Yoo Youngkuk, Work, 1963, oil on canvas, 51 1⁄8 × 76 3⁄4".

Yoo Youngkuk, Work, 1963, oil on canvas, 51 1⁄8 × 76 3⁄4".

Yoo Youngkuk

Yoo Youngkuk’s art affords many astonishments: its potent distillation of the natural world into abstracted forms, its inventiveness within self-imposed constraints, its daring and dazzling color. Why has it never been the subject of a solo show beyond his native Korea? Twenty years after the artist’s death at 86, “Colors of Yoo Youngkuk,” a blowout survey of sixty-eight paintings across all three of Kukje Gallery’s buildings, made a vivid case for Yoo as a benchmark abstractionist of the postwar era, in Korea or anywhere.

Born in 1916 in Uljin, on the east coast of Japanese-controlled Korea, Yoo lived through distressing times. After receiving a vanguard-minded education in Tokyo, he decamped for his hometown in 1943 to work as a fisherman. Following World War II, he became a key mover in experimental art in Seoul before war broke out again. Making art when he could, he sold firewood and ran a soju distillery. In a video produced for a 2016 Yoo retrospective at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, his widow, Kim Kisoon, recalls his refusal to skimp on the quality of his beverage. (He declined to “lower the alcohol percentage even if it didn’t sell.”) When he finally landed on his defining artistic style, he pursued it with similar rigor.

That happened when Yoo was in his early forties, in the late 1950s, as evidenced in large rough-hewn canvases that bear smoldering patches of high-contrast color. Imagine paintings by William Baziotes or Sadamasa Motonaga on a dark and stormy night. A white-gray cloud swirls up from blocks of red and orange amid a sea of deep greens and blue-blacks, in a 1963 Work (as he titled most of his output), while Spring Rain, 1958, has quick vertical white marks falling onto shadowy shapes and a few thick lines that hint at a landscape. These paintings evoked organic, chaotic forces, while a handful of small drawings from the same period—black pen obsessively attacking paper—suggested an artist carefully learning how to build that intensity.

As the 1960s progressed, Yoo’s paintings became flatter and more luminous, morphing into vibrant miracles of interlocking planes. Amid rapid societal change, he was becoming a sharp chronicler of (or perhaps a conduit for) nature, and in his concise work you can make out meandering rivers, wishbone-shaped trees, and—everywhere—mountains, his signature motif. His compositions are about the limits of what you can see, in a picture or out in the world, and they focus on things that endure. They linger on the border of pure abstraction. (Intriguingly, the show’s curator, media historian Yongwoo Lee, also included tender photos that Yoo shot in 1942 of other stolid creations, such as a stone pagoda and a Buddha carved into a rock face.)

Even at his most minimal, Yoo stuns. A 1968 painting just over four feet square (a classic format for him) consists essentially of only a few triangles—marigold, sunflower, tangerine—though their precise arrangement manages to conjure visions of the sun bursting over a snowy peak and into your eye. And in the showstopping final space of the exhibition there were eleven canvases from the ’60s and ’70s, all predominantly blue, green, and black, all with squares and triangles hovering near their centers, almost diagrammatic in design. They might depict distant ocean horizons or lofty summits at twilight. Together, the paintings exercised a pull that was disquieting, spectral, and even spiritual. They seemed to invite you into their fathomless depths. Spending time with them brought to mind the epitaph from Yoo’s tombstone: “The mountain is not in front of me but inside of me.”