While art fairs vanished from most of the world amid the pandemic, that was not the case in South Korea, where relatively successful mitigation measures allowed events like Art Busan and the Galleries Art Fair to proceed. However, the brightest star in the market firmament here, the Korea International Art Fair (KIAF), was canceled last year amid an uptick in cases. Now it has finally returned.
On Wednesday, people streamed into the Coex convention center in the Gangnam section of Seoul for a VVIP preview of KIAF, which features 170 dealers, the vast majority of them based in South Korea. (The VIP preview, for the record, is Thursday.) The event comes during the annual Korea Art Week, which has seen the opening of a Thaddaeus Ropac branch (the Austrian gallery’s first outpost in Asia) and the reopening of Samsung’s vaunted Leeum museum, which closed its doors at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been elegantly renovated, and reservation slots have quickly filled up.
The excitement for KIAF is also high—and competition among dealers is fierce. Frieze will alight with a new iteration next year, with a planned 100 exhibitors, that will be concurrent and in partnership with KIAF. The joint fairs will take place in September, so as not to overlap with Frieze London, which is also running this week. This year, some galleries, like Gallery Hyundai and Various Small Fires, have made the impressive decision to participate in both events.
Below are 10 highlights from the aisles in the Korean capital city. (Not included here: the most satisfying affogato I’ve ever had, courtesy of the boutique Korean chain Baekmidang.)
Robert Barry at Gallery Shilla
In 1969, the venturesome Robert Barry did three shows that consisted of shuttering galleries for fixed durations of time—a gambit that invites artists to reconsider how they present their art, and that throws a wrench in the gears of commerce. (Herb and Dorothy Vogel, major collectors at that time, nevertheless acquired the closed-gallery work, terming it “the greatest piece of conceptual art that was ever done.”) Barry has restaged it on occasion, most recently in Seoul this year with Gallery Shilla, which is mounting a new version at KIAF. A message emblazoned on the booth explains it all: “DURING THE ART FAIR, GALLERY SHILLA BOOTH WILL BE CLOSED.” Two slabs of wood block its entryway. But while its booth is closed, the gallery, which has spaces in Seoul and Daegu, is hard at work: father-and-son team Lee Kwang Ho and Joon Yub Lee are on hand, explaining the project with the aid of an early Barry drawing that is hidden under a curtain—and not for sale.
Seoul’s PKM, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, managed the rare feat of staging an art-fair booth that is not only a succinct introduction to its program but also a coherent show in its own right. The alluring, earthen abstractions of the late Yun Hyong-Keun sit elegantly alongside Suh Seung-Won’s spectral paintings in pastel pinks, blues, and yellows (more are now on view at the gallery’s home in the city’s Samcheong-dong neighborhood, to which BTS’s art-loving RM recently paid a visit). This master class in Dansaekhwa, the ’70s Korean art movement, is punctuated by the charismatic, rough-hewn figurative sculptures of Kwon Jinkyu, who will be the subject of a centennial retrospective at the Seoul Museum of Art in 2023, as well as pieces by other gallery artists. Everything is hung low on the wall, or placed low on a pedestal, to welcome close looking. This is a redoubt of calm amid the fair’s bustle.
Takashi Murakami at Perrotin
For pure blow-your-face-off wall power, Emmanuel Perrotin wins the competition, and it is not even close. The dealer has given over his booth to the Superflat king, Takashi Murakami, who delivers new and recent versions of his classics. Towering, shiny sculptures of his hyperactive, faintly menacing characters KaiKai and KiKi greet visitors, and his trademark daisies grin from numerous paintings that line the walls. It is an over-the-top presentation, but also a poignant one, given that Murakami revealed last year that his business was facing bankruptcy amid the pandemic. The darkness that has always lurked in his art seems closer to the surface now—closer to all of us. It feels good to see him in such fine form, mushing on through the malaise.
Various Small Fires
Participating in KIAF for the first time, VSF, with spaces in Los Angeles and Seoul, has devoted its booth to six modestly scaled but forceful paintings by Mark Yang, who was born in Seoul in 1994, got his Columbia M.F.A. last year, and is based in New York. Nude bodies or body parts wrestle vigorously and fill most of each picture, their curving, interlocking forms conjured from flat blocks of only a handful of colors. Faces are never visible. Thick shadows define volume. A sun or moon looms in the sky in two cases. The palettes of these works vaguely suggest the twilight worlds of Giorgio de Chirico, and the subjects’ anguished poses recall the most entangled sculptures of Jacques Lipchitz. Psychologically discomfiting and admirably restrained, Yang’s art is a welcome burst of fresh energy at a fair filled with plenty of bankable names.
