Speaking to avant-garde music devotees in Germany in 1984, composer Morton Feldman delivered a mischievous provocation, almost a warning. “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,” he said. “The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” Feldman then hummed a section of a symphony by an ostensibly old-fashioned forebear, the proud Finn Jean Sibelius.
That story came to mind while soaking in the Chang Ucchin retrospective at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Deoksugung Palace branch in Seoul during the last days of summer. Its four galleries are jam-packed with some 300 pieces by the 20th-century painter, who “became almost a mythic figure in Korea,” as art historian Hong Sunpyo writes in the show’s robust catalogue. Depicting tranquil, harmonious, sometimes dreamy scenes of rural Korea with an economy of marks on a flat plane, almost all the pieces charm. Birds fly in a row through the sky. Trees stand proud. People peer from tiny houses. At first glance, they could be the work of a very good illustrator of books for young children.
Keep looking. These seemingly simple, modest size paintings (generally only a little larger than a sheet of paper) are potent—and yes, radical—born of tough, self-imposed restraints. As his native South Korea went through seismic political and economic changes, and as peers like Kim Whanki and Yoo Youngkuk ventured into thrilling abstract terrain, Chang honed his language to absolute essentials. He rendered eyes with just two dots or circles, and people frequently as just stick figures or a precise stain of paint. For decades, he stuck largely to the same few subjects: humans (many of them children) and animals outside in the world, together, at peace.
Chang was singular, uncompromising. “When people talk about my paintings, they often comment that they’re too small,” he once wrote. But as he saw it, “as the scale increases, the painting starts to get diluted.” In 1951, as he was entering his mid-30s, he painted an indelible self-portrait on paper (the Korean War had made canvas scarce) about the size of a postcard. It seems to announce both the style that he would pursue for the next 40 years and himself as a major but idiosyncratic talent. He is in the foreground, debonair in a suit and tie (his wedding attire), on a road that stretches far behind him into hills that vibrate with minute gold and green strokes. A black dog follows him, and four blue birds fly overhead. With a top hat and an umbrella in his hands, he suggests a man ready for a leisurely stroll or, perhaps, to open a variety show. Either way, you can hear him calling for you to join him.
Who was he? Chang was born on January 8, 1918, in what is now the South Korean municipality of Sejong, then Yeongi County in Japanese-occupied Korea. (The artist’s birth date is widely cited as November 26, 1917—correct in the lunar calendar, which he preferred.) Like many ambitious Korean artists of the time, he studied in Tokyo and picked up on the latest international art currents via publications.
In the newly independent Korea of 1945, Chang found work at the National Museum, where he was involved in restoration projects and observed the excavation of ancient tombs, according to Bae Wonjung, the MMCA curator who organized this richly researched exhibition. The country was rediscovering itself after foreign domination, and Chang’s works are filled with tributes to its deep heritage—ceramics, folk paintings, and enduring iconography. A 1949 oil painting depicts a sturdy clay jar that might be used to ferment kimchi, and many hold both the sun and the moon, as they appear in traditional Joseon Dynasty paintings. In an impressive bit of scholarship, art historian Kang Byoungjik notes that 440 of Chang’s roughly 730 oil paintings (around 61 percent!) contain magpies, a bird with auspicious connotations in Korea.
These plainspoken paintings were produced through tremendous labor, the artist repeatedly applying paint, then wiping it away. (For a stretch of the 1960s and ’70s, this occurred in a remote studio without electricity.) The results have a rare solidity, some with the rough-hewn firmness of Buncheong stoneware, a sensation heightened by Chang’s restraint with his brush. “According to his family, the technique of wiping off or scratching paint was also a way for Chang to empty his mind,” art historian Choi Yeob writes in a lucid catalogue essay on the Buddhist nature of his art. Chang did not identify as a Buddhist, but his wife, Lee Soonkyung, did, and one of his masterpieces is a spare 1970 portrait of her in a serene state of contemplation: Zinzinmyo: My Wife’s Buddhist Name (the name means “absolutely stunning beauty”).
This may all sound nostalgic or backward-looking. It is not. What saves Chang’s art from those traps of kitsch is his unrelenting invention. He was modernist in the line of Elie Nadelman and Bob Thompson, plumbing history and transfiguring it in an inimitable style. He built powerful symmetries and patterns in his compositions, and Bae connects him with Paul Klee, a similarly superb colorist. Reveling in everyday life, he was aligned with visions like those of Grandma Moses, Florine Stettheimer, and of course, Park Soo Keun, and like, say, Bill Traylor’s paintings, his evince an astute understanding of the inner beings of animals, with personalities and emotions like us. (His bulls seem prepared to crack jokes.)
Nothing is extraneous or wasted in these worlds, where day and night overlap. Signs of contemporaneity are absent. (A military jeep intrudes in a 1953 picture, though it seems oddly jaunty.) All is well here, and families and nature are in accord; Hong astutely terms them “self-sufficient spaces.” Real life can fall short of that. But Chang’s art is not after utopia. It distills the nobility of quotidian, fleeing moments, which is a project tinged with melancholy. The MMCA show is titled “The Most Honest Confession,” riffing on an intriguing claim from the artist: “My paintings are my true self. I confess myself in my paintings, I reveal and release myself entirely.”
In his last 15 years, Chang developed a method of cutting his oil paint with turpentine so that he could work more rapidly, almost as if he were painting with ink (another one of his talents, as examples here attest). That allowed him to be more prolific—80 percent of his oils come from this period—yet for me, these lack some of the fulsome symbolic mystery of his prior work. But they are still delightful, and they see him embracing a more surreal stance, as notions of space become even more topsy-turvy. In a 1990 piece, Night and an Old Man, made just a few months before his death, there is a road curving over a hill and the titular elder floating in the sky above it. Only the moon is visible, a hemisphere of white. This man’s journey may be done, but the road below him is alluring, a golden orange, and quite bizarrely, there is a young child scampering down it.