Yun Hyong-Kuen, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1999, oil on linen, 89 5⁄8 × 71 1⁄2".

Yun Hyong-Kuen, Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1999, oil on linen, 89 5⁄8 × 71 1⁄2".

Yun Hyong-keun

If, as Jürgen Habermas says, modernity “revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition,” one would analyze the works of artists such as Yun Hyong-keun (1928–2007)—whose chic, methodical paintings seem to be the embodiment of twentieth-century modernity—in purely formal terms. Yet things are not so simple when it comes to historical analysis. In his lifetime, Yun endured the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, followed by the vigorous anti-Communist politics of military dictatorship on the Cold War front line. In this context, the term modern is inherently laden with the impact of one colonization after another; Yun’s works have been interpreted as containing so much history (postcolonialist, anti-Communist, Western-influenced) that critics have almost neglected to point out how the artist overcame traditional aesthetic notions using pure formal and plastic means.

Accordingly, in previous readings, Yun’s understated art has been interpreted as a postcolonial reinvention of indigeneity, a martyrdom of political resistance, and even an annexation of Abstract Expressionism. Yet if his paintings resist anything, it would be exactly such worldly affairs, which Yun found unfit to interfere with his restrained brand of abstraction. While modernity may indeed encompass such concerns, Yun embedded within the very structure of his works an idea of modernity as an aesthetic striving toward novelty and a certain elitist aloofness in regard to the mundane.

Yun had long used columnar stained forms as a signature motif, and this exhibition, in featuring some twenty paintings made between 1989 and 1999, showed how, starting in the early 1990s, the blotchy oil residues that had appeared on the borders of these shapes gradually disappeared. The drama of the volatility of the oil paint and the absorbent raw-linen support—often spectacularized as a phenomenology of edges—no doubt has its charm and has frequently been read as nostalgia for traditional ink landscapes or has been compared to the techniques of Morris Louis or Mark Rothko. Yet through the simple act of taping the edges of columns, Yun liberated the later works from any residual sentimentality or cliché, letting them stand as a series of genuine figure–ground relationships, providing the possibility of a new reading into the economy of spatial management. By canceling the intermediate area between figure and ground, the artist paradoxically opens up an illusionistic pictorial space, detaching the figures (columns) from their material conditions as diluted paint.

In Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue, 1999, instead of blocking the pictorial space, the tall, wide columns paradoxically open up to a puzzle-like interplay of pure form and void. Three columns and a vertical opening, like an upside-down L, confront the viewer, though none in the same way. An underlying pattern (half or full width), a rhythm (varying heights from top to bottom), and a rule (painted versus unpainted) are created through the simplest manipulation of the figure–ground relationship. Burnt Umber and Ultramarine ’94—#85, 1994, is a horizontal canvas with the lower half painted and the upper half unpainted, as if to underline the autonomy of paint and canvas as materials without too strongly evoking a conventional landscape.

Yun demonstrates his mastery with the simplest elements and a daring finesse. The painting is sustained by means of pure balance: The logic of the dark columns cannot be explained by mathematics or emotive effects, but must be defined by a kind of superior diplomacy in the negotiation of space, achieving a certain self-reflexive rightness in the image. If modernity is a recurring practice to be overcome by the next new wave, these works will soon be recognized as classics of pure modernity.