Burnt Umber and Ultramarine, 1989
The initial feeling is one of recognition, then puzzlement. You feel as if you have come across these images before—in another museum, perhaps, or on Instagram, hanging in the foyer of some celebrity’s Bel Air mansion. Blue-black rectangles, linen canvas. Not much else. The word minimalism pops into your head, and stays there. Still, you are intrigued. You step a bit closer.
From this distance, you can begin to discern the weft of the canvas, the fibers studded with what appear to be tiny, sparkling grains of sand. And the rectangles—actually comprised of layers upon layers of thinned out paint—are full of texture, subtle gradations of tone, light and shadow. They resemble obelisks. Totems. They are gesturing to a point just beyond (within?) the picture-plane itself.
The artist of these works, Yun Hyong-Keun, once described his oeuvre as “a single wail, with no small talk.” By now, you can begin to see what he means.
A new show at David Zwirner collects thirteen of Yun’s paintings from the late 80s to 90s, when Yun was already in his sixties. Two rooms are dedicated to paintings on canvas, the other to smaller works done on paper. The paintings on canvas split off chronologically: in the main gallery, you’ll find selections from 1989 to 1993, while the North gallery—located to the immediate right as you enter the space—spans 1993 to 1997.
Standing in a room surrounded by Yun’s work can be disorienting, like returning home after a long journey. Every detail is suddenly sharpened, imbued with meaning and poignancy. At times, the effect is overwhelming: a painting from 1993 stands at nearly eight feet tall, and consists of three towering rectangles pressed up against each other, like a panel from the Rothko Chapel. The air seems to become compressed around it, almost suffocating; until, that is, you turn to the right, to look at another painting—this one from 1989—which resembles a rising sun, and the unprimed canvas behind it unfurls like an audible sigh. One painting from 1991 particularly struck me. Four rectangles are pressed together, their edges bleeding into each other. (Yun painted from above, the better to allow for the natural spreading of the paint.) Within the jagged layers of paint you can begin to discern a kind of controlled chaos. Something gathering, coming into being.
This is the best way I can think to describe these paintings: metaphorically. To actually stand before them involves a certain negotiation with the indescribable. (A truism for all paintings, to a certain extent, but especially so in Yun’s case.) They are unyielding, offering nothing to the viewer beyond what is present on the surface. But wait a few minutes, and soon you’ll become attuned to the sensation—I found myself marveling, by the time I got to the works on paper, at the tiny cosmogonies contained in the spreading of paint, the way a single gesture, when it has been subject to enough repetition, speaks above all to a reckoning with time.
Yun is largely known as one of the leading figures of South Korea’s Tansaekhwa (“monochrome painting”) movement. As with all movements, the appellation is tenuous at best–Tansaekhwa lacked both a manifesto and an official list of members, spanning a diverse collection of artists working in a variety of mediums during the mid-1970s. What united them was a desire— borne, at least in part, out of Korea’s painful colonial past and rapid modernization under the authoritarian Yushin government—to break apart and re-assemble the art-making process, often by using unorthodox methods and materials. The results hewed to an ascetic palette of blues, blacks, whites, beiges, and grays, with compositions that placed an emphasis on mark making over conventional representation.
Again you may be thinking: minimalism. But this ostensibly “minimalist” abstract work had little to do with its would-be American counterpart. Yun, in particular, explicitly rejected what Kai Hong terms “the global modernist aesthetics of the West” in his paintings”: the staining and color palette are a reference to traditional ink-brush painting (sumukhwa) and the tones of Korean pine wood ink (meok), while the images, painted on either unprimed canvas or mulberry paper (hanji), reflect Daoist principles of simplicity, imperfection, and a return to nature.
This last part is most crucial. From an entry in Yun’s journal, dated 1976:
“It is just a matter of time before everything that stands on the dirt will return to dirt. When I think of how I, and my paintings, too, will also in due time be reduced to dust, it strikes me that nothing in this world is all that tremendous.”
The paintings become “evidence,” nothing more than “a trace of the flame that is [Yun’s] life.” Yun is sober in regards to the potential of such a project. In the next paragraph, he writes:
“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. That is all that I want in my art.”
A modest aim, but also the only worthwhile aim of any visual artist. Reading Yun’s words reminded me of a certain Biblical passage, quoted in the journal of another nominally minimalist painter influenced by East Asian thought, Agnes Martin. From Isaiah 40:7: “The grass withers, the flower fades; because the spirit of the lord blows upon it: surely the people is grass.”
But insofar as these paintings concern themselves with matters of the spirit, they are also—contrary to our long held assumptions about abstract art—necessarily informed by Yun’s lifelong engagement with politics.
Like many of the artists of his generation, Yun experienced the brutalities of war firsthand. The first seventeen years of his life were spent under Japanese colonial rule, immediately followed by the division of Korea at the 38th parallel and, five years later, the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. During this time, Yun was accused of having left-leaning sympathies by the South Korean government, and narrowly escaped death by firing squad. (According to MMCA curator Kim Inhye, in her essay, “Yun Hyong Keun: Eternally in the Realm of Old Age,” his hair turned white after the fact.) In the ensuing two decades—years that saw mass civil unrest and the overturning of three provisional republics—Yun would be imprisoned twice. The first time was in 1956, when he was tried for painting a portrait of Kim Ilsung and Joseph Stalin during the war, in then-occupied Seoul. The second time came seventeen years later, in 1973. Sookmyung Girls’ High School, where Yun had been teaching for over a decade, had decided to admit an unqualified student whose father had connections to the director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency. When Yun protested to the school’s principal, he was accused of violating anti-communist laws and taken into custody. Among the charges pressed against him: wearing a hat that resembled one worn by Vladimir Lenin.
His paintings would be irrevocably changed by the experience. The colors simplified, and grew darker. Now, instead of acid-toned blues, reds, and yellows, Yun employed only burnt umber and ultramarine, two colors meant to symbolize the earth and the heavens. His striated bands and saturated dots also changed, solidifying into oblongs, squares and rectangles that usually emanated from the bottom of the canvas. The paintings in the Zwirner show represent a further refinement, and a paring down of compositional excess. Their politics lie in their negotiation with (art) history. Yun’s employment of culturally specific references—to Daoism, to the arts of the Joseon dynasty—in service of such modern ends suggest that continuity with the past can allow us to reckon with the future. Regimes may change, dictators may be overthrown; but ultimately everything must “return to dirt.”
The fact that this message is articulated via a non-Western painterly lexicon should not be discounted. Contrary to the self-critical mode of painting established by the critic Clement Greenberg in his 1961 essay,”Modernist Painting”—-a mode based on the Enlightenment-era notion that each new generation of artists must redefine “that which [is] unique and irreducible in each particular art” —Yun and many of his contemporaries were able to consciously draw from an art history that never had to justify itself. Perhaps this is because its project has always been philosophical and spiritual as well as aesthetic, full of revelatory and revolutionary potential. Certainly, if we shift our gaze just a little, we can even begin to see how East Asian art anticipated many of the tenets of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism (or, as in the cases of painters such as Martin, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and others, served as direct inspiration). But Yun’s paintings do more than simply reframe our understandings of this or that canon. They are rooted in time, but also timely, timeless. By simultaneously looking backwards and ever forwards, they locate a new center in the immediate present, which is also to say, infinity.
Richard Wei Semus graduated from NYU in 2018 with a degree in English and fine art. His writing has previously been published in the LA Review of Books blog, as well as in several NYU undergraduate journals.