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Else Fischer-Hansen & Byoung Ok Min: Poetic Abstraction

Jul 19 - Sep 10, 2022

Installation view of Else Fischer-Hansen & Byoung Ok Min: Poetic Abstraction

at Shin Gallery, New York, 2022

Traditionally, two oppositional poles have been identified as typifying twentieth century abstract art. The first is the geometric abstraction of František Kupka, Hilma Af Klint, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Max Bill, Karl Benjamin, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and many others. Geometric abstraction stresses the root plasticity and two-dimensionality of painting as a medium, imploring the qualities inherently afforded by the canvas. The second is the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Wols, and company. According to Clement Greenberg, abstraction expressionist painting evinced the height of the Modernist project by way of increased emphasis on flatness—that is, abstract expressionist painting subtracted all that was not inherent to painting, affording an aesthetics in contrast with that of preceding art movements, chief among them being Renaissance art, which relied on perceptual illusion. Although successor branches of abstraction, such as lyrical abstraction, have been identified, these two aforementioned modes remain dominant in twentieth century art history discourse. However, in this era, artists like Else Fischer-Hansen (b. 1905-1996, Copenhagen) and Min Byoung Ok (b. 1941, Seoul) partook in another kind of abstraction that relied neither on a geometric scaffolding nor on the rote automatism of process-based action painting. In this exhibition, we seek to revitalize this kind of painterly abstraction by highlighting two exemplars of this minor tradition.

Fischer-Hansen was a seminal member of the mid-twentieth century international avant-garde movement, CoBrA. Byoung Ok is a contemporary Korean artist who constructs assemblages. There is an overlap in how both artists approach abstraction but the two do not necessarily draw on a shared arsenal of influences nor is their art practice equipollent. Fischer-Hansen’s compositions often feature horizontal streaks and darts of isolated splatches loosely based on nature as it is retrieved by episodic memory. Byoung Ok weaves together canvas stretchers or layers uneven, sparse circles and lines on a three-dimensional foreground. Yet neither artist takes the geometric plane as a starting place nor as a central motif. Furthermore, neither artist relies on the unconscious, primal process of painting-as-action. The connecting thread between both artists is a distinct interest in doing away with any representational grounding: geometric or otherwise. Where shapes appear, as in Byoung Ok’s assemblages, they are layered on top of one another—they are not the stage upon which abstraction is set.

Byoung Ok moved to New York after graduating from Seoul National University's College of Art. In 1967, she graduated with an MFA in fine arts at Pratt University, as one of the first Korean studies to do so. Unlike the minimal abstraction of Korean artists like Park Seo-bo and Kim Chang-yeol, Byoung Ok does not stray from layering geometric shapes with loose painterly strips. The artist remarks that she has "deliberately avoided minimal art because it seemed to imprison me". Along with re-purposed stretcher bars, her art also often uses pieces of canvas that are folded over or pasted into a collage. There is no direction or trajectory to the pieces making up the montage, contra the work of Shusaku Arakawa. The pieces flow into and out of one another, a sea of elements cast into an array.

The works comprising Byoung Ok’s “Untitled” series from the 1980s and 1990s emphasize the division of disparate elements, connecting divided spaces with an uneven latticework. In one such work, a band of ashen-green is counterposed by a dark, maroon figure-eight and two small triangular blue figures can faintly be made out in the light-colored background. Byung Ok's work speaks to the mereological apothegm that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts", freeing and stacking pieces of canvas. Our eyes are not despotically guided by a general oval or rectangle, as in the narrative esoterica of Klint. Byung Ok's art emphasizes the perceptual act of freeing, rather than framing.

The daughter of merchant Holger Knud Hansen (1874-1931) and Anna Sofie Andrea Fischer (1874-1951), Fischer-Hansen did not begin painting until her early twenties. She spent a year at Emil Rannow's Copenhagen-based School of Painting from 1927–28 before travelling to Nice and subsequently furthering her study at a croquis school where she learned to draw. Early works from this period include naturalist paintings, examples including a painting of a woman walking through a bustling bedroom adorned with paintings and table lamps, reems of sunlight escaping her window. These works often emphasized interior scenes, with furniture and still life object studies. Although Fischer-Hansen would go on to abandon this approach, she would retain a career-wide interest in composition.

In 1928, Fischer-Hansen publicly exhibited her paintings for the first time at the Autumn Exhibition of the Kunsternes. She had not yet gave up naturalism tout court, but tinges of abstraction began seeping in. Works in the late 1920s also covey a newfound interest in exterior scenes. For instance, the paintings exhibited at the Kunsternes feature colored white homes and winding streets that are simply painted, trees captured in thick brushstrokes. In the early-to-mid 1930s, she would go on to further emphasize shapes and color impressions, turning towards landscapes and interior scenes inspired by nature. Fischer-Hansen increasingly began doing away with the empirically-observed world and its relics, capturing the phenomenology of nature rather than its empirical representation. This is most apparent in pieces that the artist exhibited at the 1933 Kunsternes. At this point, there are now no longer any recognizable motifs—instead, we have panels of mauve, cyan, periwinkle, and navy stripped by cherry-red and tangerine-orange. This discarding of recognizable motifs is a bridge between Byoung Ok and Fischer-Hansen.

In 1936, Fischer-Hansen began to paint what she called "psychological pictures", i.e. abstractions based on a landscape or a piece of music. This development took place against the backdrop of a sixteen months spent in hospital due to a serious illness. Excluded from the outside world, she plucked images from her episodic memory and transposed them onto the canvas. Many of the paintings made in this period inventively use shapes, layering ovals to resemble heads or triangles that index rooftops. Fischer-Hansen’s works in the 1940s continue this aesthetic penchant, utilizing a mosaic of color fields without any initiating motif. Nevertheless, even these increasingly abstract paintings are not entirely deracinated from the outside world: cobbled blue streaks retrieve a hot rainy afternoon, the air permeated by heavy humidity, or an autumn drizzle. Some claim that Fischer-Hansen was inspired by Matisse, as both lived in Italy in the same period, but the works on display in this exhibition evince a totally singular vision. Unlike Matisse, however, Fischer-Hansen focused on atmospheric impressions, the weather and light tangled in dance. At times, colors become near-transparent, translucent strokes, which marks another commonality between Byoung Ok and Fischer-Hansen.

In the 1940s, Fischer-Hansen became close with many participants in the Tent Exhibition at Dyrehaven in 1941. Alongside Else Alfelt, Ejler Bille, Henry Heerup, Egill Jacobsen, Asger Jorn, and Fischer-Hansen’s husband, the colourist Egon Mathiesen, whom she had married in 1931, the artist became a veritable member of CoBrA. In 1946, Fischer-Hansen was a guest at the Høst exhibition, and the following year she took part in the exhibition Abstrakt Kunst in Denmark. By 1980, Fischer-Hansen joined the Koloristerne artist association—this well suited her poetic penchant for colourism and poetic sensibility. She had several solo exhibitions, including at the Kunstforeningen in 1957 and at the Sønderjyllands Kunstmuseum in 1975. Fischer-Hansen received many accolades during her lifetime, including the Eckersberg Medal in 1979 and the Thorvaldsen Medal in 1986.

Although many of Byoung Ok and Fischer-Hansen’s paintings have been exhibited in Korean and Danish museums, respectively, both artists have not received their due international appreciation. It is our hope to remedy this oversight.