Yun Hyong-keun (Korean: 윤형근, 1928.4.12 – 2007.12.28) is one of the most important Korean artists in the late 20th century. After graduating Hongik University, Yun became associated with the influential Korean Dansaekhwa movement. Particularly, Yun is well known for the smearing effects of umber and blue paint on raw canvas, which reveals an oriental sensibility of refection and mediation.
Yun Hyong-keun(1928.4.12 – 2007.12.28) was born in Cheongwon-gun (present day Cheongju), North Chungcheong Province. Thankfully, even at the height of Japan’s wartime, Yun had the chance to learn art from Oh Dong-myeong and Ahn Seung-gak in Cheongju Commercial School. From the influence of Ahn, Yun enrolled in a short-term course at Cheogju Teachers’ College to study drawing for half a year in 1946. The following year, accordingly, Yun attended the College of Fine Arts at the newly founded Seoul National University, although his family was opposed to his studying in art. It was from here where Yun and Kim Whanki(1913.2.27 – 1974.7.25), who was the professor supervising the entrance exam, first met, and from then on Yun began his art career under the tutelage of Kim, who even became Yun’s father-in-law in 1960.
However, shortly after entering SNU, Yun’s hardships began. In 1948 and 1949, he was arrested, tortured, wounded and expelled from school, for joining the campus-wide protests. But his most difficult times came in 1950 as the Korean War had outbroken. Moreover, in 1956, Yun was incarcerated for six months in Seodaemun Prison, for serving the North Korean army during the war, which was usual back then for those were unable to flee and had been forced to work various jobs supporting the North, and again, for partaking in the student movement while attending SNU.
After his release, Yun transferred to Hongik University, where Kim was leading the art department, and graduated in 1957. From the next year he started teaching art in high schools and submitted his works to the second and third “Engagement”(1962,1963, Central Public Information Center, Seoul), also held his first solo exhibition in 1966 at the Press Center Gallery, Seoul. He even presented his works at the 10th São Paulo Biennial in 1969. Yun’s early works during the 1960s, generally consist of lyrical and fantastical abstract paintings with blue backgrounds. Only a few of these works have survived, but from their simple forms, brilliant colors, and subtle texture, the influence of Kim Whanki is strongly noticed.
In the 1970s, Yun once again found himself in deep trouble. When Yun was teaching in Sookmyung Girls’ High School in October 1972, he was unfairly charged with violating ‘anti-communist laws’ due to his protesting a corruption happened there, taken to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and detained in Seodaemun Prison for about a month. Even though Yun was released, he was blacklisted until 1980, which meant that he could not find a decent job and was subject to police surveillance.
It was not until 1973, when Yun was released from prison, that he began dedicating himself full-time to painting. Notably, it was during this period that he began to produce works in his own distinctive style which were shown at his solo exhibitions at Myongdong Gallery(1973, 1974) and Munheon Gallery(1975, 1976), Seoul, as well as in Tokyo at Muramatsu Gallery(1976) and Tokyo Gallery(1978). Most works made from late 1974 until the mid-1980s consist of a rectangular canvas featuring a large portion of unmarked space flanked by two, occasionally three, columnar dark sections running up and down the entire height of the canvas. By placing a thick raw cotton or hemp canvas on the floor, Yun drew broad lines from top to bottom, soaking his oil colors layer upon layer until the outer edges of the canvas glow with deep near-black. In the early years, Yun depicted the thesis of his paintings as “the gate of heaven and earth.” Only using a mixture of two alternating colors, blue and umber, to Yun, “blue [was] the color of heaven, while umber [was] the color of earth. Thus, [Yun called] them ‘heaven and earth,’ with the gate serving as the composition.” As Sid Sachs remarked, “what seems casual initially: non-relational, non-compositional, turns out to be a discrete sensibility, fully conscious, wholly formed.” With only minor variations Yun continued this procedure for about 40 years.
Although Yun was a senior member among the Dansaekhwa group, Yun did not prefer himself to be categorized as a so-called ‘Dansaekhwa Artist.’ Undergoing the turbulence throughout his early life, Yun attached more importance to human being, society and nature than art itself. Corresponding to Yun’s words, “you can’t make art from theory. I truly believe that eternal and fragrant art can only come from a pure and innocent person,” he remained thoroughly faithful to a mode of living uniquely suited to his personal idiosyncrasies. Therefore, it is commonly said that one can sense a strong self-imposed discipline oozing out from his works. Each additional stroke or repetitive process is not really meant as a progressive endeavor towards a certain coherent. It is not an attempt to do better. It is just a continuous routine and repetition, like living a life. As he described, “[his] paintings are like a diary that [he used] to record each day.” The result of Yun’s weighty brushstrokes of a trained body and mind is a peculiar presence built out of real energy fields and vector forces on the physical material surface of a canvas; invisible to the eye but present.
