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 explores 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 is 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 traces 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 aims 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 features extensive personal materials that have never before been shown, including early drawings, archival photographs, and excerpts from the diary Yun began keeping in 1975. A full gallery space is 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 features 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. All images Courtesy of Yun Hyong-keun Estate and PKM Gallery.