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  • Dec 07, 2020

Obituary: Suh Se Ok (1929–2020)

A portrait of SUH SE OK.

Contemporary Korean ink painting pioneer Suh Se Ok, also known by his artist alias Sanjeong, passed away on November 29 at the age of 91. Details of his death have not been disclosed.

The Daegu-born artist lived and worked in Seoul for most of his life. In 1950, he received his bachelor of fine arts from the Oriental Painting department at Seoul National University. In 1960, he founded art group Mungnimhoe, or the Ink Forest Society, the first Korean avant-garde group that focuses on experimental forms of ink painting. Along with other young artists such as Kwon Young-Woo and Jung Tak-young, the group attempted to modernize traditional Korean ink paintings through more abstract approaches that deliberately separated itself from the influence of Japanese paintings, developed during Japan’s occupation of Korea (1910–45), and antiquarian preferences for Chinese painting styles.

Suh’s ink paintings, done on traditional mulberry paper, were inspired by the genre of literati painting, which originated in China during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and became popular in Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897). Stemming from traditions of poetry and calligraphy, the category was mostly practiced by scholars interested in self-erudition and expression. Suh’s most renowned series People (1960s –2010s) investigates society’s social patterns and interconnectedness via minimalistic shapes, lines, dots, and washes of black ink. For example, People (2015) depicts a pattern of connected crosses that resemble a group of human figures and captures feelings of loneliness and longing for social interaction.

Suh's work has been widely exhibited, including a 2015 retrospective at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, featuring a collection of 100 works created between the 1950s and 2000s that he donated to the museum in 2014. He also held solo exhibitions at Lehmann Maupin gallery, New York (2018); Gallery Hyundai, Seoul (2016); Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2008); and the Maison Hermes, Tokyo (2007), among others.

Suh was commended for his contributions to contemporary Korean art by the South Korean government in 2012, with the Order of Cultural Merit at Silver Level. He was also awarded the 52nd National Academy of Arts Award, Korea (2007); the Artistic and Culture Prize of the 13th Federation of Artistic and Culture, Korea (1999); and the Illmin Art Prize, Seoul (1997), among other honors.

The artist is survived by his wife, Minza Chung, and his two sons, Do Ho Suh and Eulho Suh.

Stephanie Siu is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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