View of “Moon Shin,” 2022–23. Photo: Image Joom.

View of “Moon Shin,” 2022–23. Photo: Image Joom.

Moon Shin

Judging by the evidence presented in this intoxicating retrospective, Moon Shin (1922–1995) could have had a standout career as a painter and perhaps gone on to secure a place in the canon, but instead he established himself as one of South Korea’s preeminent sculptors. In the 1940s and ’50s, after art school in Tokyo, he fluidly recorded slices of everyday life in South Korea—a farmer lounging near a cramped chicken coop or fish gazing up from a basket—with the concise eloquence of a Park Soo-keun and the thick color of a Georges Rouault. Moon was inventive, and he moved in the right circles; he was a member of the Modern Art Society alongside legends-to-be such as Han Mook and Yoo Youngkuk. But he was also restless.

In 1961, Moon decamped from South Korea for a few years in France. He did carpentry and stonemasonry work on a château north of Paris where Hungarian sculptor László Szabó was running a residency, and his art underwent quicksilver changes. He adopted art informel language with characteristic élan, making spare, playful abstractions with rough surfaces, and he also began experimenting seriously with sculpture. After a brief return to South Korea in 1965, he settled back in France and devoted himself to that medium with zeal. As if to memorialize his dramatic shift, he erected a Brancusi-style column—two sets of wooden hemispheres soaring more than forty feet—at a show on the beach in Le Barcarès, France, in 1970.

Over the next quarter century, Moon made abstract sculptures that are as alluring as they are idiosyncratic. Often no more than a few feet tall, they are composed of ovular shapes and curving planes that appear to have been pinched, pulled, and hollowed out to become alien birds, flowers, organs, or body parts. Though they are always smoothly polished, their forms were hard-won, carved from woods such as ebony, oak, or yew, or forged from bronze or stainless steel. They tend to stand upright, address you frontally, and exhibit some type of not-quite-perfect symmetry, all of which heightens the uncanny sense that these are organic beings, albeit ones that are elusive and unplaceable; some can be more than a little discomfiting to behold. Dozens were displayed together here with the occasional circular mirror overhead and a dash of slinking jazz, so that the dimly lit galleries resembled a sci-fi bestiary-cum-nightclub.

What drove Moon? “If there is anything I hope for,” he once said, “it is that the forms I create reach life, and ultimately come to signify ‘life.’” His sculptures do that with ease, while spurning categorization. He named a number of them Towards the Universe—he seemed to be chasing universal, if unnameable, sensations—which this survey’s curator, Hyesung Park, took as her show’s title. In a richly researched catalogue, she links Moon’s freewheeling practice to his fraught, nomadic biography: Born in Japan to a Korean father, who was a migrant worker, and a Japanese mother, he was sent at age five to Masan, his father’s hometown on Korea’s southern tip, to be raised by a grandmother; at sixteen, he snuck back into Japan to pursue art.

In 1980, Moon moved home to Masan from France a celebrated figure, and went about designing every aspect of a museum there for his art. In 1988, a steel piece that recalls his endless column went up in Seoul’s Olympic Park, and his sculptures now dot public spaces around the city. At a glance, some can look bizarre or outmoded, like artifacts of vanished futures—a bit too confident, utopian, or extroverted for our era. But give them time, and they will grow on you. I have come to think of them as peculiar old friends who are resplendent in their eccentricities, holding secrets about the past and ready to regale you about all that is still possible.