Recognised for his brilliant colour palettes and abstract landscapes, Yoo Youngkuk is credited as one of the first Korean painters to experiment with abstract art.Read More
The bold colours and forms in Yoo's paintings often depict nature, specifically inspired by the landscapes of his hometown of Uljin and his native Korea. Yoo's paintings are characterised by their simple titles, sometimes describing their subjects, that include Work, Mountain, Four Seasons, and Composition.
Born in Uljin, Gyeongsang Province, Yoo began studying oil painting at the Tokyo Culture Institute in 1935. Living there for the following three years, Yoo experimented with abstract art, which at the time was the most avantgarde movement in Tokyo.
While many of Yoo's Tokyo paintings were later lost in a flood, works from the 1940s and early 50s reveal his long-lasting engagement with colour, shape, and line. Some canvases, such as Work (1956) or Mountain (1957), show the use of black lines to create sharply delineated forms that cut across complementary or analogous colours.
Yoo was closely associated with avantgarde artist groups in Korea, among them the New Realism Group, founded in 1948, and the Modern Art Association, founded in 1957. In 1964, however, following years of exhibiting together, Yoo announced his break with the groups and held his first solo exhibition at the Korean Press Center.
After choosing to work independently, Yoo focused on developing his own style. Paintings from the 1960s show a loosening of forms, which the artist gradually restructured into planes of colour and geometric shapes towards the end of the decade. In a painting titled Mountain from 1970, the square canvas is roughly divided into horizontal halves: red dominates the top half, in which a triangle is surrounded by a soft halo in a lighter shade of red, while the bottom half depicts a blue triangle resting on stripes of lighter blue and green.
Mountains, alongside other elements of the natural landscape, recur throughout Yoo's paintings. The artist experimented with various ways of painting them, from trapezium-like shapes with ridges to sharp triangles and a collection of conical tips. Paramount to Yoo's work are the landscapes of Uljin and Korea, and his aspiration to create abstract paintings that were uniquely Korean.
In his lifetime, Yoo was less known to the general public than his contemporaries, who included Kim Whanki and Lee Jungseob. He was, however, respected widely by fellow artists, and a foundation dedicated to his legacy was founded posthumously in 2003.
In 2004, the Yoo Youngkuk Art Foundation launched Yoo Youngkuk Journal, a magazine focused on the work of first-generation Korean modernists, which ran until 2017.
Yoo's work has received more recognition in recent years, including two major retrospective exhibitions—one commemorating 20 years since the artist's passing held at Kukje Gallery, Seoul (2022) and another at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul (2016)—as well as an exhibition of 24 paintings at Kukje Gallery (2018).
Yoo Youngkuk's paintings continue to be exhibited in solo and group presentations.
Solo exhibitions include Colors of Yoo Youngkuk, Kukje Gallery, Seoul (2022); Colors from Nature, Kukje Gallery, Seoul (2018); 100th Anniversary of Korean Modern Master: YOO YOUNGKUK 1916–2002, Deoksugung, Seoul (2016); Yoo Youngkuk 10th Anniversary: The Pioneer of Korean Abstract Art, Gallery Hyundai, Seoul (2012).
Group exhibitions include Encounters Between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung, Seoul (2021); The Dream of Modernity: Planting a Flowering Tree, Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul (2019); Re appreciated: Korean and Japanese Modern Artists in the Korean Peninsula 1890s to 1960s, Museum of Modern Art, Kanagawa (2015).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2022