Park Seo-bo, Monochromatic Master Who Introduced Korean Art to the World, Has Died

Jonathan Feel
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Park Seo-bo, a monochromatic artist representing Korean abstract art, passed away on October 14, 2023. He was 91 years old. The artist, who announced he had third stage lung cancer in February, was a painter who continued to create throughout his illness.

Image courtesy of Park Seo-bo Foundation.
Image courtesy of Park Seo-bo Foundation.

The name Park Seo-bo has always brought to mind monochromatic paintings. Along with Lee Ufan and Kim Whan-ki, Park promoted the artistic value of Korean monochromatic paintings to the global art market. As a result, monochromatic painting, which refers to the trend of abstraction in Korean contemporary art, has become representative of Korean art as a whole. Monochromatic paintings are sometimes called “Dansaekhwa” or “Korean monochrome painting” in the art world.

Park was one of the pioneers of contemporary abstract art in Korea. In his early years, he was a main player of the avant-garde declaration, in which the Korean Art Exhibition rebelled against the custom of arranging award-winning works based on interests. Instead of participating in the national exhibition in 1956, he conducted an independent exhibition. 

The following year, Park became active in the Korean Art Informel movement, a trend of modern abstract painting. In 1967, he began working on his Écritures, a technique of drawing a myriad of lines. At first, Park constantly drew lines on the canvas with a pencil. He built a world of unrivaled works as a monochromatic artist and changed his methods in his post-Écritures era. A line was drawn or pushed out using paints, pencils, and wooden spatula on Korean paper. In the 2000s, the artist went through a process of change, such as attempting to use chromatic color.

This task, which seems to be a simple repetition of drawing, erasing, and redrawing lines, is reminiscent of a truth-seeker’s culturing behavior. As a result, monochromatic painting was also recognized as a meditative art form. “Écriture is a work that is done like cultivating oneself spiritually,” Park said at a retrospective exhibition meeting in 2010. “Painting is not a yard where the artist throws up his thoughts, but a yard that empties me, and the process of training countless times to empty me is Écriture.”

Park, who built his own world of art, gained worldwide fame. Museums, including the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, France, collect his works. In 2021, French luxury brand Louis Vuitton also released handbags using his work. The Park Seo-Bo Museum of Art is currently under construction in Jeju Island, Korea.

In the art auction market, Park’s works are increasing in price, though his works went unsold for a long time. In the 2000s, the auction price for his work was around USD 22,000. Then in 2015, The Venice Biennale became a turning point. His monochromatic paintings drew attention, and the price of his paintings has since increased. Last year, Park was the third best-selling artist in the Korean art auction market (about $9.1 million in total sales). In the first half of this year, Park Seo-bo ranks fourth with sales of about $2.75 million. There is room for further increases, considering that most auction prices rise after death.

Park Seo-bo's Écriture No.171020. Image courtesy of Seoul Auction.
Park Seo-bo’s Écriture No.171020. Image courtesy of Seoul Auction.

The highest price of a Park Seo-bo work was recorded at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 5, 2023. No. 37-75-76 (1976) found a new owner for $2.6 million. The piece sold for $2 million at Christie’s Hong Kong five years ago, increasing in value about $600,000 in five years. Three of his works were sold at Seoul Auction’s recent event on October 25, 2023, shortly after his death. The green Écriture No. 171020 (2017) sold for about $114,000; Écriture No. 2, No. 3 (1996) sold for about $10,000; and Écriture No. 9 (1996) sold for about $4,700. 

Although he gained worldwide fame for his Écritures series, Park Seo-bo received criticisms that coincide with Korean political history. This is due to the history of Participation of the Chung-hee Park dictatorship in the national documentation project in the 1970s and serving as an executive of a government-affiliated art organization during the Doo-hwan Chun military regime in the 1980s. This issue was largely raised at the Gwangju Biennale held from April to July this year. The Gwangju Biennale established the “Park Seo-Bo Art Prize,” but the prize was abolished in about a month due to a strong opposition movement. The incident left Korean society with the question of whether it is desirable to judge the art world based on resistance to political situations.

After Park Seo-bo’s death, the world of his work will not stop changing. As he said in a media interview during his lifetime, “Death is life, a new life in the name of death.” The art he made by drawing lines throughout his life will continue to change and expand into the future.

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Jonathan Feel
Jonathan Feel

Jonathan Feel is a reporter and editor for Auction Daily in Korea. He has been active in various fields such as the media, social economy, village community, and fair trade coffee industry and is writing. It is recognized that art is not far from society and the times, and that art can be a tool for the sustainability of the Earth and mankind. He hopes that good works and artists in Korea will meet with readers.

김이준수는 한국 주재 옥션데일리 필진이자 편집자이다. 언론, 사회적경제, 마을공동체, 공정무역 커피업계 등 다양한 분야에서 활동했고 글을 쓰고 있다. 예술이 사회·시대와 동떨어져 있지 않으며, 예술이 지구와 인류의 지속가능성을 위한 도구가 될 수 있음을 인식하고 있다. 한국의 좋은 작품과 아티스트를 많이 소개하고 싶다.

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