Seo-Bo Park—now in his mid-seventies—is considered one of the leading figures in bringing the European Modernist concept of art to Korea in the late fifties after the Korean War. The expressionist tendency at that time was partially influenced by French l’art informel in an attempt to bring Eastern calligraphy into contact with western forms. Over the years, Park has refined and developed his methods as a painter in order to retrieve his identity again as a Korean artist and to reintegrate Buddhist and Taoist ideas into his work. Seo-Bo Park has been the recipient of many retrospective exhibitions and prestigious awards. He is a Professor at Hong-Ik University in Seoul. This is his first interview to be published in English, and in the United States. I gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Ms. Hyun, SooJung with whom I worked closely on the translation. The interview occurred on December 19, 2005 at the Seo-Bo Park Foundation in Seoul and was made possible through my residency as a Fulbright scholar in the Republic of Korea.
Robert Morgan (Rail): Could we begin with the general perceptions of your work?
Seo-Bo Park: People say my current work is similar to minimal art, but I don’t agree. My work is more related to the oriental tradition and its spiritual concept of space. I am more interested in space from the point of view of nature. Even though my paintings may represent an idea about culture, the main focus is always based on nature. In other words, I want to reduce the idea and emotion in my work, to express my interest in space from the point of view of nature. Then I want to reduce that—to create pure emptiness. This has been an old value that still exists in oriental philosophy where nature and men are one. This tendency is evident in my work from the ’70s and ’80s—not just in recent years.
Rail: In the early period, there was a great deal of groundbreaking in what you were doing, but at the same time, a great deal of resistance to that groundbreaking. How did you endure the resistance against what you were trying to do as an abstract artist? Because there was resistance to your modernist idea in Korea—I know there was. How did you enforce your position during this period time, in the late ’50s and ’60s?
Park: Actually it began during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, when I lost so many close friends. That, I think, had a profound impact on me. In some ways, the tragedy compelled me to deal with it internally. Politically speaking, I still can’t even now understand how we came to agree with America’s involvement with the separation between the North and South of our country. So it is not only an ideological problem. It was a problem of war and the loss of so many innocent lives. And in addition to my own interest in the European Modernist concept of art, I also wanted my painting to show the grieving process as a way to reduce the terrible experience of the war. I felt whatever I do on the canvas could only reveal my own coping with it. That’s how I was able to manage to survive through the hardship.
Rail: I was looking at one of your painting from the early ’70s a week ago at Samsung Museum. I was studying the brushwork, and I thought its rhythm is so spatially succinct, but I know you think of it as a form of drawing. This occurs to me as having something to do with a kind of contemplation, or a meditation exercise. However, once you moved out of the ’70s, and into the ’80s, the work became more, shall we say, controlled and emotionally restrained. Was that move or that transition also connected to your sense of identity and your concept of meditation in painting?
Park: In the later paintings I continued to maintain the energy in my painting through a process of meditation. I would create a repeated movement of my arm for 30 minutes at a time. Such process is considered as part of my ritual in helping me to empty out all of my personal desires and emotions. Then, when I feel I have the necessary control, I begin to draw.
Rail: So this physical aspect of getting into the rhythm is very important in order to empty your mind?
Park: Yes. When this happens, I draw all day—the entire day. Getting into this kind of meditation is like a form of ecstasy, which allows me to empty all my desires. And increasingly since the eighties I want to reduce my personal involvement in the work even further, to alleviate the problem of expression altogether. I feel the desire to express oneself gets in the way of the essential idea. Therefore I have employed assistants to execute the work for me. This has become of central importance in my recent work.
Rail: So by alleviating the expressive aspect of your work you were able to deepen the meditative potential of your work. Do you feel, if not physically involved in making the work, that you are getting closer to the essence of your concept?
Park: Yes, but I also want to keep some trace of the human hand—this is the importance.
Rail: For many years you were focusing primarily on the gray tones in your work. This is still the case, but I’ve noticed that you’ve become more and more involved with color as if inventing new forms of optical perception through it, which is being worked into the furrowing striations of your recent paintings. I’m wondering if you feel a need to revive expressive content in your work, not so much through gesture and tactility, but through color. Could you describe the shift and what that signified?
Park: Basically, the idea is the same whether it is monotone or color.
Rail: But the optical sensation on the surface is different when you use color in contrast to the gray monotone. Also, in terms of light, and actual perception.
Park: To change from a gray monotone to color is not reaction of one to another. To me, it is all based on the same spiritual parts, as long as the evolution is natural. For example when I use the gray color it is not never simply or plain gray. There is some light in it like the soot on the walls in old Korean kitchen. There is not only gray, but many colors inside, some are quite deep. The same is true when I use white. Again, regardless of when I use gray tones or white color, my purpose is to make the painting empty. The same approach is applied to discover the essential natural and spiritual ideas. I really believe that color is not based on some method or ideology; it is an approach to nature, which includes everything in the universe: even what is invisible to us.
Rail: So by nature you are referring to the universe as a system of communication? A kind of transmission?
Rail: Could you elaborate on your use of paper, which has a lot to do with Korean or Asian culture in general? Because in the West, paper has a more purely practical application, where as in the East, it takes on more of a certain kind of embedded meaning in the sense that an artist can identify his or her spiritual self, rather than just the material connections to it.
