David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of paintings by Yun Hyong-keun, on view at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location in New York. Focusing on the artist’s work from the late 1980s and 1990s, the exhibition will feature a selection of Yun’s distinctive abstract paintings from this late period in his career.
One of the most significant Korean artists of the twentieth century, Yun is widely recognized for his signature abstract compositions, which engage with yet transcend Eastern and Western art movements and visual traditions. Using a restricted palette of ultramarine and umber, Yun created his 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 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 Korean mulberry 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 additional layers or letting the pigments bleed out gradually.
Image: Yun Hyong-keun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine, 1991 (detail)
In 1946, Yun resigned from Miwon Finance Association and traveled to Seoul to take the art entrance exam for Seoul National University, supervised by his future father-in-law, Kim Whanki. His progress was cut short, however, by his arrest and eventual expulsion from the school during protests against the US Army Military Government bill to establish Seoul National University.
Arrested again for suspected left-wing tendencies at the outset of the Korean War (1950–1953), Yun miraculously escaped execution—an experience he later said turned his hair white overnight. In 1956, the artist was tried and imprisoned for collaborating with the North Korean army after being forced to paint a portrait of Kim Ilsung and Stalin. Having transferred to Hongik University in 1954, he was awarded his BFA in 1957.
Following a period of relative respite, he was again imprisoned while working as a teacher during the military dictatorship in the early 1970s, charged with violating anti-communist laws.
In 1973, Yun was finally able to dedicate himself to painting, developing an aesthetic sensibility deeply marked by the times in which he lived and by his desire to overcome, or even to counteract them.
With their simple forms and bright colors, Yun’s paintings from the 1960s show the influence of Kim Whanki—the teacher Yun revered but whose manner of working he later moved away from, saying that his paintings “contain a lot of small talk, and seem to float in the sky.”
Alongside other artists who sought a new kind of art following the trauma of civil war and military occupation, Yun had already begun experimenting with the physical properties of paint during the 1970s. Working in relative isolation from the international art world and with a scarcity of materials in postwar Korea, these artists constructed their own rules and structures in relation to abstraction.
Yun’s mature works of the 1990s, of which several examples are presented for the first time in this exhibition, show the refinement of his interests and technique to an acute, monumental level. As Daniela Ferretti writes in the catalogue for the artist’s recent retrospective at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, “He attempted to draw the highest degree of expressiveness from very simple elements that remained unchanged over the decades: raw canvas, dark and very diluted pigments, repeated gestures and dreams.”
“I usually emphasise the essence of a thing,” Yun mused in his diary in 1989, “no matter what it is. Truly good objects or good paintings always get straight to the point, with nothing extraneous. The issue is always how to get down to the heart of the matter.”
The artist’s approach to monochromatic abstraction centered on the use of an extremely limited palette of dark pigments which he allowed to bleed naturally over unprimed canvas—colors and effects that reflect his deep admiration for the unchanging tones and inevitable action of the natural world. “I wonder if my paintings could capture the beauty of nature,” he wrote in his diary in 1976. “I want to make paintings that, like nature, one never tires of looking at. That is all that I want in my art. Canvas is still made just from those old and familiar materials: cotton and hemp...from the absolute simplicity and freshness of the natural fiber. This in itself is a work of art.”
A year later, the artist articulated his choices further, this time in spiritual, harmonious terms: “Blue is the color of heaven, while umber is the color of earth. Thus, I call them [the pigment and canvas] ‘heaven and earth,’ with the gate serving as the composition.”