Wook-kyung Choi Among Artsy's Women Who Shaped Abstract Expression
Korean painter Wook-kyung Choi (MFA Painting 1965) was recently featured in an article by Artsy highlighting 10 women artists who shaped the Abstract Expression movement internationally. The article points to an exhibition currently on view at Whitechapel Gallery in London, England, Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 featuring 81 artists, though Artsy notes 28 are American.
Born in 1940, Choi described herself as “a woman with a bad temper who spoke her mind,…totally inappropriate in her own country.” She attended Seoul Arts High School and graduated from the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University in 1963. She came to the U.S. and Cranbrook Academy of Art seeking an escape from a patriarchal society and highly formal education system.
At the Academy, she found support and freedom to explore her personal abstract expressive style described by Anthony Marcellini as “influenced by painters such as Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, without the former’s preciousness and the latter’s narcissism.” She studied under former Head of Painting and Artist-in-Residence, Zoltan Sepeshy (1931-1966, Emeritus 1967-1974) during the time period when he was also President of the Academy. Cranbrook’s Painting department did not have a house style, but at the time, the cohort’s interests were strongly based in abstraction.
Choi’s life is marked by a struggle for recognition in the white and male-dominated art world of the 1960s and 1970s. After graduating from the Academy, she received a yearlong residency at the Roswell artist-in-residence program and became a U.S. citizen. However, after several years as an adjunct professor and unable to secure full-time work, she moved back to South Korea. There she became a beloved professor, first at Yeungnam University, then at Duksung Women’s University, but continued to struggle with the limitations of the culture. In 1985, at age 45, she took her own life. Posthumously, she has achieved international recognition she was not afforded during her lifetime.
In 1987, two years after her death, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea held the first retrospective of her work. In a 2022 lecture, Victoria Sung, Associate Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, notes a renewed interest in Choi’s work in the past several years. The lecture includes a look at Choi’s time and work at Cranbrook Academy of Art, including a painting titled, “Cranbrook.”
Choi’s work was included in Cranbrook Art Museum’s 2021 landmark exhibition, With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932 and the companion publication of the same title.
A special thank you to Anthony Marcinelli, Cranbrook Art Museum staff, and contributors to the publication “With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932” for their research and insights mentioned in this post.