Critics’ Picks

Yun Hyong-keun, Umber-Blue, 1978, oil on cotton, 110 3/8 x 72 1/2 ".

Yun Hyong-keun, Umber-Blue, 1978, oil on cotton, 110 3/8 x 72 1/2 ".


Yun Hyong-keun

Palazzo Fortuny
San Marco 3958
March 11–November 24, 2019

The singular practice of Yun Hyong-keun can be best analyzed through the “quantity-quality equation,” proposed by Yve-Alain Bois. This concept purports that the physical size of flat colors covering a picture’s surface determines the work’s character instead of its composition. In other words, a picture that relies on the impact of color can only be conceived in its real scale, and cannot be designed or prepared in smaller studies. This principle insists on the specificity of dimensions and disposes of the supremacy of drawing, or preparation of concept, over color in Western art. One of Korea’s preeminent avant-garde artists, Yun uncompromisingly explored the possibilities offered by this methodology, producing an oeuvre within very narrow parameters that was nevertheless rich and intricate. 

Yun created astonishing pictorial variety through his modulation of the canvas’s size and proportion, the width and length of his colored planes, and the blank spaces in between. The strongest works in this powerful survey are the paintings of somber, column-like motifs from the mid- to late 1970s, the first decade of his mature period. From then until his death in 2007, Yun limited his palette to blue and umber. He painted thick bars of these two colors, layer upon layer, to create dark, almost black shapes, juxtaposed against the beige unpainted canvas. Until the end of the 1970s, these bars were always vertical, and they have halo-like stains around their edges, produced by the turpentine solvent he used to dilute paint. Like the magnificent Umber-Blue, 1978, the majority of these works consist of two columns separated by blank space in the middle. This structure, and the blurred, slightly rounded edges of the columns, generate a peculiar sense of depth, despite the austere monochromatic language. Contrary to the widespread and casually Orientalizing readings of Yun’s work which privilege themes of spirituality and the sublime over his paintings’ formal and structural concerns, what we see here is the meticulous mastery of an artist who pursued a proposition to its limit.