What I Buy and Why: How Alex Junhwan Ko Built a Quirky, Brainy Collection of Digitally Inflected Art

The 37-year-old Seoul-based commodities trader began collecting seriously only four years ago.

Collector Alex Junhwan Ko with Trevor Paglen's Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway, UT/Distance ~42 miles/10:51 a.m., 2006 (2006). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko.

Alex Junhwan Ko may only be getting started in comparison to many veteran collectors, but his omnivorous appetite is already making many of his elders look like diners pathologically committed to one restaurant. Ko, a 37-year-old commodities trader, began acquiring unique works only four years ago from his home base in Seoul. Yet his holdings (dubbed the Tangible Collection) already include roughly 60 pieces created in multiple media by artists with highly varied levels of training across numerous regions and eras. 

His research and acquisitions are often guided by a tight set of themes, headlined by family, the zeitgeist, and software’s influence on culture. No wonder Ko’s Instagram feed often features his wife and daughter joining him on his wide-ranging adventures through the international art world.

Read on to learn how a small magazine helped launch him into collecting, which artists he discovered at this year’s KIAF Seoul, and why one room in his house makes him want to ask a software-art trailblazer for forgiveness.

From left to bottom right: Joyce Pensato's Batman 1 (2013), Richard Hambleton's Shadow Portrait (2013), and Ok Seungcheol's (Tylenol). Photo by Jun Lee Photographic Studio, courtesy of Jun Lee Photographic Studio and Alex Junhwan Ko.

From left to bottom right: Joyce Pensato’s Batman 1 (2013), Richard Hambleton’s Shadow Portrait (2013), and
Ok Seungcheol’s (Tylenol). Photo by Jun Lee Photographic Studio, courtesy of Jun Lee Photographic Studio and Alex Junhwan Ko.

What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?

The first unique piece I owned was a Joyce Pensato “Batman” charcoal drawing. I feel like it’s a generous gift from the artist somehow meant for me. I exchanged a donation of $5,000 for the artwork from a nonprofit magazine called Esopus back in 2018. It was the last remaining one out of five unique “Batman” drawings Pensato donated to the nonprofit in 2013. I still remember Todd Lippy of Esopus being very surprised that a random guy in Seoul contacted him to acquire the very last “Batman” drawing remaining, as the other four were acquired in NYC. 

What was your most recent purchase?

An amazing Danielle Dean from Commonwealth and Council. I just admire the gallery and have already collected works by many of their artists, including Gala Porras Kim, Elle Pérez, and rafa esparza. Danielle Dean is also one of my absolute favorites. The work offers a clever, thought-provoking angle on how the hidden Industrialist labor practices of the 1920s Fordlandia colony in the Amazonian rainforest relate to Jeff Bezos’s mega-corporation today.

Danielle Dean's HIT no 2 (2022). Courtesy of Commonwealth and Council.

Danielle Dean’s HIT no 2 (2022). Courtesy of Commonwealth and Council.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

One of the main themes of my collection is digital culture. In that sense, I have recently been obsessed with Hansaem Kim, an emerging Korean painter and new-media artist. Even though I already have a painting, a sketch, and a sculpture by Kim, I am thinking of adding another digital media work based on retro video games that will be included in an upcoming exhibition. The artist’s classically framed retro-nostalgic RPG fantasy world just fascinates me and also suggests an interesting comparison or collision with the works by Vera Molnár, Manfred Mohr, Ok Seungcheol, Danielle Dean, and Trevor Paglen in my digital art collection. 

What is the most expensive work of art that you own?

It would be a lie if I said that I don’t know the current market value of the works I own. But the financial value doesn’t always coincide with which works or artists I cherish the most.

Are there any works in your collection that you think were particularly ahead of their time?

In response to a chaotic NFT frenzy in the previous years, I have been evangelizing Vera Molnár’s importance—not just in the realm of digital art but throughout art history. Even though the 98-year-old artist is the oldest living participant in the 2022 Venice Biennale, I believe her works are still among the most radical and groundbreaking. Since the late 1960s, even long before the emergence of the personal computer, she has created artworks from algorithms written in the primordial programming language of Fortran. With her works’ momentum accelerating, the whole art world was just too late to catch up with her creative enthusiasm. 

Vera Molnar, (Des)Ordres (1973). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko, courtesy of Alex Junhwan Ko.

Vera Molnar, (Des)Ordres (1973). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko, courtesy of Alex Junhwan Ko.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

Global art fairs are thrilling, but important local and regional art fairs also provide great chances to discover fresh talent. Recently, at this year’s KIAF Seoul, I collected works by some of my favorite emerging Korean artists such as Noh-wan Park, Joy Kim, and Hansaem Kim. My major discovery from the fair was Guimi You. Her paintings are so warm and refreshing. They make me forget about the roughness of life and make me able to move on with gratitude in my everyday existence.

Guimi You, Alone (2022). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko, courtesy of Alex Junhwan Ko.

Guimi You, Alone (2022). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko, courtesy of Alex Junhwan Ko.

Do you have a particular way you like to purchase? Right away? Go home and sleep on it? Do you have to meet the artist, etc?

When I discover visually appealing emerging artists, I try to purchase on the spot. I know I can be waitlisted otherwise. In many cases, I also enjoy researching carefully curated historical exhibitions. By doing so, I can learn about art through the eyes of the leading curators of our time. If I come across an artist who resonates with me in this context, I research their historical significance and ask about prices through galleries. Then I sometimes wait for them to show up in auctions.

Kim Hansaem's Treasure of the Deep Sea (2022), installed above Beverly Buchanan's Bridge Shack #2 (1987), next to a family photo in Alex Junhwan Ko's home. Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko.

Kim Hansaem’s Treasure of the Deep Sea (2022), installed above Beverly Buchanan’s Bridge Shack #2 (1987), next to a family photo in Alex Junhwan Ko’s home. Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

I don’t have any regrets about which works are in my collection, but I sometimes regret how I came to purchase some of them. 

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? 

Three sets of Manfred Mohr’s wooden paintings from the early 1980s are above my sofa. I want to apologize to the artist because the paintings are actually supposed to be hung along with the other three sets of corresponding plotter drawings based on his algorithmic code programming. I hope he understands that my living room wall is not high enough.

Manfred Mohr, P-303-21, P-303-14, P-303-10 (1980–81). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko, courtesy of Alex Junhwan Ko.

Manfred Mohr, P-303-21, P-303-14, P-303-10 (1980–81). Photo by Alex Junhwan Ko, courtesy of Alex Junhwan Ko.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

A scarecrow by the amazing blind outsider artist Hawkins Bolden. If you don’t know him or this particular body of work, I recommend studying up. You’ll get it immediately and be captivated.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

A small assemblage by Betye Saar a few years back.

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

A whole set of Raymond Pettibon wave and surfer drawings hung at his New Museum exhibition in 2017.

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