Passing Through Life with Brushes, Chisels, and Clays: Traditional and Abstract Calligraphy by Sung Yong Tark, Wonho


Sung Tark was born to Korean parents in Andong, Manchuria in Northeastern China. Refugees of first WWII then the Korean War, his family finally settled in Busan, South Korea, a harbor city at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Tark left home at age 14 to study in Seoul, and after two years in college and a year of compulsory military service, moved to the U.S. to pursue his education.

As a child, Tark was never formally educated as an artist though his natural talent was recognized by his teachers. Ultimately, Tark studied Polymer Science at the University of Akron, Ohio and enjoyed a long career in Research and Development. He is a patent holder of U.S. and international patents.

Tark’s start in calligraphy came when he moved his wife and two daughters to California from Michigan in 1976. He joined a calligraphy club, Mook Hyang Calligraphy Society and became a member of the Korean Calligraphy Association in Los Angeles. He studied with Master Hanong, a well-known master of the art of ink and seal carving across eastern Asia and the western world. Since his first group show in 1986, Tark has had works featured in 26 exhibitions.

While Tark continues to practice traditional calligraphy, writing in both Hanja (Chinese characters) and Hangul (Korean language), many of his most acclaimed works are modern or abstract calligraphy. In Tark’s calligraphic abstracts, a piece starts with writing and undergoes variation until the point that it is no longer legible. Like the black and white abstract works of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, Tark’s calligraphic abstracts are often interpreted as pure abstraction by the viewer, untless the characters are disclosed.

Tark’s work in the area of modern calligraphy has been widely recognized. “Steadfast,” included MUZEO’s exhibition, was featured in the 1996 September edition of the Modern Calligraphy magazine of China. Also in 1996, Tark was selected to be one of five invited calligraphic artists to be displayed in The Korean Museum of Art. In 2013, as President of the Mook Hyang Calligraphy Association, Tark organized the 30th Anniversary Exhibition, an exhibition almost entirely of modern calligraphy. An important work from that show, “Jehovah,” derived from the Korean word “여호와”, is also on display here at MUZEO.


The exhibition at MUZEO serves as a retrospective of Tark’s practice over the past 35 years and opens with a calligraphic abstract, “In the Beginning”. Different from many calligraphy surveys, this exhibition includes many works written in Hangul, the Korean language. It is important to the artist to bring attention to Hangul, the most scientific phonetic language system in the world.

Hangul is classified as a member of the Ural-Altaic family. Until the 14th century, Korean documents were written with Chinese characters. Because of the difficulty to learn the Chinese ideographs, King Sejong, the 4th ruler of the Josen dynasty in Korea, created a new writing system for the common people in 1443. The simplicity of Hangul led Korea to become one of the most literate countries in the world.

Tark extends his practice of modern calligraphy beyond the art of ink into the medium of ceramics. He does not use a pottery wheel - all of his ceramic pieces are shaped by hand. Most of them are carved with calligraphic characters which are in complement with other calligraphic pieces." Some of them are abstract in nature, such as the piece "Yin and Yang" in this exhibition.

In addition to abstract works in the style of modern calligraphy, the exhibition also includes several abstract works with colors influenced by western painting. These works are unlike any other in modern calligraphic practice. They are his most audacious calligraphic abstracts, on view for the first time at MUZEO.


Each work in the exhibition has a personal and significant meaning to the artist. Learn more about his inspiration and see translations in English, Korean, and Chinese in these notes prepared by the artist.