By Dora Dmitriev

Through my search for Asian design inspiration for a project, I stumbled upon the word Dansaekhwa. Dansaekhwa or "monochrome painting" is debatably the most important Korean art movement of the 20th century.

Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, by Yun Hyongkeun, 1978, Oil on linen

Untitled 72-C, 1972, Tina Kim Gallery

The Dansaekhwa movement emphasized going back to nature. The return to nature denied the artist as a subject. Working on canvas, artists paid attention to the properties of soft objects and renounced figuration. Use of hanji Korean paper and earthy tones became popular.

Work 74-06, by Ha Chonghyun, 1974, oil on hemp, Los Angeles

Wandering, by Chung Chang-sup, used Korean traditional mulberry paper

Back in the early 1970s when the Republic of Korea was still under military dictatorship, Dansaekhwa began. Unhappy with the social weariness in South Korea, Dansaekhwa artists wanted to challenge the typical Korean aesthetic. The known artists who are associated with the art movement included Park Seo-bo, Ha Chong-hyun, Yun Hyong-keun, Kim Whanki, Chung Chang-sup, Chung Sang-hwa, and Lee Ufan, among others. The artists remained nameless and without a group identity until the 2000 exhibition at the Gwangju City Art Museum. It was after this exhibit that the term Dansaekhwa came to light.

From Point, by Lee Ufan, 1974, Oil on canvas

Artists of the movement cared more about the process of a physical action that took place in the making of their work, than color itself. The process was centered on repetition, rhythm and an obvious acknowledgment of the materials used in the act of painting. Dansaekhwa artists treated their materials as tools for their meditative process.

Untitled (1992), by Chung Chang-sup, Tak Fiber on canvas

At the time, the word Dansaekhwa coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju uprising, which had marked the end of the military government in South Korea. By abandoning figuration and using indiscernible images of political propaganda, the Dansaekhwa artists subtly rebelled against the military regime without getting caught.

Work 73-1-9, by Chung Sang-Hwa, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Seoul

Today, artists of the Dansaekhwa movement have expanded into the 3D field with the use of optical effects and sculptural forms. More industrial materials are incorporated and use of synthetic and natural resins, stainless steel, faux pearls, Plexiglas, and sequins are visible in their work.

Sequin painting detail, by Noh Sang-kyoon, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, 2008

'Aggregation 06', by Chung Kwang-Young, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, diameter 250 cm. Installation view at Kim Foster Gallery, New York, 2006