Installation view of YOO YOUNGKUK’s “Colors from Nature” at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, 2018. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul / Busan.

Colors from Nature

Yoo Youngkuk

Kukje Gallery
Korea, South

Some painters have love affairs with their models, others with mountains. Paul Cézanne made the Provençal peak Mont Sainte-Victoire his lifelong friend; Beirut-born poet and painter Etel Adnan found her companion in California’s Mount Tamalpais. For the postwar Korean painter Yoo Youngkuk (1916–2002), it was the Taebaek Mountains—which form the eastern spine of the Korean peninsula and rise above his coastal hometown of Uljin—that would guide him to his mature works after 1964, as he refined the colors and planes in his abstract canvases to echo their stolid majesty. It took Yoo more than 25 years, however, from 1937 when he first began showing his works in Tokyo, to make his long journey home to the mountains that would become his ultimate motif.  

Yoo has a colorful biography in what was a darkly turbulent time. His father sent him to Seoul in 1931 for high school. In order to escape the strict Japanese rule in Korea during its occupation, he was meant to then go to Japan to become a sailor. Instead, he ended up in art school at Tokyo’s Bunka Gakuin University in 1935. Throughout his eight years in Japan, he participated in shows as a member of the Neo Beaux-Arts Group, but in 1943, he refused to take part in the exhibition organized by the Art Association of Japan with the theme “The Beauty of Japan’s Prosperity” (Japan occupied Korea from 1910–45). He then returned home to Uljin and worked as a fisherman on his father’s boat. After the end of the Second World War, in 1948, his artist friend from Tokyo, Kim Whanki (1913–1974) secured him a job at Seoul National University, and together they founded the New Realism Group with Yi Gyusang (1918–1964), based on the concept of painting with pure forms. When the Korean War broke out just a couple years later in 1950, he survived the Korean People’s Army’s occupation of Seoul by selling chopped firewood and drawing well water before working as a painter for the Myeongdong Theater—though, in a humorously apocryphal tale, he and his friend Chang Ucchin claimed they couldn’t paint likenesses of Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin because they were abstract artists. In 1951, after Seoul’s liberation but with the war still waging, he returned home to Uljin, reviving and running his father’s soju distillery for four years before ultimately moving back to Seoul in 1955. It was then, after what he considered a “lost decade,” that Yoo began painting again. 

Installation view of YOO YOUNGKUK’s “Colors from Nature” at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, 2018. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul / Busan.

“I cannot imagine paintings without colors,” Yoo wrote in 1982. Indeed, Yoo’s mini-survey, “Colors from Nature,” at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery, following a large retrospective that opened at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Seoul in 2016, was a revelation of his canvases, which are as vibrant—both dark and bright—as his life. Mounted across two of the gallery’s buildings, the show featured 31 paintings, including 20 from after 1964, and a room of his photographs and archival materials, plus a video interview. Yoo’s works from the second half of the 1950s, as illustrated in an anthology of essays about the artist published by his foundation, vary considerably in style, from the outlined forms of City (1955), which resembles a map of Seoul, with the sweeping black form of the Han River arcing across the bottom half of the canvas, to a two-toned work from 1957, where an abstracted shape in black, perhaps resembling a boat, rests on a dark green sea with a brilliant cadmium yellow sky above. Compositions from 1958 and 1959 have a wider chromatic palette, with mottled surfaces and complicated compositions of irregular shapes. In 1959, Yoo painted the first of his works titled Mountain (shown at Kukje), where jagged forms bathed in yellow emerge from fields of snow-blue and darker areas of blue and green. 

YOO YOUNGKUK, Thawing of the Ground, 1961, oil on canvas, 162 × 130 cm. Courtesy Yoo Youngkuk Art Foundation and Kukje Gallery, Seoul / Busan.

From there through the early 1960s, as the show evidenced, Yoo began to ascend an ascetic modernist path, successively stripping away more from his canvases. The jagged v-shaped peaks, the echoes of conifer tops and soaring birds, of sky and earth, remained in Thawing of the Ground (1961), for instance, but he had jettisoned outlines and soon after that textured surfaces as well. His dramatic brushstrokes turned more vertical, swooping in strong upward currents, with dynamic contrasts in the composition between dark and light, and periodic summits painted in pure white in works from 1962 and ’64—all evocative of great heights, dramatic sunsets and rugged conditions. Mountain (1964), from the end of that period, is a dark, deep green, with vertical slashes of orange and a lake of brilliant rich red. Finally, three years later, strong triangular shapes appeared on their own, as brilliant, floating forms in the middle of his compositions. 

Installation view of YOO YOUNGKUK’s “Colors from Nature” at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, 2018. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul / Busan.
Installation view of YOO YOUNGKUK’s “Colors from Nature” at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, 2018. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul / Busan.

At the same time that Yoo discovered his mountain motif, he also started to use square canvases. Kukje marked this transition by putting eight paintings from the late 1960s and 1970 in its high-ceilinged, natural light-filled K3 space. All of them are rooted in warm, solid planes of yellow, orange and red, with occasional purple or black shapes or a green line for punctuation and contrast. In each, the forms are consistently, confidently defined. After observing Yoo’s progression through many styles in the previous decades, there is a feeling that by 1967, he had arrived as an artist, transcending the back-and-forth struggle between representation and abstraction. “The mountain is not in front of me but inside of me,” Yoo is quoted in a wall text in the gallery, and viewers can feel his triumph. The burning intensity of Yoo’s works would last one decade until the turn of his health in 1977, though he continued to paint for several more decades until his death in 2002. Once he found his mountains, he never stopped painting them. 

HG Masters is the editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.

Yoo Youngkuk’s “Colors from Nature” is on view at Kukje Gallery, Seoul, until October 21, 2018.

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