• News
  • Dec 22, 2020

Obituary: Young-Il Ahn (1934–2020)

Portrait of YOUNG-IL AHN. Photo by Michael Underwood. Courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago.

On December 12, pioneering Korean-American abstract painter Young-Il Ahn passed away in Los Angeles, aged 86. The details of his death have not been disclosed.

Ahn is known for his large-scale, colorful abstractions that examine the beauty found in nature and music, as exemplified by his Water (1983–2020) series. He created the oil paintings by using a knife to apply repetitive rectangular blocks of color such as magenta or deep lilac onto blue canvases, depicting the fluidity and majesty of the oceans with a focus on how colors, shadow, and light intermix on the water’s surface. The series was inspired by a near-death experience in July 1983, during which he became lost off the coast of Santa Monica in a small fishing boat amid dense fog. The mediative and emotional works highlight the glimmering light and colors that he witnessed before the fog lifted. In 2017, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a solo exhibition of his paintings, “Unexpected Light,” the first showcase of a Korean-American artist at the museum.

Ahn was born in 1934 in Gaeseong to an artistic family; his father was also a painter and his mother was a pianist. In the 1930s, his family moved to Tokyo, where Ahn frequented his father’s art studio and learned to paint. In 1943, during World War Two, the family returned to Korea. After the Korean War, Ahn was included in a group exhibition at New York’s World Art Gallery in 1957 at the encouragement of a friend at the United States Embassy in South Korea. A year later, he held his first solo exhibition at Seoul’s Dong-Ah Gallery, after graduating from Seoul National University with a BFA. He moved to New York in 1966 to widen his artistic practice, and then in 1967 to Los Angeles, where he resided to his death. He suffered a stroke in 2013, but continued to work despite a restriction in his movement.

Ahn has exhibited widely, with solo exhibitions at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery (2018), Los Angeles County Museum of Art LACMA (2017), Seoul’s Gallery Hyundai (2017, 1986, 1982), Long Beach Museum of Art (2017, 2015), and London’s Sackville Gallery (1998), among other international presentations.

He is survived by his wife, Soraya Ahn, and their daughters.

Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific's news and web editor.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

Back to News