A Review of Yun Hyong-keun at David Zwirner, New York

 
Installation view of Yun Hyong-keun’s solo show at David Zwirner New York, January 14 – February 18, 2017. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul and David Zwirner, New York

Installation view of Yun Hyong-keun’s solo show at David Zwirner New York, January 14 – February 18, 2017. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul and David Zwirner, New York

 

In a brief word piece titled, “The Eccentricities of an Artist,” published in 1977, Yun Hyong-keun described his life as one without any clear distinction between living and playing:

When it occurs to me, I secure my canvas and paint.  At other times, I just sit absentmindedly. . . . Painting is thus enjoyable work.  But when paintings do not work out, it feels like death. . . . In any case, just as I continue to eat and live, I continue to paint.  I have no objective in painting.  The law of nature dictates that one cannot live by doing nothing, and so I paint. [1]  

These simple, eloquent sentences could have been a self-composed epitaph for the artist, who died in 2007. 

Yun began developing his characteristic, nearly monochromatic, paintings in the late 60's and early 70's by placing canvas on the floor of his studio and adding stripes of umber and/or ultramarine pigment diluted with turpentine that bled across the canvas.  (Umber is the color of earth; ultramarine the color of water.)  This was his process for the next 40 years, with the bands of color becoming darker, wider, and fewer.  It was a repetitive process of gesture (versus theme) and variation.  The paintings marked the progression of time as his process became simpler.  Yun’s resulting canvases offered two spaces: blankness, the raw canvas; and fullness, the stained surface.  Voila.  Lee Ufan, a Korean colleague, described Yun’s works as “rustic and limitless expressions . . . so awkward and simple that they seem like unpaintings.”[2] This feature is underscored by the absence of brush marks, or as Ufan continued, the dispersions that appeared to be a “naturally occurring stain.” 

 

 
Installation view of Yun Hyong-keun’s solo show at David Zwirner New York, January 14 – February 18, 2017. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul and David Zwirner, New York

Installation view of Yun Hyong-keun’s solo show at David Zwirner New York, January 14 – February 18, 2017. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul and David Zwirner, New York

 

Yun is associated with a post-Korean War “community” of monochrome painters labeled Dansaekhwa, a term that was only coined and applied in 2012 by the curator Yoon Jin Sup. As a genre or community, Dansaekhwa did not unfold as a conscious movement with a specific set of goals based on an aesthetic position. There were no tracts or manifestos declaring and describing a movement.  There was no common agenda. Rather the development of this community of artists was organic. After the hardships of the Korean War (1950-1953) there were limited conventional media available to artists. Paint and canvas were expensive. So many artists turned to inexpensive, humble, readily available materials.

Dansaekhwa artists focused on the methods of art-making, which the eloquent art historian Joan Kee has listed to include drawing, spreading, bleeding, pushing, and painting. What these artists really had in common, despite disparities in approach and technique, was an awareness of the physical qualities of the materials they used. Each of the Dansaekhwa artists developed, perfected, and “owned” a unique approach to or process for art making. If anything, the outstanding feature of Dansaekhwa artists is a sense of tactility, that reflects diverse, but identifiable, methods.

 

 
Installation view of Yun Hyong-keun’s solo show at David Zwirner New York, January 14 – February 18, 2017. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul and David Zwirner, New York

Installation view of Yun Hyong-keun’s solo show at David Zwirner New York, January 14 – February 18, 2017. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul and David Zwirner, New York

 

Korean monochrome painters—like most contemporary artists—were fully aware of emerging Western artistic trends of the 1950s and ’60s, like Abstract Expressionism, Art Informel, Color Field painting, Minimalism, and Arte Povera.   For example, Yun’s work was included in the in 10th São Paulo Biennale in 1969.  In a sense, Yun was “associated” with Abstract-Expressionism and Minimalism.  Yun visited New York in 1974, when his father-in law died, and it is likely that he encountered the work Mark Rothko and other of American postwar artists.  The inherent physicality of his works and his process-oriented approach, in turn, impressed Donald Judd, who invited Yun to exhibit at Judd’s Spring Street space in 1993 and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas in 1994. 

This is an exhibition easy to misunderstand.  If it were Mark Rothko or Helen Frankenthaler, gallery-goers would be alternately riveted by the translucent brush stains of Rothko and soak stains of Frankenthaler.  But, Yun is distinct from both his American Abstract-Expressionist and Dansaehkwa compatriots.  He found his artistic inspiration in the work of the Korean ink brush writing master Kim Jeong-hui [1786-1856.]  Effectively, Yun was extending an established tradition using pigment diluted in turpentine or oil.   By doing so, he was “declaring that he was no longer ‘Arting’ in the context of the global modernist aesthetic commitments of the West.” [3] Understanding Yun’s distinctive aesthetic goals, rooted in the traditions of his native Korean culture, distinguishes this work and declares the absolute originality of work that otherwise might be mistaken for something else.

Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste. 

 

[1] Originally published as Yun Hyong-keun, “Chakp’umi naogikkaji,” Kyōnghyang sinmun, no. 3 (February 1977): 4.

[2] Originally published as Lee Ufan, “Yun Hyong-Kern no shigoto,” in Yun Hyong-gun (Tokyo: Muramatsu Gallery, 1976): unpaginated.

[3] Kai Hong, “Yun Hyong-Keun’s Painting as an Embodiment of the Spirit of Daam,” In Park Kyung-mee, et. al.  Yun Hyong-Keun: Selected Works 1972-2007 (Seoul: PKM Gallery, 2015), 14.