The Defiance of the Great Korean Painter, Yun Hyong-keun

Yun Hyong-keun, “Burnt Umber & Ultramarine” (1993), oil on cotton (all images courtesy David Zwirner Gallery, New York)

If you are in need of a respite from the usual displays of smart-alecky irony, material excess, and the latest round of self-righteousness, you might want to make your way to the exhibition, Yun Hyong-keun at David Zwirner (January 17– March 7, 2020), which takes up three gallery spaces of the second floor of his 20th Street outpost.

Yun Hyong-keun (1928–2007) was a leading figure in Tansaekhwa (also known as Dansaekhwa), the Korean Monochrome movement, which coalesced in the mid-1970s, a few years after Park Chung Hee, the third President of South Korea, declared martial law in 1972, virtually ensuring his lifelong dictatorship.

Although there were social, political, and cultural implications to the choices made by the Tansaekhwa artists, Americans have tended to see their work solely in relation to Western art. Nearly every American writer and gallery director has pointed out that in 1974 Yun came to New York, where he saw and was impressed by the work of Mark Rothko, but they don’t discuss what his abstract paintings were like at the time.

Yun Hyong-keun, “Burnt Umber & Ultramarine” (1995), oil on hanji

Artists meeting each other and admiring one another’s work is hardly worth mentioning: it started in the caves. What Yun got from Rothko, and how he made it his own, is as complicated and nuanced as it was for Robert Ryman. In fact, a show of Rothko, Ryman, and Yun could be illuminating, as long as it was made for reasons of scholarship and not just another lightly researched commercial venture. I don’t think Rothko influenced Yun so much as his floating clouds of color suggested compositional possibilities for issues he was already grappling with.

Coming into maturity as an artist in a dictatorship beset with wiretapping and the brutal suppression of all opposition, Yun is so straightforward in his abstract paintings and works on paper that you might begin to think that you can take them at face value, but you would be wrong. In contrast to his Western counterparts, and to the Minimalists to whom he has often been compared, Yun was not a literalist. Paint wasn’t just paint, and repeating an action wasn’t just repetition. For one thing, repeating a gesture would be an essential practice of anyone who studied calligraphy, which is very different from working on an assembly line.

Everything Yun did in his later work was symbolically connected to the natural world. He worked on unprimed, unbleached linen and mulberry paper — varied brown, absorbent surfaces whose fibers are visible in the former and vulnerable in the latter. His palette consisted of two colors, burnt umber and ultramarine blue.

Yun Hyong-keun, “Burnt Umber & Ultramarine” (1994-1995), oil on linen

In January 1977, well into President Park’s brutally repressive reign, Yun wrote in his diary:

The premise of my painting is the door of heaven and earth. Blue is the color of the sky. Brown is the color of the earth. So I call the ‘heaven and earth’; the portal gives structure to the composition.

Yun’s portals are the raggedy edged, geometric forms he achieved by working on the floor and applying diluted layers of burnt umber and ultramarine blue with a large brush until they turned mostly black, letting them soak into the support like ink into paper or rain into dry earth. He both draws with his loaded brush and negates what he has done. This is the opposite of the calligrapher in search of the perfect stroke. Yun doesn’t seem to be searching for something and yet he is.

Yun continued this process until he was satisfied with the density of the hue and the clarity of the portal or portals, and the nub of the linen was no longer visible, except along the edges where earlier layers peek through or what he left unpainted.

Yun Hyong-keun, “Burnt Umber & Ultramarine” (1991), oil on linen

When umber is mixed with ultramarine blue, you get black, the result of two complementary hues canceling each other. Over the 30 years Yun worked this way, his portals have run from ghostly to solid darkness. In this exhibition, his expanses of black thirstily drink in the light, like parched animals. Are the portals gateways into the darkness that awaits us all?

If so, then Yun’s additive process brings the outcome of the journey into focus: he continues moving towards a black gateway through the act of painting. Might not the jagged drips noticeable in some of the works anticipate the unraveling of the support, a reminder that permanence is illusory, even for a dictator for life? In the inevitable undoing there is hope.

And yet, as much as Yun stayed within his chosen constraints, and thought of his work symbolically, you never feel that he sinks into habit. Never changing the support or colors he used, Yun does more with less than Robert Ryman had at his disposal, which is another reason to see the exhibition at Zwirner. By working within such strict and austere limits, Yun gains a remarkable amount of freedom.

Yun Hyong-keun, “Burnt Umber & Ultramarine” (1995), oil on hanji

The paintings in the exhibition were largely done in the early 1990s, long after Kim Jae-gyu, President Park’s friend and security chief, assassinated him and others on October 26, 1979, in a safe house inside the presidential compound, but even with this drastic turn of events, Yun did not alter his approach. Having survived the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and martial law, not to mention arrest, torture, and a narrow escape from a firing squad, Yun developed a way of painting in which assertion and self-cancellation have become inextricable. For him, working with these reduced means, and painting black gateways, he found a way to live and go forward, one self-canceling brushstroke after another.

Yun’s paintings are for those who would reflect upon that engagement, rather than looking at a work only to register what is seen and then move on. One of the things that struck me during my two visits to the show was that no one took a selfie while standing in front of one of Yun’s paintings. I think that is quite an accomplishment in this day and age.

Sometimes, the density of the black becomes impenetrable and coal-like. There is a poverty to these paintings that is dignified and never asks for the viewer’s sympathy. The forms always begin at the painting’s bottom edge and rise up the surface, reaching the top in some cases but certainly not all. The portals become mute, nameless silhouettes and so much else. Yun doesn’t repeat his compositions. The portals are not ethereal.

Yun Hyong-keun, “Burnt Umber & Ultramarine” (1989), oil on hanji

An ascetic sensuality, at once somber, self-abnegating, and restrained in its joyfulness, floods through Yun’s paintings. It wasn’t Rothko’s ethereal clouds of color that came to mind when looking at his work, but Ad Reinhardt’s blacks and the Via Negativa, the mystical precept of negation and denial.

Reinhardt had a long interest in non-Western art and traveled to India and elsewhere in the early 1950s. In his essay, “Timeless in Asia” (1960), he writes that “if there is one thing to say about Asia’s art, it is its timelessness, its monotony, its inaction, its detachment, its expressionlessness, its clarity, its quietness, its dignity, its negativity […].” Reinhardt is talking about his own work, of course, through how he sees Asian art.

When it comes to Yun’s paintings, I don’t see timelessness, monotony, or inaction, all of which are familiar Western descriptors of Asian art. Instead, I see the ritual shaping of time and action, the honoring of materials, and the record of a man going forward in the face of annihilation, having escaped and endured it.

These attributes might not be universal because the universe is a big place, but they aren’t simply local or derivative either. The transference of ideas among artists has been going on for centuries. Borders and nationalities were not foremost in many artists’s minds. Yun’s paintings are part of that world history and dialogue.

Yun Hyong-keun continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 7.

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