery has sponsored three separate solo exhibitions of Choi’s work since 2005. While she is sometimes described as an Abstract Expressionist, critics increasingly recognize the cross-cultural style that Choi alone pursued.

Choi Wook-kyung, Untitled, c. 1975. Image from Rago.
Choi Wook-kyung, Untitled, c. 1975. Image from Rago.

Recent auctions in the West also affirm Choi’s place in the history of Modernism. Prices for her paintings pushed past $15,000 around 2014, with recent sales netting more than double that figure. In 2019, New Orleans Auction Galleries offered an untitled painting by Choi with an estimate of $1,000 to $1,500. It sold for $34,000 after 31 competitive bids. Rago offered another untitled Choi painting in March of 2021. The piece sold for $38,000, nearly five times the upper estimate. Choi was a prolific artist who created hundreds of paintings before her death. As more of these pieces arrive at auction, it appears that the market is finally ready to welcome and support her work. 

“Choi tread a solitary path because she did not and could not take sides with any of [the Korean Modernist groups],” Kim Sung-won, the artistic director of Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, recently told The Korea Times. “The time is ripe for us to rediscover this artist who blazed a trail in Korean abstract art.”

Two untitled 1975 paintings from Choi Wook-kyung will come to auction with Rago and Wright on May 19th, 2021. The auction will open at 11:00 AM EDT. Visit Wright or Rago for more information and to place a bid. 

Want to learn about modern and contemporary artists? Auction Daily recently examined the art and auction history of Yoshitomo Nara

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