Yun Hyong-keun (윤형근) was a prominent figure of the modern Korean art movement known as Dansaekhwa, whose monumental, abstract artworks were theoretically rooted in traditional Korean ideals and are stylistically evocative of modern Western abstraction. The term Dansaekhwa (or 'monochrome painting') refers to a visual style maintained by a loose constellation of Korean artists who created radically experimental paintings between the 1960s and 80s (other major figures include Lee Ufan, Park Seo-bo, and Chung Sang-hwa). Having lived through one of the most devastating eras of Korean history—tainted by successive periods of occupation, domestic turmoil, and postwar dictatorship—Yun channelled his traumas into his artistic practice and became a champion of the modern Korean art canon.Read More
Born in Cheongju while Korea was still under repressive Japanese rule, Yun's coming of age paralleled the end of Japanese colonisation (1910–1945) and the beginning of the Korean War (1950–1953). In 1947, Yun enrolled in the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University (SNU) where he met Kim Whanki, his mentor and later father-in-law. Yun forged his early style under the guidance of Kim, creating large, brightly coloured, and lyrical compositions that were animated by an array of spheres taking form within dense encrustations of paint. Yun received his BFA from Seoul's Hongik University in 1957, held his first solo show at the Press Center Gallery in Seoul in 1966, and quickly gained international recognition.
Despite his success, the three decades of Yun's life following his move to Seoul were punctuated by hostile encounters with the Korean government, including four imprisonments and a narrow escape from execution by firing squad. His first incarceration occurred at SNU in 1949, when he was detained and expelled for participating in a protest against the US Army's involvement in the University's establishment. He was arrested again in 1950 when the South Korean government's Bodo League began detaining and executing those with affiliations—however tenuous—with the North. After escaping execution, Yun was forced to work for the North Korean army; in 1956, he was accused of communist activities for doing so and was incarcerated yet again. Finally, in 1973, while working as a high school art teacher, he spoke out against the unethical admission of an unqualified student who had connections to the Korean CIA and was arrested two days later for wearing a Mariner's cap similar to those worn by Lenin and Mao.
Ultimately, it was the culmination of these turbulent incidents that propelled Yun to devote himself to art at age 45 and catalysed the development of his mature style. Over the course of the next four decades, Yun demonstrated a near-obsessive commitment to his craft, creating countless paintings for a series of poignant meditations titled 'Burnt Umber and Ultramarine'. After 1973, his art became deeply personal, with Yun once divulging in an artist statement: 'Even though the period of youth during one's twenties should be great, I spent mine living in a nightmare. Thus, the warm and beautiful colours disappeared from my works and were replaced with dark and heavy hues.'
Yun restricted his palette to somber earth tones by meticulously superimposing and blending multiple coats of burnt umber (rusty red) and ultramarine (deep blue) oil paints. To him, these two colours represent earth and heaven; the artist referred to his monumental works as 'the gate of heaven and earth.' Yun diligently deposited layers of pigment onto raw cotton or linen, creating nebulous rectilinear pillars that appear almost black. Then, he diluted the paint with turpentine until it fused with the cloth. Using this method, Yun sought to endow his works with an ethereal, fearsome quality reminiscent of the powerful forces of nature.
The tragedy of the Gwangju Massacre in 1980 initiated another development in Yun's style. Reflecting his anger toward the political climate, Yun's recurring black pillars no longer stood vertically, but diagonally and horizontally, as if they were falling or collapsing. In the 1990s, these amorphous dark forms evolved once more, becoming more prominent in his overall compositions and exhibiting more rigidly defined outer lines. Yun continued producing these 'gates of heaven and earth' until his death in 2007.
Over the course of his life, Yun held numerous solo exhibitions in South Korea and Japan and showed his works in Taiwan, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Belgium, among others. He also participated in several biennials, including the São Paulo Biennial (1969, 1975); the Venice Biennale (1995); and the Gwangju Biennale (2000). Yun's work continues to be shown internationally. In 2018, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul organised Yun Hyong Keun, a retrospective of his lifework.
E-fahn Wang | Ocula | 2018