The artworks of the most rebellious artists in the Korean art scene from the 1960s to the 1970s are scheduled to be exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from September 1, 2023 through January 7, 2024.
The artworks of the most rebellious artists in the Korean art scene from the 1960s to the 1970s are scheduled to be exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The rebellious figures in the Korean art scene were the artists of experimental art (silheom misul). Jointly curated by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), and the Guggenheim Museum, the exhibition, Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s, was first exhibited at the MMCA Seoul until July 16, 2023. Following the showcase at the Guggenheim Museum, the artworks are scheduled to be transferred to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in February 2024.
But why are these Korean experimental artists considered rebellious?
From today’s perspective, it might be difficult to grasp what made their artworks considered rebellious at the time. However, understanding the socio-cultural context of their active period can shed light on who they were resisting and how they fought against them.
In the 1960s, South Korea was under the control of a military dictatorship that was enforcing modernization policies. Against this backdrop, attempts by the public to voice their opinions about societal issues were suppressed, and artists had to work under government censorship of mass media and editorial control of the press.
After the April 19 Revolution in 1960, public dissent against the politically corrupt regime grew. Korean experimental artists joined this wave of criticism through their art. They also opposed the government-led national exhibitions, which served as gateways for artists, and participated in acts of protest, such as hanging their artworks on the walls of Deoksugung Palace as a critique of the national exhibition, known as “Beokjeon.”
These artists did not conform to the norms of Korean society by creating traditional paintings or sculptures or adhering to the art styles promoted by the national exhibitions. Instead, they reinterpreted tradition, emphasized modern inheritance, and sought to de-Westernize Korean art. They utilized various non-traditional media, such as newspapers, photography, performance art, and video. Despite the fact that working without restrictions on media, form, or genre may be commonplace today, their activities during that era were considered revolutionary and innovative.
Under political oppression and social control, these artists were frequently stigmatized as subversive forces, and their unconventional concepts and approaches prevented their art from being acknowledged. Consequently, their activities remained in the shadows for a long time, and experimental artists were overshadowed by art movements such as Informalism, Dansaekhwa, and Minjung art, which later dominated the Korean contemporary art scene.
The activities of young artists who engaged in the radical art movement in the 1960s and 1970s have only recently started to receive attention. These artists pursued a different path from those who followed the dominant ideologies at the time. They reflected on the role of artists and expanded Korean contemporary art by employing new forms and styles, seeking to bring change to the prevailing art institutions and systems.
The significance of their activities is evident, but why is the international community now paying attention to Korean experimental art? And why the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum?
Today, global art museums strive to present a universal, objective, and diverse perspective on culture to the public, making efforts to showcase art beyond Western culture dominated by white male artists. Nevertheless, Asian art has long remained relatively unnoticed.
To shed light on Asian art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum launched the Asian Art Initiative in 2006. As part of this initiative, it established the Senior Curator position exclusively dedicated to Asian contemporary art and formed the Asian Art Council, comprising around 20 critics, scholars, curators, and artists. Through this council, the Guggenheim Museum formulates research, exhibition, education, and collection strategies for Asian art. With these initiatives, the Guggenheim Museum aims to emphasize lesser-known Asian art, artists, and movements, enhancing a multinational understanding of art history by focusing on Asia’s artistic contributions.
Several contemporary Asian art forms have been brought to light through the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Initiative. Some examples include The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 exhibition, which won the 2009 International Association of Art Critics award for the Best Thematic Museum Show in New York City. In 2013, the museum showcased the Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibition, capturing the spontaneity inherent in the Japanese Gutai group’s artwork. In 2017, it presented Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, shedding light on Chinese art since 1989. Furthermore, in 2013, the Guggenheim Museum established the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative, leading to more exhibitions and research projects on Chinese contemporary art.
The Guggenheim Museum also focused on Asian art through other projects. This includes significant exhibitions such as Cai Guo-Qiang’s solo exhibition Head On and No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, which introduced the works of artists from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam in 2018.
The current exhibition Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s is not part of the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Initiative program, but this exhibition aligns with the direction pursued by the Guggenheim Museum as a global art institution that seeks to expand the narrative of global art history.
The interest of the international community in Korean experimental art stems from its unique and innovative nature, which challenges established norms and practices. The Guggenheim Museum’s decision to showcase these artworks reflects the global art world’s recognition of the historical significance and artistic value of these artists and their contributions to the development of contemporary art. It provides a platform for their works to be appreciated by a wider audience and for their incorporation into the larger narrative of modern art history.