Yun Hyong-keun at Blum & Poe, New York
By: Genevieve Allison
The refusal to create a “clear image,” a critic once said of Yun Hyong-keun's work after seeing it exhibited at the National Museum of Modern Art of Seoul in 1974, came out of a privileging of texture—which compromised painting’s “image-bearing function.” This turned out to be an appreciable understatement; over the course of three decades, Yun Hyong-keun would not only reject figuration totally, but also the notion that his painting should instruct any narrative or cultural signification. In the first posthumous exhibition of his work in the United States, twelve paintings from “Umber Blue,” a series painted only in umber and ultramarine pigments, illustrate his stark yet sensitive treatment of the pictorial surface. In each composition, sequences of dark, blocky forms bleed through their edges onto unmarked canvas, as though he were trying to demarcate the edges of the void.
Experimenting with approaches that mirrored the essentializing impulses of American abstractionists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Yun Hyong-keun embraced a reduced palette and simple compositions. In doing so, he joined a group of South Korean artists who, starting in the 1960s, worked to uncouple painting from Eastern traditions by incorporating Western mediums, such as oil paint on canvas. For a movement that sought to subvert the representation of national identity through art, Dansaekhwa, or the Monochrome Movement, has been discussed in the expanded history of contemporary art—particularly how it codes social and political contexts underlying cultural production in postwar South Korea. As Lee Ufan boldly stated in reference to Yun Hyong-keun’s work: “Neither the brush nor the umber is a slave or tool used for expression.”