Nature is always unadorned, fresh, and beautiful. I wonder if my paintings could capture the beauty of nature. No, it would be impossible. Even so, I want to make paintings like nature, one never tires of looking at. That is all that I want in my art.
- Yun Hyong-Keun
Yun Hyong-Keun is widely known for his simple yet highly meditative paintings, evoking the concept of nature in art, a core idea of traditional Asian ink painting. Yun’s work appears to be a part of nature, or even being unified with nature, without any hint of artifice. His process of art displays a state of making and unmaking; the results bridge a character between made and unmade. Yun’s ultimate philosophy of nature and art is the most significant element that differentiates his art from Western abstract painting which emphasises the artificial process by the artist rather than affirming a harmony with nature. Yun finds most insight at the moment of being his most “natural” self, unlike Western artists who pursue inspiration from unusual moment and energy. Yun aims to exclude from his art anything artificial or compulsory, which can risk appearing to be apart from nature.
Carol Vogel of The New York Times points out that one of Yun’s Umber-Blue paintings bears distinctive resemblance to Richard Serra and Barnett Newman. Some critics comment that a trace of the influence from Mark Rothko is also apparent. However, Yun’s works differ in a fundamental way from the Western painters above, as a Korean art critic, Hong Gai emphasises the fact that Yun found his own spiritual resource and creative inspiration in Kim Jeong-Hui who is known for developing a unique style of calligraphy to himself. Inspired by Kim’s writing and tradition of Asian ink painting (Fig.1), Yun uses a great reserve when making his art, and tries not to force his own intention on the works. Lee Ufan recognised this quality from Yun’s art, stating “Neither the brush nor the umber paint is a slave or tool used for expression.” Donald Judd, the leader of Western minimalism, was another artist who was fascinated by Yun’s meditative painting. Judd was instantly mesmerised by his art when he met Yun during his visit to Korea for his exhibition in the early 1990s. He noticed a profound depth and spirit of nature from Yun’s painting, which has a resemblance to the beauty of Korean traditional architecture that Judd had been captivated with for a long time.
Throughout Yun’s artistic development over six decades, Kim Whan-Ki, one of the most important pioneers in the history of Korean abstract painting and his father-in-law, was another inspiring mentor to him, especially for a sense of materiality. As Kim gradually transited from using heavy texture to applying only a thin surface echoing Asian ink painting, Yun’s 1976-1977 paintiang, Umber-Blue (Lot 3) explicitly displays this transformation from the thick density of his early 1960s paintings to a diluted pigment completely absorbed into the canvas as if the paint were ink fading onto paper. As early as 1973, Yun started experimenting with his signature colours of using two kinds of oil pigments as a symbolic depiction of the earth; Burnt Umber represents earth, and Light Ultramarine the ocean (Fig.2). As these 1970s master pieces exemplify, the unique mixture of two pigments allows a colour of great range and depth, which Yun preferred to call “the colour of rotted leaves.” Opposed to the deliberate application of thick oil paint, this diluted thin paint naturally drives Yun to release any compulsive desire to control his material and invites nature to create various textures and a great range of absorbency. More importantly, this process allows Yun to add the concept of time into his painting.
After the labour-intensive process of the application of numerous layers of thinned paint (Fig.3), the canvas is placed upright to dry so that the element of nature and gravity can be involved with the process in the way the paint soaks into the raw canvas. Yun explains why he repeatedly applies multiple layers of paint, “It is to erase what the eye sees in the present. I look at it again with a new perspective after time has passed. Once I discover something new, I will make a few changes. After doing this process many times, my work will be complete.” The big body of deep brown colour paint produced by thick brush disappears, marking its existence, evoking the ephemerality of time. The pulse of the artist is imbued in the thick brushstrokes, producing a sense of the rhythmic breathing of life itself, which acts as a medium to connect the painting with the world outside and with the viewer.
Selected venues for Yun’s solo exhibition include the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg, the Stiftung Für Konkrete Kunst in Reutlingen, the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and Donald Judd Foundation in New York. His works can be found in the public collections of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, The Samsung Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul, the Fukuoka Art Museum in Fukuoka, the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art in Kitakyushu, the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in Hiroshima, The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, M+ Museum in Hong Kong, among numerous others.