Art of Yoo Young-kuk revisited
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Yoo Young-kuk (1916-2002) explored the world of abstract painting throughout his life. Unlike other artists who started with figurative painting and then turned to Abstractionism, Yoo was an abstract artist from the outset.
An exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of Yoo’s death is currently at Gallery Hyundai Gangnam Space in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. Some 60 highlights from more than 800 of Yoo’s works are on display.
The exhibit kicks off with the small abstract painting “Work” (1940). This is the only piece left from Yoo’s days in Japan.
Born in Uljin, then-Gangwon Province, in 1916, Yoo studied abroad at the Tokyo Art Academy’s College of Fine Arts in Japan. Influenced by geometric abstraction such as Piet Mondrian’s “Composition,” Yoo’s early works use simple lines and achromatic colors.
His second phase is more nature-inspired by subjects such as mountains and the sea.
After returning from Japan, Yoo was forced to stop painting and work for a living due to Japan’s colonial rule. He went back to his hometown and worked for a fishery and ran a distillery. The experience inspired him to draw color-field abstracts with lines dividing each color.
Yoo’s abstractionism hit its peak in the 1960s, when he turned to abstract expressionism. Forms are dissolved and colors construct the paintings. The artist was taciturn and did not reveal much about his paintings. He said abstract paintings do not have correct interpretations so people can find meaning as they see fit.
The strong, intensive colors of Yoo’s paintings are overwhelming. He used a lot of primary and complementary colors, but the composition is sophisticated even decades later.
Yoo’s endless experimentation with abstract painting is seen through his return to geometric abstraction with fundamental figures such as circles, triangles and quadrangles in the late 1960s.
His health worsened in the ’70s and once again turned to nature in his paintings. Colored mountains returned to his canvas and the curved lines of Korean roof tiles are beautifully portrayed in abstract works such as “Mountain” (1979).
Yoo’s view of nature became friendly and contemplative as he got older. His last piece, “Work” (1999), with triangles in red and brown, is in the corner of the exhibit hall.
“The subject of my oeuvre is nature, which I explore through non-figurative forms, that is, abstraction. It is nature not as a particular subject but as lines, planes or colors. Through these lines, planes and colors, nature is rendered as a non-figurative form,” Yoo was quoted as saying.
“Mountain” (1988) applies various shades of red, orange, purple and green and yet they all go together well on the canvas.
His signature also grabs the eye. Unlike most artists whose signatures are hard to decipher, Yoo boldly writes “YOUNGKUK” and the year the piece was produced in block letters.
The Yoo Youngkuk Art Foundation, Gallery Hyundai and Maronie Books published “Yoo Youngkuk,” as part of “The Most Beloved Painter in Korea” series. The book includes critiques and essays on Yoo written by art critic Oh Gwang-su, art historian Chung Byung-kwan, Seoul National University professor Chung Young-mok and Sangmyung University professor Lee In-bum.
The exhibition runs through June 17. The gallery is closed on Mondays. Tickets cost 5,000 won for adults and 3,000 won for concessions. Docent-led tours are at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday.
For more information, visit www.galleryhyundai.com or call (02) 519-0800.