Yoo Youngkuk: “painter of mountains” and “magician of colours”

Yoo Youngkuk: Quintessence

Today, the publishers of a recent monograph on the Korean artist Yoo Youngkuk got in touch to ask me to add the title to the LKL Korea Book Database – something I was very happy to do. There’s far too little material available in English on modern Korean art so I’m always delighted when I come across some more.

As I went about my usual task of tagging the book so that it appears on the relevant archive pages of the website, I discovered that this was an artist I had not covered before on LKL. So I had to create a new tag. How was it that, when the LKL artist database has registered 1,372 other artists, it had not yet logged a name important enough to have a monograph written about him?

Comfortingly, Art News comments that

he remains little-known abroad. He has never had a solo show outside South Korea, and his radiant, sometimes mysterious paintings have appeared in group shows beyond its borders only sparingly.

At LKL, we tend only to log an artist if we’ve come across their work at an exhibition, and I don’t recall seeing Yoo’s work at any exhibition in London or Korea – though on my last visit to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art I bought a mouse mat which I now realise is a reproduction of a conveniently shaped Yoo Youngkuk work from 1994: Mountain – Red (Oil on canvas 280 x 220 cm). You can find a nice image of the original work on the You Youngkuk Art Foundation website.

Yoo Youngkuk Mountain Red as a mousemat
A mousemat purchased from MMCA Seoul featuring Yoo Youngkuk’s Mountain – Red (1994)

Yoo Youngkuk (1916-2002) was prominent in the early development of Korean abstract art and is often mentioned in the same breath as Kim Whanki in the early years of their respective careers. In fact, Oh Kwangsoo, a former director of the Whanki Museum who has written a useful monograph on Kim that has been translated into English has also written a monograph on Yoo, published on the 10th anniversary of his death, though I think only available in Korean.

Yoo merited a four-month exhibition at the Deoksugung branch of the MMCA in the winter of 2016/7 to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and during his lifetime had two retrospectives at the MMCA, one in 1979 and the second in 1996 – an honour noted as unusual by Lee Yil in his essay on the second retrospective.1

Nevertheless, he features little in most English language overviews of Korean 20th century art – he merits a page or so in Youngna Kim’s book, and a paragraph in the recent Phaidon essay collection. As far as I’m aware, the most in-depth information about Yoo available in English – apart from the Rizzoli publication mentioned at the start of this post – is the Wikipedia page, from where the quotes in the title of this post are taken.

Why is he not better known outside of Korea? Well, the blurb that accompanies the new monograph (published in December last year) implies that Yoo, having been a leading light in various art groups early in his career, became somewhat of a recluse and withdrew from such activities from the 1960s onwards. The vibrant colours that he uses are at odds with the more muted monochromes of dansaekhwa that occupy what seems to be the narrative mainstream of Korean art history for the period – at least as perceived in the West.

Some of Yoo’s work was bought by the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee and two pieces are included in MMCA Seoul’s current exhibition of highlights of Lee’s bequest – on show until 13 March 2022.

The recent monograph is published by Rizzoli, edited by Rosa Maria Falvo and contains contributions from former MMCA director Bartomeu Mari, MMCA curator Kim In-Hye and head of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art Gabriel Ritter.

Links:

  1. Lee Yil – A Model of Korean Modernist Painting: Yoo Young-kuk, 1996, in Lee Yil – Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction pub Presses du Réel, 2018 page 212. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.