Yun Hyong-Keun - David Zwirner

Yun Hyong-keun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine, 1994-1995, Image © Yun Seong-ryeol, Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul, and David Zwirner

Yun Hyong-Keun
David Zwirner
537 West 20th Street, 2nd floor, New York
January 17 – March 7, 2020

By ROBERT C. MORGAN February, 2020 

         In this exhibition of paintings by Korean artist Yun Hyong-keun showing at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, the audience might be struck by the combination of intense clarity and indeterminate edges given to these extraordinary works. What may appear simple is often complex, and, alternatively, what appears complex might also appear quite simple. For many indigenous observers, the recurrent use of oil-based ochre and ultramarine rectangles poured directly on to either linen or hanji, expresses a lingering paradoxical form, if not a direct, congenial awareness of space. Yun’s paintings are both simple and complex at the same moment. This is what creates their generative lucidity. 

         Yun Hyong-keun (1928 – 2007) is understood by many Korean connoisseurs as one of the most significant painters of the contemporary era and one of the primary founders and adherents of the Dansaekhwa movement that emerged during the military dictatorship in the early 1960s and extended through to the late 1980s. Although this intrinsically abstract movement in art focused on basic forms and technical processes in painting, it was equally concerned with making a bold statement as to the authenticity of Korean culture  in contrast to the imposition of an authoritarian government. In the case of Yun, this pertained directly to his awareness of nature, which he embraced with a kind of spiritual awe. This is perhaps best expressed in the following quotation: “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.”

         Many of the paintings included in this second exhibition at Zwirner’s were done in the artist’s mature period, beginning in the late 1980s, well after he had discovered his unique approach to form through pouring a succession of alternative overlays using burnt umber and ultramarine. In such late period works as Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1996) and Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1997), there are hardedge references to form figuratively comparable to siting a roving plateau against a cold wintry sky or discovering an angle of open space at the edge of a rocky cliff.

 Yun Hyong-keun, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine, 1996, Image © Yun Seong-ryeol, Courtesy PKM Gallery, Seoul, and David Zwirner


         Often the subject of the American Minimalist Donald Judd enters into the discussion of Yun Hyong-keun’s work.  In 1991, Judd was invited to South Korea for an exhibition and discussion in Seoul whereupon he was introduced to Yun Hyong-keun. Judd was enthusiastic about the work of Yun and purchased several paintings.  Two years later (1993), an exhibition of these paintings was shown for the first time in New York in the loft of Judd on the corner of Spring and Mercer Streets in SoHo. The connection between the two artists was an important one in that it showed a correspondence between each of their reductive aesthetic positions.  At the same time, it was clear that Yun was not a Minimalist given the cultural and political differences that comprised an important aspect of his work.

         The current exhibition at David Zwirner requires more serious attention.  If ever there were a correspondence between a major Korean painter and a major American one, the answer is more within the realm of visual grandeur than directly with color or form. Given the differences between the application of color in Korea in comparison with the New York School’s “chromatic abstraction” (a term used by the critic Barbara Rose), it would be difficult to compare them other than to show the differences in terms of what they have and what they have left out.   

         Finally, once might suggest there is little to extrapolate about a painting by any truly significant artist other than the elation of standing in front of it. In the case of Yun Hyong-keun, I would recommend either Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1991) or Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1993 – 1995). The repetition in the titles is deliberate and is most often the case in contemporary Korean art. Again, the experience of actually encountering these works is less about language than embodiment, that is, how we remember what we have absorbed in relation to the work of any truly emancipatory artist who is so intimately and inextricably bound to painting. As I have come to understand, this was the state of mind preeminent in the work of Yun Hyong-keun.  This was his exhilaration and his refinement, his ethical boundary and his elucidation of the truth. WM


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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