August 4, 2018–February 6, 2019
Featuring some sixty works and fifty archival pieces, this major retrospective of Yun Hyong-keun’s work at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul explored the life and work of the influential Korean artist who gained early recognition abroad. Although Yun’s work has been exhibited widely, including in France and the United States, where Donald Judd showed his paintings in the early 1990s, this was Yun’s first presentation at a national institution in Korea.
Yun, who died in 2007, is considered one of the most important Korean artists of the twentieth century. Threatened with execution as a student during the Korean War (1950–1953) and imprisoned while working as a teacher in the early 1970s, Yun developed an aesthetic sensibility deeply marked by the times in which he lived and by his desire to transcend them.
Alongside other artists who felt disenchanted with the realism then prevalent in Korea and who sought a new kind of art following the trauma of civil war and military occupation, Yun began experimenting with the physical properties of paint during the 1960s, becoming associated with the Dansaekhwa or "monochromatic painting" movement. Working in relative isolation from the international art world and with a scarcity of materials in postwar Korea, the Dansaekhwa artists constructed their own rules and structures in relation to abstraction, prioritizing technique and process.
Organized into four sections curated by Kim In-hye, this show traced Yun’s creative development from early works made in the 1960s and early 1970s, to the realization of his "gate of heaven and earth" principle in the 1970s, and the late paintings of the 1980s and 1990s, which represent the culmination of his lifelong pursuit of simplification; a final archival section is designed to provide a window into the artist’s worldview.
While recognizing his role in the development of Dansaekhwa, this retrospective aimed to examine Yun's work in its own right, and from a new perspective. Yun created paintings by adding layers of ultramarine and umber paint onto raw canvas or linen before diluting the pigments with solvent, allowing them to seep into the fibers. In the artist’s distinct aesthetic system, ultramarine came to represent heaven, while umber represented earth. In an evocative text from 1976 called "A Thought in the Studio", Yun described the importance of the natural world for his work, and how his paintings came to be made in relation to it, often in spite of himself:
The massive tree, fallen, lay in the ravine. The tree had rotten through, turning to dirt from the roots up. The color of the tree has transformed into the color of the dirt. And by now, most likely, that tree had been worn down by the wind and rain, leaving no trace of its former self. That sight, which impressed me with the magnitude of nature’s wonder and providence, still has not left my mind’s eye.
Nature, however you look at it, is always unadorned, fresh, and beautiful. I wonder if my paintings could capture the beauty of nature. No, it would be impossible. Even so, I want to make paintings that, like nature, one never tires of looking at. That is all I want in my art.
What is painting? I still don’t really know the answer. It is a mere trace from combustion of life? . . I have no idea as to what I should paint, and at which point I should stop painting. There, in the midst of such uncertainty, I just paint . . . I want to paint something which is nothing, that will inspire me endlessly to go on.
In addition to sixty paintings, the exhibition at MMCA featured extensive personal materials that had never before been shown, including early drawings, archival photographs, and excerpts from the diary Yun began keeping in 1975. A full gallery space was given over to a detailed reproduction of the studio the artist used for the last twenty-four years of his life, itself part of the house in Seoul’s Seogyo-dong neighborhood that he had built from his own designs. A recreation of Yun's living room featured a display of related works by artists such as Kim Whanki, Choi Jongtae and Donald Judd, and pieces of Korean furniture, porcelain, and calligraphy as well as personal mementoes that give further insight into Yun’s enduring spirit and creative mission.
Cover Image: Yun Hyong-keun in front of his work at his Seogyo-dong studio, Seoul, October 1989. Image Courtesy of Yun Hyong-keun Estate and PKM Gallery
(New York) David Zwirner is pleased to announce that the gallery will represent the work of Yun Hyong-keun in New York. A survey of the artist's paintings from the 1970s and 1980s is being planned at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location for January 2017 and will be the largest solo exhibition of his work in North America to date.
One of the most significant Korean artists of the twentieth century, Yun Hyong-keun (1928-2007) was born in Seoul and received his BFA from the School of Fine Arts at Hongik University in 1957. Over the next four decades, he developed a style of monochromatic abstraction that deconstructed the notion of painting to the repeated application of pigments across a surface.
During the 1960s, Yun became associated with the influential Dansaekhwa (monochromatic painting) movement of Korean artists who experimented with the physical properties of painting and prioritized technique and process. The scarcity of materials following the Korean War (1950-1953) and the country's relative isolation from the international art world led the artists to construct their own sets of rules and structures in relation to abstraction.
Using a restricted palette of ultramarine and umber, Yun created his distinctive compositions by adding layer upon layer of paint onto raw canvas or linen, often applying the next coat before the last one had dried. He then diluted the pigments with turpentine solvent, allowing them to seep into the fibers of the support, staining it in a similar way to traditional ink on absorbent paper. Working directly on his studio floor, he produced simple arrangements of intensely dark, vertical bands surrounded by untouched areas. The division was softened by the blurred edges caused by the uneven rates of absorption of oil and solvent, and the compositions often developed over several days, even months, with the artist adding further layers or letting the pigments bleed out gradually.
Yun visited New York in 1974, where he encountered the work of American postwar artists including Mark Rothko, which led him to further explore ways to divide pictorial space. His paintings from the mid-1970s and the 1980s revolve around a play between presence and absence, with unmarked areas characterized as intervals rather than dematerialized voids. The inherent physicality of his works, in turn, impressed artists such as Donald Judd, who invited Yun to exhibit at his spaces on Spring Street in New York and in Marfa, Texas (Chinati Foundation) during the 1990s in what would be the artist's first solo presentations in the United States.
Today, Yun's work has come to embody the intersecting traditions of Korean scholarly painting and twentieth century abstract art. His intellectually sophisticated, yet understated works transcend the regional themes and materials of his generation to resonate with a global history of contemporary art.
This exhibition will bring together an unprecedented selection of large-scale paintings, many of which have never been shown before. While each work represents an accumulation of Yun's procedures over time, collectively they testify to his lifelong commitment to breaking painting down to its core methods and materials.
Yun Hyong-keun's work has been the subject of solo and group exhibitions worldwide. The artist's estate is primarily represented by PKM Gallery in Seoul. In addition to David Zwirner in New York, Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, Simon Lee Gallery in London, and Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Antwerp show the artist's work.