Seoul Success: Pioneer Hyun-Sook Lee Brings Korean Contemporary Art to the West

Hyun-Sook Lee
(Photo by Jeesun Park)

Sprawling throughout the lower level of an exclusive apartment complex in the Seoul Forest Park area of the South Korean capital is the boutique, invitation-only art fair, Gallery Seoul, now in its second year. A television crew trails an immaculately dressed couple. The VIP lounge is overflowing. Watching it all with a stately air, Hyun-Sook Lee sits beside a Jean Prouvé designed gueridon pedestal table from 1946 at the booth belonging to Kukje, the gallery she founded 30 years ago and has built into one of the most powerful in Asia. The fair has been open for less than an hour, and Lee is generally optimistic if noncommittal about its success. “It is not bad or good so far,” she says, despite having obtained reserves on both Anish Kapoor’s striking wall sculpture Twist Wave Oval, 2011, and Bill Viola’s video Tempest (Study for the Raft), 2005, playing in a purpose-built screening room at the back of the booth.

Lee has the practiced patience of a seasoned dealer. By nature she is reserved and modest, which belies her tremendous strength of character. In three decades of dealing she has quietly, steadily assembled a roster of stellar artists. In addition to Kapoor and Viola, she represents or has shown many of the best European and American artists of the last half century, including Ghada Amer, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Alexander Calder, Eva Hesse, Anselm Kiefer, Paul McCarthy, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Ufan. At the same time she has helped broaden the international audience for more than one generation of Korean artists, including Haegue Yang, Kimsooja, Gimhongsok, and Hong Seung-Hye. Education, she says, is her real business.

Lee stays at the fair for a few more hours before politely excusing herself to a client and heading across town to the Kukje campus in the historic Samcheong-dong district, near the Gyeongbok Palace. In addition to the gallery, which her daughter Suzie and son Charles help run, she has a restaurant, wine bar, and café where fresh bread is baked daily. Suzie manages the gallery with her mother while Charles looks after the rest of the business. Altogether Lee employs around 80 people, roughly 30 of whom are dedicated to the gallery business. In New York, her eldest daughter, Tina Kim, operates an eponymous gallery (though the programming is entirely independent).

Opened this past spring, the latest addition to the Seoul complex is an exhibition building designed by the New York–based team of Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu. Known as Solid Objectives — Idenburg Liu or SOIL for short — the firm designed Frieze New York’s ballyhooed giant tent on Randall’s Island. Located just steps from the two more traditional buildings that have long hosted the gallery’s shows, the new Kukje building is an architectural marvel: Bead-blasted, stainless-steel chain-link mesh — with more than 510,000 hand- beaten links — covers a boxlike polished concrete structure. Inside, the ground floor boasts 1,500 square feet of unobstructed display space and a 19-foot-high ceiling. A theater and administration and catering spaces sit below grade, allowing the structure to conform to the scale, if not the style, of the low-rise, urban neighborhood. The roof doubles as a terrace, offering views over Seoul, while skylights filter natural light into the interior. The design and construction of K3—the other two buildings are called K1 and K2 — took three years and cost around $4 million. The building won several architecture and design awards, including, in 2011, the award for distinguished unbuilt project from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Paul McCarthy’s “Nine Dwarves” exhibition, drawn from his successful “White Snow” series, inaugurated K3 in May. Based on characters from the 1937 Disney animated film, McCarthy’s grotesque versions of the benign fellows, rendered in garishly bright silicone, filled the gallery. His giant Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl, 2010, in painted aluminum, presided over the courtyard. Lee says she chose to launch the building with McCarthy because his work embodies the scope of Kukje — the name means “international” in Korean — and its commitment to showing difficult new art. “I have made it my mission to introduce the best international artists to Korea and also the best Korean artists to the world,” Lee says. Subsequent solo shows have featured Bourgeois, Calder, and Kimsooja.

Lee and her husband, the businessman Byong Soo, were passionate collectors long before she became a dealer. By the 1970s the two were amassing holdings of antiquities and traditional Korean ceramics and modernist Korean paintings. A gallery seemed the logical next step. “My tastes changed over time, and opening a gallery space would give me the opportunity to see new art and expand my own collection,” Lee says. “But Korea at that time was pretty conservative and everyone in my family, including my husband, was against the idea of me — a woman — starting a gallery.” In 1982 she opened a small space on Insa-dong, a popular shopping street, where she showed Korean masters working in the modern tradition, including Ucchin Chang, Youngkuk Yoo, Jonghwa Byun, Chicho Oh, and Kwan Nam. “I really liked meeting artists and as a young collector I often went out of my way to meet them,” Lee recalls. “So when I started, it was a small, salon-like space where I worked directly with artists to put together special exhibitions. The artists were very helpful and gradually everyone became excited about my gallery. I was the only space exclusively showing oil painting at the time — most of the other galleries favored Asian ink paintings.”