Park: Well, China invented paper and made it available to the entire world. But I have my own attraction to Korean traditional paper, particularly the kind that has a long history that relates…Do you know the ancient region of KyungJu?
Rail: Yes, the Buddhist temple in KyungJu called Bulguk-sa. A very beautiful temple where the historical Sukga-stupa is located.
Park: Yes, the restoration began in 1966. Around this time, there was a paper dated over 1300 years old going back to the Shilla Dynasty.
Rail: More than a millennium.
Park: And two more decades before the Pure Light Daranai Sutra was discovered (the oldest paper scroll known in the history of Korea). At any rate, first I began to study Korean brush painting, during the Korean War. But my teacher was killed, so I could not continue. I then moved to the Western region of Korea where I could study indigenous papers. What I had learned about paper, during this period, was that it was connected with everything of domestic life. For instance the covering of a floor in the house was done with mulberry paper and then covered with oil. There were other similar functions of that kind which made me feel so emotionally and intimately connected with it materially on one hand, and spiritually on the other. This whole discovery was important to me because I realized that my current life is, in some ways, inseparable from the previous one. Today, because of the world of technology, and other form of distractions, we tend to forget and neglect our past.
Rail: I’d like to talk a bit about the rectilinear insets in your recent paintings. Some are placed in the corners while others suggest a kind of symmetry as they are placed vertically or horizontally in the middle. I’m wondering if these forms are important to the composition in that they seem to augment the opticality of the work. In other words, are you looking for a kind of optical sense of balance through the use of these formal elements?
Park: I think of my paintings like monks praying in a Zen garden. While the process may be technically arduous, the overall concept is very simple. I have been doing this work for many years, since the late sixties. Even if I have the same idea, the circumstance of the paintings has changed as time has passed. In the seventies, my paintings were like a boy, then in the eighties he got married, and had a family, and eventually he went on to have a grandson. What I mean to say is that my circumstances have changed since I began, and that means I have also been changed. So even though I have no intention to change, I have discovered that I have changed over time. It’s inevitable. But to answer your question regarding formal elements, I feel now that I’m older, I can recognize certain shapes in my paintings better than when I was younger. But that’s a given. Near the riverside in Seoul, where I live, there is a bridge with columns that sustain the bridge. My repeated viewing of the bridge’s support columns, like a meditation, got inside of me. That’s how those rectilinear or vertical forms appear in the painting.
Rail: I see them as supports that enhance the vibrancy of the optical field.
Park: Well, if you insist on that being optical experience, then every one of us indeed, needs visual experiences in our lives. I want my paintings to give some potential energy.
Rail: I’m not sure that optical and visual are necessarily the same experience. I think that opticality is a more precise kind of experience involving a form of repetition that is predisposed to illusion, where the surface appears ambiguous. On the other hand, visual experiences are more generally based on a sense of sight which can be more random as incidental events.
Park: We’re talking about the same differences—but this distinction is not important for me. What is important, which I only recently came to understand is in the past, there was a need to adhere to some system or ideology, but now I wish to be free from all of that. However, I also know that it’s impossible to be detached from life. Observation of things visually does give me potential energy. So I do want to develop what I see, refine it, and integrate it into my work.
Rail: So when you are looking at the columns near the river, day after day, like a meditation, they gradually become embedded in your point of view. Don’t you think once that enters into the realm of painting it becomes an optical experience in that you have fundamentally distilled the generalized visual impressions of the world into a very specific form of presentation? That’s when the surface of your paintings begins to vibrate, to float in space. Perhaps I’m talking about visual experiences that exist in Western Art, which only through the specificity of the optical experience, that I am permitted to dream. If it were only visual, I would constantly be analyzing the forms and the color.
Park: I have no intention to make this change—or understanding the transition from visual to optical that you’re describing. There is a cultural difference between how you analyze my work and how I think about them. I can’t help it if some aspects of my work appeal to Minimal art, which you could relate and are able to deduce that from your own reading of them as being an optical experience. For me, these issues are outside optical exploration.
Rail: You mean your intention is to create emptiness in painting, which allows me to open my mind, in a way that, if the surfaces were too congested with diverse figurations, I would not be able to engage in a process that leads toward meditation.
Park: My point is that the question of art is different in Western and Eastern terms. Western people think art is art, but we think art is a part of our life.
Rail: I understand what you mean, but this might be too much of a generalization.
Park: I just think that it’s inherent that Asians can relate to Asian art like the way that Westerners can with their own. But it’d take some times for both to truly understand each other’s way of thinking about art. The differences also lie in the fact that you can talk about the general Western ideas about art. Then, from your own resource, you can relate to my work. But for me, I’m not sure how or where to begin. The only thing I can say in certainty is that we both experience the paintings directly, but we don’t understand the deep feeling about the action in the same way.
Rail: While I agree that the action of making the painting is important, the fact that you let your assistants make your paintings brings up a whole other issue: What you are putting into the work versus what I experience. How does the viewer get into the experience of art and retrieve something that the artist is trying to show through this process? I think that it has to do with emptying yourself of any imposed intentions.
Park: It’s like getting water from different sources. Whether it descends from the mountain and gathers in clay jars or cisterns, water always flows naturally and is able to take the shape and form of whatever contains it. Similarly I want to make something appear as clearly and naturally as water. I want to control my energy as a means of generating ideas and I wish, through my own experience, to make my work without any specific intention.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.