Somehow, Yun’s later works became even simpler and more stringent in terms of their forms, colors, and process. The subtle differences among the hues disappeared, so that the colors were almost purely black. Also, resulted in reducing the use of oil, the surfaces became drier. Most of Yun’s late works were painted in a more concreted form: he used a ruler and a pencil to draw rectangles on the canvas, covered the edges of the rectangles with tape, painted inside the tape, and then removed the tape. But these seemingly simple works have a hidden depth just as all Yun’s works do; gazing into the large black void is like plunging into a deep abyss.
This kind of ‘being’ began to gain recognition in the western world, followed by several recognitive solo exhibitions at Galerie Humanite, Nagoya(1990,1991); Inkong Gallery, Seoul(1991); and Gallery Yamaguchi, Osaka(1989, 1992). In Europe, starting from “Working with Nature” in 1992, at the Tate Gallery Liverpool, Yun took part in the inaugural exhibition of the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Hyundai Gallery in Seoul organized a solo show at the Basel Art Fair in 1997, and in 1998, Manfred Wandel curated his first retrospective, bringing together 70 of his works, at the Stiftung fuer Konkrete Kunst, in Reutlingen, Germany. Jean Brolly showed works during Yun’s stay in Paris, at a couple of exhibitions in the early 2000s. On the other hand, in the US, Donald Judd, impressed by Yun’s work in one sight, invited him to exhibit at the Donald Judd Foundation in New York(1993), and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa(1994, 1996).
After his death in 2007, there has been many essential exhibitions reframing and redefining Yun’s style. Until recent years, Yun’s works still has a strong tendency to be understood together with Korean Dansaekhwa, featuring him as the main figure who lead the movement. Yun participated in many group exhibitions with his contemporary Dansaekhwa artists, specifially: “Korean Abstract Painting: 10 Perspectives,” Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul(2011), “Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting,” National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, and Jeonbuk Museum of Art, Wanju(2012); “The Art of Dansaekhwa,” Kukje Gallery, Seoul(2014); “Seoul Paris Seoul,” Musée Cernuschi, Paris(2016); “Rhythm in Monochrome Korean Abstract Painting,” Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Tokyo(2017); and “The Ascetic Path: Korean DANSAEKHWA,” Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, Saint Petersburg(2017).
In the meantime, especially from solo exhibitions in the late 2010’s held by PKM Gallery, the representative of the artist’s estate, and other renowned galleries such as Blum and Poe, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Simon Lee Gallery and David Zwirner Gallery, the attempt of focusing the inherent style of Yun’s art has been continuously made. Above all, the first major retrospective after Yun’s death held at MMCA in 2018, which provided a deep understanding of Yun’s life and style, attracted some 100,000 visitors in four months and was extended for two months more. This exhibition traveled to Palazzo Fortuny, Venice coincided with the 58th Venice Biennale, featured as one of the best off-site and collateral exhibition during the term.
Most of his Public collections are in Korea, America and Greece.
- Kim, Inhye (2018). "Yun Hyong-keun: Eternally in the Realm of Old Age," Yun Hyong-keun(MMCA Catalog). Seoul: The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. pp. 16–23.
- Kee, Joan (2013). Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press. p. 87.
- Love, Joseph (1989). "The Work of Yun, Hyong-keun," Yun, Hyong-keun(Inkong Gallery catalog). Reprinted from the Munheon Gallery catalog published in 1976. Seoul: Inkong Gallery. p. 21.
- Artist's Diary, January 1977
- Sachs, Sid. "Hyong-keun Yun at LOCKS Gallery". Asian Art News.
- Chiba, Shigeo (2001). "Yun Hyong-Keun's Footsteps and His Universe," Yun Hyong Keun(Artsonje Museum catalog). Gyeongju: Artsonje Museum. p. 16.
- Artist's Diary, 1979
- U-fan, Lee (1989). "The Work of Yun, Hyong-keun," Yun, hyong-keun(Inkong Gallery catalog). Seoul: Inkong Gallery. pp. 25, 27.
- Lim, Kate (2017). "Language of Dansaekhwa: Thinking in Material," Fracturing Conceptual Art: The Asian Turn. Seoul: Art Platform Asia. p. 89.
- Artist's Diary, Night of December 21, 1984.
- Hong, Kai (2015). "Yun Hyong-keun's Painting as an Embodiment of the Spirit of Daam," Yun Hyong-keun: Selected Works 1972-2007. Seoul: PKM Gallery. p. 17.
- Brolly, Jean (2002). "Yun is Painting," Hyong-keun Yun at Paris(Jean Brolly catalog). Paris: Jean Brolly Gallery. pp. 32, 34.
- Yun Hyong-Keun. Berlin: Hatze Cantz. 2019. p. 48.
- Kim, Airyung and Gautherot, Franck (2002). "A Conversation," Hyong-Keun Yun(Jean Brolly Gallery). Paris: Jean Brolly Gallery. pp. 28, 30.