The Seoul stalwart Kukje, which turns 40 next year, is serving up an expansive smorgasbord of its program. There are prime postwar Korean monochrome works by Lee Ufan and Park Seo-bo (who has a majestic show up at one of its three Seoul spaces right now), strong examples of contemporary Western figures like Jenny Holzer and Roni Horn, and some tantalizing historical material. A blazing 1968 geometric abstraction of sharp-edged yellow, orange, and green forms by the pioneering Yoo Youngkuk is alone worth the price of admission. Here, too, is a fantasia of brushstrokes precisely rendered by Roy Lichtenstein in 1985. One of the high pleasures of art fairs is getting to spend time with work like this, knowing that it may very well soon disappear into private collections and go unseen for decades.
Young-Il Ahn at Gallery Sesom
The Korean-American artist Young-Il Ahn, who died in late 2020 at the age of 86, was a painter of patient virtuosity, building his luminous abstract canvases mark by careful mark, one color slowly typically covering an underpainting of another color. His hand-wrought grids seem to hold an inner light, occupying a zone near Alma Thomas and mid-career Philip Guston that is still very much his own. At Gallery Sesom’s booth, a handful of them—off-white, lilac, and cerulean—hang together, and it is glorious. Thanks to recent shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gallery Hyundai in Seoul, Kavi Gupta in Chicago, and Harper’s in New York, Ahn is becoming more widely known, but there are still plenty of people to convert. This stand provides a perfect chance to make that happen.
In a capacious booth just outside the main halls of the convention center (a location that is dangerously easy to miss), Seoul-based Gallery Hyundai is presenting a series of miniature suites highlighting individual artists. Three billowing abstractions by Sabine Moritz hang in one section, an explosive “Bodyscape” painting and a gathering of smaller pieces by Lee Kun-Yong in another. (Those seeking more Lee can visit his solo show at Hyundai’s space through the end of the month.) Another highlight comes in the life-affirming, jewel-like works that Minjung Kim makes by manipulating traditional hanji paper—into a field of blossoms, in one case. With its subdued lighting and airy, judiciously paced installation, it is a stand that just might make you forget that you are at an art fair.
In an ingenious example of both curatorial and entrepreneurial gumption, Whistle gallery’s proprietors had the photographer Kyoungtae Kim print one of his deliriously textured images onto a gargantuan sticker, which they then slapped onto the side of a sizable storage crate, creating a sculpture that is also a tool for selling more art from a small booth. They offered up four emerging artists that have shown at their space in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. Along with Kim’s bewitching pictures (also on view at the Doosan Art Center at the moment), there are sly, ominous paintings of seemingly quotidian subjects by Dongho Kang and smart, playful abstractions by Eimei Kaneyama and Min ha Park. There is a lot to like here, in short. If you have the cash, why not buy that crate and pack it up with a number of works?
International galleries have been rushing to open in Seoul in recent years, and one of the most recent arrivals is König, which set up shop in Gangnam, in a towering MCM store, earlier this year. At KIAF, it has taken the spotlight-the-roster approach, with pieces by Katharina Grosse, Jeremy Shaw, Camille Henrot, Alicja Kwade, and many more in what is a pleasantly scrappy outing. König’s program has always been a little too razzle-dazzle and shiny for my taste (just one writer’s opinion), but here, it all kind of makes sense. And at a fair that feels even more heavy on male artists than the average art fair, it is a relief to see a bevy of strong works by women.
One of the most winning moments at KIAF is Pace’s front-of-booth pairing here of two storied, still-underrated contemporaries: the Korean painter Kim Whanki and the American Adolph Gottlieb, who died months apart in 1974. Gottlieb, who was a decade older, is represented by a huge 1962 evergreen canvas bearing blue and brown blobs, Kim with a 1969 blue number sporting slices of red and yellow. They sing together. They demand a two-person show. Pace, which inaugurated a grand new space earlier this year in Hannam-dong (not far from the Leeum), also has pieces by the recently signed Latifa Echakhch and Robert Longo, and tapestry and paper works by the relentlessly inventive Park Rehyun (1920–76), who recently had a pulse-quickening retrospective at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. It all adds up to a booth that is hearteningly multifarious—ready to sell but focused.