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. Yun’s hardships began in 1947, shortly after he entered Seoul National University (SNU), when he was arrested and expelled for joining the campus-wide protests against the US Army Military Government’s role in establishing the school. Then in 1950, just after the outbreak of the Korean War, the South government began arresting and executing so-called “dissenters” and political opponents who had been blacklisted (often for trivial or fabricated reasons) as part of the “Bodo League” (or “National Rehabilitation and Guidance League”). Because of his prior arrest at SNU, Yun was detained and set to be executed by a firing squad, before he miraculously escaped with his life at the last moment. After surviving this brush with death, he found himself trapped in occupied Seoul, where he was forced to work for the North Korean army. When this “collaboration” was discovered in 1956, Yun was incarcerated for six months in Seodaemun Prison. Then in 1973, Yun was teaching art at Sookmyung Girls’ High School, when the school granted admission to an unqualified student with connections to the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the highest power of the time. Yun criticized this unethical practice, which resulted in another arrest and imprisonment for violating anti-communist laws. Thus, simply for standing up for his beliefs, 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. Gazing into them, viewers are bombarded with different sensations, like looking at an ancient tree that has withstood the ravages of weather, or the rafters of a Korean traditional house, or a patch of soil that is fragrant with fertility. 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.
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). Most notably, the displays feature a wealth of personal materials that have never been publicly shown, including early drawings, a large archive of photos, and strikingly honest excerpts from Yun’s private journals. 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 pottery).
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.
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.
IPrologue: Early Works
The first section of the exhibition introduces Yun’s works from the 1960s and early 70s, before he fully dedicated himself to art in 1973. After enduring many hardships early in his life, Yun finally gained some respite in the 1960s, when he worked as an art teacher at Sookmyung Girls’ High School (1961-1973). With this improved work environment, Yun produced many drawings and small works, most of which are light-colored abstract paintings that show the influence of Kim Whanki, his mentor and father-in-law. In 1973, however, after Yun was detained by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and incarcerated in Seodaemun Prison, the light colors disappeared from his palette, replaced by the somber black tones that characterized his works for the rest of his career. This section shows how the colors, forms, and processes of Yun’s art became purer and simpler in relation to the traumatic events of his life.
The Gate of Heaven and Earth
The second section features the works that Yun began producing in 1973, when he dedicated himself full-time to painting after having been detained in Seodaemun Prison. For about ten years after his release, Yun was blacklisted and could not find a steady job. During this time, he painted the series of works that he called the “gate of heaven and earth,” (天地門), all of which were made by mixing blue (representing “heaven”) and umber (representing “earth”) to make variant shades of black. After adding oil to the paint mixture, Yun used a wide brush to paint wide bars down canvasses made from cotton or linen, creating forms that resembled a gate. Looking into these works is like staring through a gate of solid black pillars, beyond which lies an entirely new dimension. These modest but solid paintings are deceptively simple in terms of both form and production method, to the point of sometimes seeming crude or artless. One of the highlights of this section are the paintings that Yun made after learning about the Gwangju Massacre (May 1980), in which black monoliths seem to stumble over one another, like people falling in the street.
The Utmost Depth and Simplicity
The third section showcases Yun’s later works, produced beginning in the late 1980s, which represent the culmination of his lifelong pursuit of simplification. The subtle variations in the colors disappeared, so that all of the late works appear to have been painted with pure black. Also, he used less oil in the paint mixture, so that the surfaces became drier. Although the forms, colors, process, and results represent the utmost simplicity, these works have an uncanny depth; gazing into one of the huge black voids is like plunging into a deep and inexplicable abyss. Thus, Yun’s late works convey a measure of certainty, even as they address complex issues of solitude, death, and the relations between living beings.
The World of Yun Hyong-keun
The fourth section was designed to provide a window into the overall worldview of Yun Hyong-keun. From 1983 until his death in 2007, Yun lived in a house in Seogyo-dong that he had built from his own designs. In the final gallery, we have faithfully reproduced his atelier from this house, where he lived and worked for the final twenty-four years of his life. The atelier is filled with Yun’s cherished furniture and crafts from the Joseon period, including woodcrafts, porcelains, and pottery, along with calligraphy by Kim Jeonghui, painting and archives by Kim Whanki, sculptures by Choi Jongtae, and work by Donald Judd. Filled with the objects that Yun used everyday and mementos from the people that he cared about, as well as his personal diary, notes, and photos, the atelier provides a compelling glimpse into Yun’s spirit and his artistic mission.