Korean society underwent a transformation in the late 1980s following the ouster of the military dictatorship of General Chun Doo-hwan and a return to democracy. The nation opened its borders and claimed the international stage as Seoul hosted the 1988 summer Olympic games. Travel restrictions were loosened, international import and export controls were relaxed, and Koreans were returning from vacations abroad with a newly discovered taste for contemporary art. This emerging generation of collectors — bolstered by the support of acquisitions by newly built museums — helped confirm Lee’s expanded ambitions. In 1987 she moved Kukje into a larger space, a converted contemporary home in Samcheong-dong. “When branching out to Western artists, I began with the exhibitions of those already acknowledged as historically important,” Lee explains. “There were many Koreans who had studied abroad, so by this time there was a small but growing community that was familiar with the artists — but they were still quite surprised at first to see exhibitions in Korea. Showing these seminal artists also encouraged museums in Korea to branch out to Western art.”

Initially Lee collaborated with New York dealers like Paula Cooper, André Emmerich, and Arne Glimcher. Later she worked more directly with artists. “The artists liked her,” her daughterSuzie told me, “for she was enthusiastic and genuinely interested in their work.” Through the 1990s Lee organized exhibitions of Jonathan Borofsky, Bourgeois, Anthony Caro, John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, Tony Smith, Frank Stella, Rudolf Stingel, and Cy Twombly. A friendship with the preeminent English dealer Anthony d’Offay enabled her to show Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer. “At first it was difficult to contact Western artists of that stature, which is why I worked with foreign dealers when I began,” Lee recalls. “But these dialogues led to reciprocal exchanges with Western galleries, such as when the Korean artist Cho Duck Hyun had a solo show with Emmerich. I also worked with Korean artists who were living abroad, like Yang.”            

As the reputation of Kukje grew, so did its footprint. The original home had been renovated and expanded over the years, but by the new millennium the gallery had outgrown it. A three-story modern gallery, dubbed K2, was built across a small street in 2007. With the addition this year of K3, the buildings define a courtyard space that Lee plans to use for outdoor events. Engaging all three venues, the gallery will maintain a program of roughly 15 shows per year in addition to participating in 7 to 10 art fairs.

As the gallery grows, Lee continues to nurture a broader taste in her clientele, as she has done for Bill Viola, for example. Over the last decade, Viola has become a prominent gallery artist, shown regularly at fairs worldwide, as well as in Seoul. “At first the concept of showing, let alone selling, a moving image — not a painting — was difficult,” Lee says. “But I worked hard to make sure the Korean audience understood Viola’s ideas. One thing that has made a big impact is that the artist has visited Korea and given lectures, which have always been packed with hundreds of enthusiastic attendees.” Speaking more broadly of the developing tastes in the country, Lee says, “Korean audiences are very sophisticated and there has been keen interest in contemporary art since the beginning. But I must admit, it has taken 30 years of work to foster the committed collector base that now exists.”

Like many dealers, Lee’s personal collection reflects her relationships with artists and designers. Her art is distributed among various offices, her holiday home on Jeju Island, and her main residence, not far from the gallery, in the Seongbuk-dong area. There, the first artwork you see upon entering is a work on paper by Bourgeois, showing a female figure. It is inscribed with a personal dedication to the dealer. “We were friends, I like to think,” Lee says. “She was so kind and supportive of me and the gallery.”

Hanging near the Bourgeois, Mitchell’s painting Afternoon, 1969–70, leads to the living room, where three more paintings — Andy Warhol’s Flowers, 1964; Ed Ruscha’s Busters’ Land, 1993; and Anselm Reyle’s Black Earth, 2008 — mingle with a pair of short-legged “toad” armchairs in mahogany, circa 1925, by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, as well as a Jean Royère daybed, from 1940, and a new plank table by Mira Nakashima. Works by Stephan Balkenhol, Brown, Hesse, Roni Horn, Yeondoo Jung, and Yang are on view upstairs.

The kitchen and the dining room also showcase art and design. A dozen Prouvé standard chairsfrom1951–52 surround a 1960 Pierre Jeanneret dining table. On the wall behind the head of the table hangs Kapoor’s Up Side Down (Green), 2008. Opposite a wall of glass that looks onto an atrium are bookshelves from 1961 by Charlotte Perriand that hang above a rare credenza, a collaboration between Perriand and Prouvé, called 1 Bahut à 5 portes, 1958–60. Nearby is Lee Ufan’s From point, 1980, a quiet painting that is easily overlooked. Lee began collecting the design pieces decades ago. “Some of the designers I became interested in were working during the same period as artists I had worked with,” she says, “so it was natural for me to start looking at the works of modern designers.”

The house, a two-story rectangular, ultramodern concrete structure with living areas downstairs opening onto a garden, was designed by Lee’s son-in-law Jaewoong Chung, the husband of her daughter Tina Kim. A design dealer as well as an architect, Chung is collaborating with Lee to ramp up the market for design in Korea.

Kukje hosts a yearly design show: Exhibitions have been devoted to Prouvé, Perriand, George Nakashima, and, most recently, Joris Laarman.“Architecture, furniture, and art are all linked, and these important connections inspired me eventually to organize the design exhibition each year,” Lee says. “These shows became a chance to link a culture’s intellectual milieu with its artistic movements. Also, these shows are an excellent opportunity to showcase how one can live with art and pair it with design.”

Lee herself is most at ease in her home, living with art and design. Justifiably proud of what she has achieved, she has no plans to slow down. “There is so much to do,” she says, over a cup of green tea, “and every day it feels like there is more and more, as the art world gets bigger and more global.” I nod my agreement, but I’m not worried: Nobody I know is better prepared for the challenges than she.

This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Art+Auction.