Lot 1064
  • 1064


800,000 - 1,200,000 HKD
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  • Yun Hyongkeun
  • Umber-Blue
  • oil on linen
  • 130.5 by 80 cm; 51⅜ by 31½ in.
signed in Hanja, titled in English and dated 1979-1986-7 on the reverse


Private Collection, Seoul
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Hong Kong, Christie's, Forming Nature: Dansaekhwa Korean Abstract Art, 6 November - 17 December 2015, p. 124

Catalogue Note

The Immensity of Time
Yun Hyongkeun

I want to make paintings that, like nature, one never tires of looking at. That is all I want in my art. -- Yun Hyongkeun

Executed over 8 years, evincing an entrancing, enigmatic all-over monochrome composition wholly unique amongst Yun Hyongkeun’s works from the same period, Umber-Blue is a rare and special painting that traces out a resounding spirit of silence and purity in the Korean post-war avant-garde. While Yun’s works from the 1970s feature earth-toned rectilinear pillars against beige backgrounds, the repeatedly superimposed washes of umber and ultramarine pigment in the present work result a saturated palette of deep black. Because each of Yun’s layers, each applied over an extended period of time, are extremely thin, the resulting painting is imbued with a mesmerizing depth that renders it a truly superior work in the context of the Korean artist's singularly spellbinding oeuvre.  

Born in 1928 in Korea, Yun developed his signature method in the late 1960s to early 1970s whilst experimenting with the Western medium of oil. He added layer upon layer of paint onto raw linen, often applying new pigments before the last layer had dried. He would then dilute the pigment with turpentine solvent, which is absorbed at a faster rate and which allows the mixture to seep into the fibres of the support, staining or encroaching into the unpainted areas. Yun returned to his paintings from time to time over long periods, allowing the composition to develop organically over days, months or in this case years whilst the pigments bled out gradually. The resulting forms float within the liminal pictorial spaces as accumulative records of his process, with the deep fields of intense darkness invoking profound meditations on the organic properties of water, paint, and the passage of time.

Such a breakthrough method was introduced to the local art scene in Seoul in 1973. In 1974 Yun Hyongkeun visited New York where he encountered the work of Mark Rothko; henceforth his works began an even more rigorous exploration of presence, absence, and compositional space. In turn, Yun Hyongkeun’s works deeply impressed Donald Judd, who fell in love with them and even altered the architectural design of his museum in Texas to accommodate Yun’s paintings – to create just the right space for his art. Judd detected in Yun’s works a “palpable presence of unique spiritual quality [...] perceiv[ing] presences in Yun’s works of a kind lacking in his own paintings or those of his contemporaries” (Yun Hyongkeun: Selected Works 1972-2007, PKM Gallery, Seoul, p. 17). In resolving the origins of such a mysterious presence, Richard Vine writes: “Yun spoke of being inspired by the sight of a fallen tree, slowly disintegrating into the earth—of being moved, in other words, by a oneness with nature, in which everything, including mankind, is a co-equal component. There may be an ominous aspect to Yun’s looming monoliths, as mysterious as those at Stonehenge, but ultimately these forms, too, are integrated, under the aegis of Eastern thought, into a harmonious, living cosmos” (Ibid., p. 27).

As Vine observes, although the minimal sparseness in Yun’s works, as with that found in other Dansaekhwa artists, is formally similar to what one sees in Western Minimalism, the similarity is deceptive “because the presuppositions from which the stark forms spring are entirely different. The emptiness so common in much of the traditional art of China, Korea, and Japan is not the death-void, the Nothingness, of Western philosophy. Instead, from ink painting to folding screen to single-hued porcelain, East Asian art has long regarded visual emptiness – the blank passages associated with memory, time, and cyclical change – as a positive rather than negative compositional element, and an expression of compositional fullness” (Ibid., p. 25-26). On noting that Yun’s work in particular display a spiritual personae beyond his being a mere technical painter, Lee Ufan noted: “In the case of Yun Hyongkeun, one suspects that his kind of painting, the kind of arduous labour involved, had to be backed up by his bodily capability which must have been honed through rigorous bodily-spiritual exercises of suhaengja [spiritual training]” (cited in Ibid., p. 16).

Kate Lim observes that the distinctive feature of Yun’s work “is that underneath the simple construction of abstract forms, they contain an accumulation of procedures [that] creates an unexpected visual translation of time. Out of the layers, dark mysterious pillars emerge, seeping into the canvas; these pillars embody the taciturn structural movements of brushstrokes” (Ibid., p. 207). In Yun’s own words, he applies repeated layers of paint “to erase what the eye sees in the present. I look at [the work] again with a new perspective after time has passed. Once I discover something new, I will make few changes. After doing this process many times, my work will be complete” (Ibid.).

The present work commenced at the pinnacle of Yun’s career: in 1978, the year prior, Lee Ufan wrote a laudatory essay on Yun’s work for his solo exhibition at Tokyo Gallery, and the exhibition also received rave reviews from Nakahara Yusuke, the most acclaimed art critic in Japan at the time. Also in 1978, Yun won the Fifth Korean Fine Art Grand-Prix, and over the course of the work’s development in the next few years, Yun lived and worked in Paris where he met Kim Tschang-yeul, Chung Sanghwa and Kim Guiline, built and moved into his own home-cum-studio in Seoul, and was appointed professor in the Fine Arts Department of Kyungwon University. Rooted in a humble dialogue with time, and embodying a deep contemplation of the physical and ritualistic properties of water, paint and canvas, Yun’s quiet works are resoundingly enchanting and transformative, drawing out an absorbing stillness and meditative clarity.