Suh Se-ok (1929–2020)

December 14th, 2020

“YOU CANNOT FORGET that ink painting is a living thing.” Born in 1929 in the modern art stronghold of Daegu in Japan-occupied Korea, Suh Se-ok belonged to the first postcolonial generation of Korean artists grappling with both the aftermath of a bitter colonial history and a war so devastating that “postwar” meant something entirely different in Korea than in other parts of the world. Beginning his career in the turmoil that followed Korean liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Suh hoped to purge from Korean art the compositional strategies and color schemes used in nihonga, the term used from the late nineteenth-century to refer to all Japanese painting created using traditional materials and formats approach endorsed and promoted by the imperial Japanese state. Then again Suh was nonplussed by modernism’s vocabulary of negation, doubt, and the pursuit of newness permeating the works of his colleagues in oil painting in the 1950s, Suh turned decisively to ink, water, and paper, eventually producing a singular approach to painting that helped set the very terms of “hyeondae misul,” a word that in Korean makes no distinction between modern and contemporary art and whose kinetic nature Suh viscerally understood.

For forty years Suh taught at Seoul National University, where he would urge generations of students to “keep looking.” My mother remembers his classes as something of an oasis amidst the politically turbulent early ’60s, a place where students were encouraged to think of artistic creation not just as a problem of form but also a test of personal character. His mentoring catalyzed the formation of the Mungnimhoe, or “Ink Forest Society,” the group he founded in Seoul in 1959. Until its dissolution in 1964, the Mungnimhoe was especially distinguished by Suh’s explorations of abstraction, which have yet to be properly accounted for in so-called global histories of art. In Work, 1962, Suh diluted ink so that it yielded to the properties of water, transforming painting into a dense layering of textures. Suh would continue to shape the face of Korean art at home and abroad, both through his participation in the first great wave of international biennials, including the 1963 São Paulo Biennale, and through his work as a commissioner and juror. Unlike the majority of his peers, Suh placed little stock in the division separating abstraction from figuration. As he would write on the occasion of his first solo exhibition in Korea in 1974, “I did not want to exhibit only one line of thinking.” Or as he told me some thirty years later, “I think of my works as a flight towards every possibility.” Small wonder that Suh would continue to work with color as well as with monochrome ink to produce figurative and abstract works in an equally wide variety of dimensions. The mid-’70s saw Suh directing his attentions toward the void, or the space passed over by the brush. A favorite strategy involved what he called “dispersion,” which often involved marking the edges of a finite paper support at various intervals.

Both a seasoned cosmopolite and dedicated cultural preservationist whose home in northern Seoul emblematized a lifelong commitment to traditional Korean architecture, Suh memorably speculated on the possibility of an “Asian-specific system of depiction” based on a different lexicon for thinking about matters of line, energy, gesture, and space. Although Suh was not a theorist, he nevertheless offered pointers for a theory of ink painting based not on “mimesis or truth to life” but on the capacity to transcend such aims. “The greatest tradition is one that asks of itself how much of it can be broken down,” he stated in a 1984 interview.

Keenly aware of how even the most mundane interpersonal connection could make the world far more entangled than politics or geography would otherwise suggest, Suh embarked on his most enduring series of work, “People,” in the 1970s. A longitudinal celebration of mark-making and the openness of space, “People” deftly evokes rhythm and movement so that each constituent painting registers more strongly as an event than as an object. Several play with the elasticity of forms, with the titular character—shaped like 人, the Chinese ideogram for “person”—massed and joined together so that they appear to expand and sway.  Many works convey an effort to generate intimacy through the tension between size and scale, the most effective instance of which was his monumental but buoyant installation at Maison Hermès in Tokyo in 2007. Over time, “People” underscored ink painting as a distinctly embodied practice, one as dependent on breath control, stance, and the relationship between the upright body and the horizontal ground as it was on the alchemic reaction between the properties of ink, water, and paper. Reminding us of how the most important problems are those most fundamental to the process of transforming material into painting, Suh lives on through the energy of his works, for which no expiration date exists.

Joan Kee is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Michigan and the Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor at Williams College.