Born in 1928 in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, Yun Hyong-keun lived through one of the most traumatic periods of Korean history, suffering great misfortune related to Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War, and the postwar dictatorship. During this harsh period, Yun was incarcerated four times, and once faced with near-certain death. Only after surviving these harrowing incidents did Yun fully commit himself to making art, in 1973 when he was forty-five years old.
From the moment he dedicated himself to painting, Yun clearly established his own distinct artistic world, which he called the “gate of heaven and earth.” In the quintessential series of works that he began in the 1970s, Yun used a wide brush to apply thick blocks of black paint to canvasses of plain cotton or linen. To be precise, the paint was not actually black, but slightly variant mixtures of the same two colors: blue (representing “heaven”) and umber (representing “earth”). From their production method to their final appearance, these paintings are simple, genuine, and organic. With these seemingly offhand works, Yun succeeded in translating the humble, comfortable, and solid values of Korean traditional aesthetics into the lexicon of international contemporary art.
Eleven years after his death, this exhibition explores Yun’s life and art with unprecedented range and depth, introducing many details and perspectives that have not yet received adequate attention. Most notably, the displays feature a wealth of personal materials that have never been publicly shown, including early drawings, photos, and strikingly honest excerpts from Yun’s private journals. The exhibition is filled with dark and poignant paintings that magnificently capture the shattered national psyche of their time, perhaps highlighted by the heart-breaking works that Yun furiously painted in the wake of the Gwangju Massacre (May 1980). In addition, one entire gallery (Gallery 8) contains a meticulous reproduction of Yun’s actual atelier, including outstanding works by other artists (Kim Whanki, Choi Jongtae, and Donald Judd) and Korean traditional artifacts (furniture, porcelains, and calligraphy). Through such diverse materials and displays, this exhibition comprehensively explores the life and art of Yun Hyong-keun, who has thus far been known primarily within the context of the Dansaekhwa movement in Korea.