This Spring, the Korean Avant-Garde Lands In Los Angeles

Lee Kun-Yong, Logic of Hand, 1975/2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Hammer Museum.

"Recently, K-culture seems to be attracting global attention,” observes 81-year-old artist Lee Kun-Yong. “After the Korean War, everyone was trying to make a living—pursuing art was done by the good-for-nothings of society. It’s striking to see how things have changed.”

The avant-garde Korean artist himself laid the groundwork for that sea change in the 1960s and ’70s—along with peers like Ha Chong-Hyun, Jung Kangja, and Kim Kulim, who represented the nucleus of South Korea’s experimental art movement. Their entries into the pantheon of creative exploration are the focus of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s,” which lands at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum on Feb. 11 following stops in Seoul and New York.

Jung Kangja, Kiss Me, 1967/2001. Installation view at the Guggenheim's "Only the Young" exhibition, 2023.

The unprecedented exhibition features nearly 80 paintings, photographs, and installations that chronicle and react to the country's steep climb to modernization following the Korean War. Among Lee’s featured works is Logic of Hand, the artist’s 1975 photo series that chronicles a sequence of expressive gestures. “At the time, relationships were determined by a hierarchy of power,” he says. “I attempted to interpret [that system] and communicate through the body as a primal medium.”  

Park Hyunki, Untitled (TV Stone Tower), 1982. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Hammer Museum.

South Korea’s viral K-pop acts and TV dramas are quickly turning the nation’s culture into a leading global export, aided by the government's hefty investments in the arts. Less than 50 years ago, things were different. In 1975, Lee recalls being apprehended by his country's national security agency and trampled by combat boots. “It was a period of military dictatorship. It is a miracle that we survived as artists through such times,” he says. “People may wonder what it is about Korean culture that suddenly appeals to the global population,” Lee continues. “Perhaps, those who have pursued art through tumultuous times in Korean modern history can offer some clues.” 

"Only the Young" will be on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from Feb. 11 through May 12, 2024.