SEOUL — The long arc of South Korea’s postwar art history — and the country’s transformation in those 75 years — looms large at this year’s TEFAF Maastricht, where Gana Art, a Seoul-based gallery, is showcasing two of the country’s pioneering artists.
The South Korea of today is a far cry from the country into which the sculptor Choi Jongtae, 90, and the painter Youn Myeungro, 86, were born. Their careers provide a rare glimpse into the way Korean art has shifted as the nation has evolved, from a colonized and war-torn agrarian country to one ruled by military dictatorships, before becoming a global economic powerhouse in the 1990s. The presence of their work at the Maastricht fair reveals how, years later, artists of any age can help define what constitutes art.
The journey of both artists has been witnessed firsthand by Lee Hojae, 68, the founder and chairman of Gana Art. He has long championed Mr. Choi (the gallery has represented him numerous times at art fairs over 38 years), and several of the artist’s TEFAF-bound sculptures reveal his signature style: Christian imagery with an Eastern flair.
His works became popular in the 1960s and ’70s, as the postwar European Art Informel movement grew out of the work created by genre-defining artists who were responding to the horrors of World War II. That movement, in which abstract art became more associated with blotches and impulsive strokes of paint, influenced the famous Dansaekhwa monochromatic art movement. But as a Christian who worked very much in that realm, Mr. Choi had his own riff on abstraction, Mr. Lee said.
“Back in 1985, I invited Mr. Choi to show at FIAC in Paris because we wanted to show that his work is very Korean but has universal power,” Mr. Lee said during a recent interview at Gana Art, in the upscale Pyeongchang-dong area, referring to Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, the first international art fair for the gallery. “His work is very simple and very pure. A lot of his sculptures reflect Giacometti, including a few pieces we’re taking to TEFAF. He’s Catholic, but his Christian works are more like Buddhas in their posturing and serenity.”
Mr. Lee felt a sense of discovery in his professional relationship with Mr. Youn, too, which also extends to the 1980s. Founded in 1983, Gana Art has represented him at global art fairs since 2016. His and Mr. Choi’s works both fit within the vision of the gallery; Gana Art has championed South Korean artists who tend to bend the rules.
“We are trying to offer a new glimpse of Korean art history by giving a renewed, broader visibility to these pioneer artists outside of the Dansaekhwa movement,” Mr. Lee said. “Mr. Youn led the abstract art movement in South Korea back in the 1950s, but what I find interesting is that he is abstract but changes his style every decade. He utilizes Western art materials but the end result is very Eastern.”
It’s this kind of universalism that has inspired Gana Art to bring this history to Maastricht this year. For Mr. Choi and Mr. Youn, it’s a late-career chance for their works to teach new viewers about their country and its place in the global art world, as well as each of their personal journeys.
“As a sculptor, I have focused my work on the human condition, because I grew up in a period of Japanese colonization in Korea, and I was directly impacted by the liberation from that in 1945, the Korean War, military dictatorship and Korean democratization,” Mr. Choi said by email through a translator. “But I have aimed to create works that were free from the constraints of Korean history and the associated pain and sorrow I have experienced throughout my life.”
Tapping into that sorrow was a turning point for him at the Paris show in 1985, where his sculptures seemed to take him to a deeper place artistically — almost like a grieving process, he said.
“Some attendees in 1985 said that the overall mood of the exhibition seemed to be one of sadness, and I realized the sadness pervaded the entire space,” he said. “I remember going to a cafe next to the exhibition hall and breaking down in tears. It was very healing. It has taken me more than 35 years, but I have finally overcome my sadness and now create sculptures that embody love and peace.”
Mr. Choi’s works at TEFAF were created in the last five years or so. They include several pastels on paper depicting the Virgin Mary with (and without) child, along with bronzes titled “Two People” (2017) and “Hooray” (2022) — figures that carry a whiff of Picasso.
For Mr. Youn, his “Ode to Gyeomjae (Jeong Seon)” (2002), which will travel to Maastricht, pays tribute to Gyeomjae Jeong Seon, an 18th-century artist who founded a Korean style of landscape painting. Like his predecessor, Mr. Youn depicts landscapes by applying acrylic paint on a linen canvas but then adding iron powder — as artisans first began doing during the Joseon era to give traditional white porcelain a brownish hue. Iron powder mixed with acrylics or oils creates a thick texture, allowing him to depict the rough lines commonly seen in many Asian paintings.
“As the iron corrodes and changes color upon oxidation, the black hue gradually transforms into a softer brown,” Mr. Youn explained by email through a translator. “In this series, I used a dynamic but gentle brush stroke to express the essence of nature.”
Another of his entries for TEFAF is “Breathing” (2010), which uses a similar approach with acrylic paint and iridescent powder. The result looks almost like black marble with branchlike flourishes.
“This series encapsulates the respiration of nature,” Mr. Youn said. “Breathing is not visible to the naked eye but is present everywhere. I came to realize that the winds, trees and fragrances of this world all exist because of some form of breathing.”
Gana Art will also be bringing the works of 12 other artists to TEFAF Maastricht: Huh Myoungwook, Hwang Hosup, Kim Kulim, Oh Sufan, Park Sukwon, Park Yungnam, Rim Dongsik, Shim Moon-seup, Lee Ufan, Yayoi Kusama, Ethan Cook and, in a true representation of art history, Claude Monet.
Mr. Lee pointed out that Mr. Choi and Mr. Youn have been a huge influence on many of these artists, young and old. “These two are artistic giants in South Korea,” he said. “We have an obligation to let the world know about these artists.”