What I Buy and Why: South Korean Collector Youngsang Lee on Loving Art Enough to Brush One of His Sculpture’s Wigs

The Seoul-based millennial holds court on elevating the work of his Korean peers while still keeping a global view.

Collector Youngsang Lee. Courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

Although many millennial and Gen Z collectors in Asian nations have been gravitating to the work of Western artists in recent years, there is still plenty of enthusiasm among younger generations for raising up the practices of their fellow countrymen. Just ask Youngsang Lee.

A 36-year-old petrochemical-industry sales rep based in Seoul, Lee represents both sides of the globalized acquisition equation. Since purchasing his inaugural artwork in 2017, he has already amassed a roughly 120-piece collection. He estimates that about 35 percent of his holdings consist of works by Korean artists, many of them still south of age 40 like himself.

We caught up with Lee just before last week’s first-ever triple-header of Frieze Seoul, Kiaf Seoul, and the new-media-centric Kiaf Plus—as well as his turn as a panelist on the subject of “New Collecting: Millennials and Digital Art” at the annual conference of the Korean Arts Management Service.

Read on to find out which of his peers’ practices have caught his eye lately, as well as which silver-maned old timer has led him to at least contemplate installation-art larceny…

Jeremy Lawson, Chair Marked Reader (2022). Courtesy of Harper's Gallery.

Jeremy Lawson, Chair Marked Reader (2022). Courtesy of Harper’s Gallery.

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

My first purchase was a lithograph by Lee Ufan. I think it was about $2,000. For first-time collectors, this can feel expensive. But as I’m sure is true for many, it’s difficult to stop once you’ve begun.

What was your most recent purchase?

A painting by Jeremy Lawson, who is currently presenting a solo exhibition at Harper’s Gallery in East Hampton, New York. I was fascinated by the rough touches, intense colors, and dense abstraction of his work at first sight. This is his first commercial exhibition as a full-time artist; his career is one that I look forward to following and supporting wholeheartedly.

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

To name just one artist, I have recently been following Cyprien Gaillard’s work. His works across a range of media, though I’m most interested in his paintings.

Is there any special thematic or philosophical focus to your collecting?

A large part of my collection consists of work by women and artists of color, many of whom were not given their due recognition in the mainstream art world until very recently. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of young Korean artists, such as Cho Hyo Ri, Jiwon Choi, Hejum Bä, and Dongho Kang, who I’ve been collecting for years. It is one of my greatest pleasures to discover and collect works by great artists living and working in Korea at the same time as me.

Cho Hyo Ri, <i>Behind/Ahead</i> (2020). Photo by Youngsang Lee, courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

Cho Hyo Ri, Behind/Ahead (2020). Photo by Youngsang Lee, courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

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

I collect works by relatively young and emerging artists, so it is difficult to say which work in my collection is the most expensive at present. Monetary value is important, but I hope the artists I support will go on to see flourishing careers, that their works will be presented in important exhibitions, acquired by great institutions, and that they will assume a place in art history in the future.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

I buy most of my art through galleries and at art fairs. I find art fairs in particular to be both highly efficient and effective; they allow for a great circulation of information as you meet and mingle with so many people, from artists and gallerists to curators and fellow collectors.

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?

I buy works that I fall in love with at first sight, or works that strike me as truly strange. I don’t typically buy right away, and I take time to consider the work against my own interests, priorities, and collection. I try in most cases to speak with the artist.

Works by Gisela McDaniel, Purvis Young, and Alvaro Barrington in the home of Youngsang Lee. Photo by Hyun Jun Lee, courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

Works by Gisela McDaniel, Purvis Young, and Alvaro Barrington in the home of Youngsang Lee. Photo by Hyun Jun Lee, courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

In the beginning, as a very young collector, there were works I bought with my ears. It was a valuable lesson for me to learn so young to believe in my eyes and trust in a collection based on my own sensibilities.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?

There is no wall behind my sofa exactly, but beautiful works by Gisela McDaniel, Purvis Young, and Alvaro Barrington hang on the wall just to the right.

There aren’t any works in my bathroom, but there are several small works hung in my bedroom, including works by Adam Pendleton, Amalia Pica, Amoako Boafo, Chinaza Agbor, Marina Perez Simão, Min ha Park, Rachel Jones, Rebecca Ackroyd, and Noh-wan Park. This is the wall I love most, and I switch out the works periodically.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

A sculpture by the Korean artist Hyun Nahm. Titled Frozen Forest, it is topped by a wig. I have to brush the wig once in a while, which gives my mother a kick. Anyway, it’s a beautiful sculpture, and one I truly love.

Hyun Nahm, <i>Frozen Forest</i> (2021). Photo by Youngsang Lee, courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

Hyun Nahm, Frozen Forest (2021). Photo by Youngsang Lee, courtesy of Youngsang Lee.

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

A painting by Lauren Quin comes to mind.

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

James Turrell’s Ganzfeld installation at The Museum SAN in Wonju, Souh Korea. The museum has five works by Turrell permanently on view, but I am continually struck by the experience of the space of the Ganzfeld work especially.

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