Seoul: Leeum Samsung Museum of Art underwhelms
On a recent frigid morning, several dozen South Koreans — hipsters, one might assume, judging by the prevalence of black clothing and thick-rimmed glasses in the crowd — stared intently at a vast white wall, its starkness cut only by a narrow streak of black paint, maybe a foot long and a few inches wide. Meanwhile, all I could think as I looked at this assumingly priceless work of art was, “pretentious (nonsense).”
Admittedly, I might not be the best person to review a modern art museum, since I don’t care for paintings and sculptures that make no sense unless somebody explains them to you. And if you feel the same way, the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul is one cultural experience you should consider skipping.
Located in Hannam-dong, a short taxi ride or 30-minute walk from U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, the Leeum is home to a modestly-sized collection of world-class art by the likes of Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. One wing of the museum — for modern art haters, perhaps the most interesting — is devoted to traditional Korean art, including pale green celadon pottery dating back to the 12th century, paintings of mountains and rivers, and Buddhist sculptures.
The rest is devoted to contemporary works, including a permanent exhibition featuring South Korean and international artists. There were a few interesting pieces, such as “Wide World Wide,” a borderless map that included no labels for countries or oceans, only the names of small cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Valdosta, Ga., pinned against a pale blue background.
Some pieces were head-scratchers, like the Cindy Sherman work featuring a photograph of a woman dressed in gray socks and an anatomically-detailed pajama-like suit, carrying a plastic toy sword, with the image superimposed over a black-and-white drawing of a forest.
Then there was the special exhibit — when I was there, of works by Anish Kapoor, an Indian abstract artist who painted the black line on the wall. I didn’t realize until looking through a museum brochure after my visit that I had inadvertently walked right past another Kapoor piece, a white bump on the white wall entitled “When I am Pregnant.”
The best part of the museum is the cafe, its walls painted in a sort of Asian-inspired pop art pattern of giant pink and orange flowers, where I chugged a cup of coffee so I could stay awake for the rest of my visit.
To be fair, a friend who recently visited the Leeum gave it rave reviews and said she “got” modern art for the first time. Perhaps I would have, too, if I had rented an audio guide (2,000 won) to tell me what I was looking at.
In the meantime, I will stick to museums where a black smudge on the wall gets painted over and replaced with a piece of art that makes sense.
DIRECTIONS: From Hangangjin Station, take exit 1. Walk straight, and turn right when you see a sign for the museum. Walk up the hill and follow the signs to the Leeum. Walking time from subway: about five minutes.
TIMES: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
COSTS: For the permanent exhibit: Adults: 10,000 won; ages 7-8: 6,000 won; ages 3-6: free (two per adult only); groups of 20 or more: a 30 percent discount with reservation. Temporary exhibit admission varies.
FOOD: The museum cafe sells coffees, teas and juices, and a small selection of pastries. Most items cost between 4,500 won and 7,000 won, or approximately $3.70 to $6.50. Also, a number of restaurants are located within a short walk of the museum on the main road near the Hangangjin subway station.
INFORMATION: Guided tours and digital guides are available.