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Yun Hyong-Keun at David Zwirner

Yun Hyong-Keun was a major artist--and, more than likely, a great one. His range of emotion, in these charged, near monochromatic paintings, is marked by a sober intensity bordering on tragic vision. Politically active as a leftist while a young man in Korea, Yun served time for his political beliefs. His abstract art, though, communicates neither ideology nor opinion; instead, it stands as a profoundly meaningful meditation on life, pulling influences from minimalism but also, in a more difficult way to see and understand, scholarly historical Korean painting. The latter point may need greater support, in the sense that Yun was not painting mountains or streams. But the feeling of this work is historically based, being the result of a wide embrace of kinds of art that filled his imagination with a depth highly unusual for someone painting (mostly) abstractly in the 20th century. As a writer, I cannot remember since a long time past being as moved as I was on seeing his works; their surface similarity to minimal abstraction--Donald Judd was an active supporter of Yun--places him in the history of recent art, but his deeper connection, somehow, to nature and to literati painting put him in a site of spiritual authority the minimalists never truly commanded. One hesitates to describe the work in this way, especially as a Westerner writing, because words always dim before the perception of art so alive to both the past and present. And yet the compulsive honesty of these works act as guides to perception--and ethics--in ways that elude the descriptions of even adulatory phrasing.

How can it be that an abstract work of art can be seen as ethical? To some extent, it is because we know the backstory of Yun’s principled politics, to the point where his life was in danger (at one point he was sentenced for execution). Maybe, too, the muted, shadowy coloring--in the period covered in the show, mostly the early 1990s, Yun worked with burnt umber and ultramarine blue--lends his art a gravitas pastel colors cannot originate. The simplicity of the forms, the narrow spaces between them, and the quiet coloring presume a silence that rejects speech as unnecessarily cheap in the face of a vision of weight and measure regularly available in his art. We might ask a second question: When does a wall have the trembling tangibility of spiritual life? Unlike the minimalists, Yun’’s outlines are in no way hard-edged. Instead, over time, they repudiate a clean line in favor of something less precise, more indicative of the messy, organic forms of nature. The contrast between the fringing of the edges and the monolith mass of the form they outline (no matter the size of the painting) work in tandem, keeping each other honest in a formal sense. But then, too, there is the element of extraordinary beauty, in which a subtle, persistent lyricism conveys a yearning for a monumental calm. How Yun does this within a relatively limited language of abstraction demands an intuitive understanding, in which the emotional life of the form holds its own despite simplicity. Analytical comprehension may help us achieve a greater rigor in the face of shapes seemingly so unyielding, but the truth is that these paintings proceed almost involuntarily into the awareness of their audience.

As for the works themselves, they establish their integrity on both an individual and a group basis. Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1991) consists of four dark rectangles--two sets of two--aligned vertically, that make their way up against a lighter expanse of brown. The forms are monolithic, but they have unraveled edges that might suggest clumps of grass or foliage. It seems these unkempt edges are meant to offset the smooth weight of the forms they outline. It is a brilliant contrast on Yun’s part--he has found a way of combining the elemental calm of the minimalist position with the slight anxiety of something that is not so regularly aligned. In the narrow slit between the two sets of weighted images, Yun has painted thin horizontal lines connecting the monolithic shapes. While the connections are only visual, they convey a deeper sense of joining than would seem at first. Again and again, the artist finds ways of creating adhesions between the wall-like expanses he enjoys painting. In another work, called Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue (1997), a monolithic tablet occupies three-fourths of the round canvas, but the edges are smooth and the shape’s side edges don’t quite fully cover the background they belong to, It is an affecting painting, being both self-sufficient and needy in regard to the background it partly erases by the large expanse of its shape. Who would have thought so much emotion could be generated by non-figurative imagery? Yet this happens on a regular basis in Yun’s art.

In Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1989), a painting that leans well into the direction of landscape, the imagery consists of a sun-like, brown semi-circle eclipsed to some extent by the slightly darker monumental shape that rises upward into the middle of the painting. Is this a picture of a dark sun hidden by a ridge? The simplicity of the evidence argues both for and against a reading of this work in terms of nature--we remember how Mark Rothko’s horizontal rectangles might also be likened to a landscape. This is where Yun’s pictures assume an extraordinary gravity; by suggesting the world of nature, as well as the current affection for a simplified art, Yun manages to cross the divide between figurative and nonobjective art, even if our first response is that he is entirely an abstract painter. His simplicities can be read in a number of ways, but it is their ability to imply any number of insights into form, readable or not, that give the artist his unusual ability to move an audience. Another painting, called Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1992), closes down the background brown except for two narrow vertical strips that don’t quite reach the top or the bottom of the composition. The three dark areas separated by the strips are dark indeed, creating a visionary darkness in which hints of color enliven the perception of areas that look almost completely like they lack light. This is also a vision of contrasts--between brightness and darkness, even if the general tonal level is deeply muted. Darkness is metaphorically implicit in Yun, whose tonal variations are narrow and muted, but so does a bit of light, however somber, poke through regularly in his paintings.

A particularly nice work, entitled Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue (1997), presents two forms: on the left, a dark rectangle covering the full length of the painting, to the very edge of the left side. Its right edge is almost truly straight, without ephemera on the edge. The right form doesn’t rise quite to the top of the work and angles inward ever so slightly on either side. But it does have a roughened left edge, which faces the mostly clean line of the left shape’s right edge. It has been said that the criticism of minimalist art is spectacularly good, in large part because so much explaining needs to be done to justify such simple forms! But in the case of Yun’s art, something else exists: a spirituality that is usually lacking in the American movement. One must be careful here and not succumb to stereotypes, but the Asian penchant for reticence finds an inspired outlet in Yun’s oeuvre. It is wise not to use Western cultural measures to elucidate a Korean imagination, and so we must refrain from reading Yun’s achievement as a tribute to our own art. But it is also true that the kind of abstraction Yun participated in was an American invention, even if it were picked up by other cultures all over the world.

The last painting to be looked at in this review is the nearly 90-inch-tall Burnt Umber and Ultramarine (1993-95). It consists of two robust columns that rise side by side to nearly the top of the work of art. One has the sense of architecture informing much of the artist’s vision--walls and stele figure prominently in our experience of the work. Maybe Yun was attempting to capture the essence of “wallness” or columnar verticality. In his refusal to complicate his imagery, except in the most subtle fashion along the edges of his shapes, the artist was communicating what we, in the West, might call a Platonic idealism, whereby the interior energies of form became as important as the exterior presented to us. It may be that these energies are impossible to register visually, but one of the remarkable aspects of Yun’s art is that they appear to be there, even should we be unable to see them. Invisible presence is the hardest quality to achieve in painting, yet it is possible in certain kinds of abstraction. Yun’s professional life seems to have been devoted to achieving just that. In the long run, in an international art world, it is likely unnecessary to emphasis geographic emphases or cultural penchants, but Yun’s sensitivities to form seem Asiatic, devoted to quietist perception. 

Still, that doesn’t mean Yun painted in the corner of a purely Korean room. He was also an international minimalist. we must do what the artists working minimally are asking us to do--to see the work on its own terms, free of proximities of influence that would unnecessarily bias our understanding of their art. Yun worked quietly but with extreme seriousness in his nearly devotional appreciation of formal densities inhabiting shapes that convince because they lack complexity. But this does not mean that the intelligence that went into their making was equally uncomplicated. Instead, Yun’s art has to do with an interior formed by the conflicts of his youth, even should we be unable to read them in any easy way. The solitude, melancholy, and intensity of his art argues for an individualistic appreciation of what he did. These qualities may have been made more easily available to Yun due to the fact that he was Korean, but emphasizing his Asian background is only a partial truth.  Like so many modern and contemporary artists attracted to a minimal style, he found truth in simplicity and monumentality of shape. Thought and feeling became large in the grips of these extended, uncomplicated forms. These attributes are truly international, giving Yun the advantage of a global perspective. His perspective may have had its origins in local conditions, but it is also true that he presented the entire world with a formal internationalism carrying us beyond ourselves.


- Jonathan Goodman

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