For decades, Yun Hyong-Keun has been known as a major figure—perhaps the major figure—among the monochrome painters that emerged underground during the oppressive military dictatorship of the 1970s in the Republic of Korea. Yun’s vision as an abstract painter accrued over time as a strategic political mechanism in which to assert his position as a democratic Korean. Consequently, he and his work became a visible threat to the reactionary government resulting in frequent imprisonments and, on one occasion, he was a near victim of assassination.
Curated by Kim In-Hye, in collaboration with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary (MMCA) in Seoul, this retrospective exhibition of paintings has been perceived by many as long overdue. The reasons are varied, ranging from the politics embedded in the contemporary Korean art world to the inability of influential marketers outside Korea to accurately assess the qualitative significance of the artist’s work. The good news is that Yun has finally been given international attention more than a decade after the artist’s passing in 2007.
Upon entering the ground floor of the fabulous Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, visitors encounter a series of sparsely hung “portals”—a term the artist used to identify paintings with spatial openings structured between various mixtures of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. For Yun, these colors symbolically represent the earth and sky. Simple and direct, the two colors are overlaid against one another to create a surface reduction, an essence. Relative to his use of color, he wrote in 1977: “I love all natural colors, but no artificial ones. The colors from nature that I love the most are the discolored or decolorized ones.” And so, one chromatic color (blue), and one earth color (umber), are painted directly on the unprimed weave, whether cotton or linen—that’s it!
It is curious that after the early “portal” paintings, Yun moved to an even more delimited use of monochrome at a relatively crucial time in his career. For example, in Burnt Umber (1980), multiple rectilinear forms, often in different tonalities, either slant diagonally into one another, or cover the surface entirely as shown in another Burnt Umber (1987). One might say that Yun’s paintings are less composed than intuited, yet at the same time, the intuition suggests an uncharted semblance of nature. A third example would be a painting on the second floor of the Palazzo Fortuny, simply titled Umber (1988–89). The color of the earth is clearly dominant in each of these works. Their presence becomes an alteration of the material as it moves toward a vision of luminous clarity. The monochrome becomes the significant means whereby the earth upholds a solitary, perhaps foregone meaning.
These paintings would eventually lead to a later triptych, Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1997), nearly a decade later, in which two linen panels flank a third nearly unpainted surface in the center where only the vertical edges are modestly, though, expressively painted. The panels sit horizontally as a contiguous surface on the mezzanine. One cannot easily avoid this exceptional work. One may need to sit down and observe it over a period of time. It dwells in its own place and in its own time as one of the major works in the exhibition.
The most dynamic paintings though, appear in an installation at the rear of the breathtaking, centuries-old building. There one finds three medium-sized works mounted on three separate brick walls. Their titles are repetitive and relatively innocuous: Umber-Blue (1978) on cotton canvas, then again Umber-Blue (1978), but now a different painting, and finally Umber-Blue (1977) on linen. For those familiar with modern and contemporary Korean painting, the repetition of the titles (often unnumbered) is typical. While doing research in Korea in 2005, I discovered the minimal—or better, the reductive—aspects of these paintings, such as Umber-Blue, were not only on the surface, but also found in the titles. In doing so, the artist positions a distinctly reductive use of color as being essential to his paintings as a whole, rather than trying to separate one painting from another through special qualities or cumbersome variations on a theme. In terms of content, the persistent desire to give his paintings a “discolored or decolorized” effect could be read as signs of nature without becoming nature.
His exhibition in Venice is exceptional. As a distinguished and innovative abstract painter, his example that art lives within a specific culture is fundamental to how Koreans—in his case—transmit what they believe to one another. It is a pathway to the global present. For Yun, the key to his fundamental reduction of painting reveals the essence of nature, which is ultimately how he chose to live—free from the constraints of politics.