‘It is just a matter of time before everything that stands on the earth will return to dirt. When I think of how I, and my paintings too, will also in due time be reduced to dust, it strikes me that nothing in this world is that tremendous. But at the same time, during the limited time I have life here, I can keep a record – all I can do is keep a record, day by day, that serves as evidence, as a trace of the flame that is my life’
‘I want to make paintings that, like nature, one never tires of looking at. That is all I want in my art’
With its shimmering bands of colour seeping directly into the surface of the linen, Umber-Blue is a glowing apparition from Yun Hyong-keun’s definitive series of abstract paintings. Applied in multiple layers of paint thinned with turpentine, the artist’s signature burnt umber and ultramarine pigments saturate the fibres beneath, bleeding and darkening into deep, burnished stains. Executed between 1976 and 1977, the work dates from a pivotal moment in the development of Korean Dansaekhwa, or ‘monochrome painting’: a movement in which Yun played a central role. It was during this period, just a few years before the end of South Korea’s oppressive military dictatorship, that this revolutionary group of painters made their first appearance on the international stage. Along with Lee Ufan’s celebrated From Point and From Line series, as well as Park Seo-Bo’s Écritures, Yun’s Umber-Blue works were among the most enduring statements of this new aesthetic. Begun in the early 1970s, and pursued throughout his career, these paintings sought to forge a new union between art and nature: to register the impeachable march of time in the same manner as living, earthbound matter. In 1976, the year the present work was begun, the artist experienced a moment of epiphany when he encountered a gigantic rotting tree, and was struck by the profundity and grandeur of nature’s inevitable decay. Created over long periods, ranging from days to years, Yun’s paintings strove to document temporal duration, employing the colours of earth and water to create visions of entropic beauty. ‘It is just a matter of time before everything that stands on the earth will return to dirt’, he professed; ‘…all I can do is keep a record, day by day, that serves as evidence, as a trace of the flame that is my life’ (Yun Hyong-keun, ‘A Thought in the Studio’ (1976), reproduced in Yun Hyong-keun, Seoul 2015, p. 10).
Yun was born in Miwon, Korea, in 1928 and graduated from the Department of Painting at Hongik University in 1957. Protégé of renowned Korean modernist painter Kim Whan-ki, Yun’s philosophy of nature and art fundamentally differentiates his work from Western abstract painting, which emphasizes artificial artistic processes rather than affirming harmony with the natural world. Whilst some critics have identified resonances between Yun’s paintings and those of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, his work is ultimately distinguished by his dialogue with traditional calligraphy. Inspired by Kim Jeong-hui and the traditions of Asian ink painting, Yun deployed great reserve when making his paintings, seeking to remove all traces of his own aesthetic intentions. After applying layers of pigment, his canvases were left upright to dry, allowing the organic effects of gravity to pull the paint deeper into the weave of the linen. Speaking of his labour-intensive approach, Yun explained his desire ‘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’ (Yun Hyong-keun, ‘Jintongmante (A Million Forms of Pain)’, in Kyunghyang Shinmun, 3 February 1977). Deeply admired by Donald Judd for the meditative nature of their execution, Yun’s demarcated bands of colour appear before the viewer as a single, modulated continuum: as temporal, rather than geometric, constructs, comparable to fading leaves or rippling water. ‘I want to make paintings that, like nature, one never tires of looking at’, the artist professed. ‘That is all I want in my art’ (Yun Hyong-keun, ‘A Thought in the Studio’ (1976), reproduced in Yun Hyong-keun, Seoul 2015, p. 10).