Kukje Gallery presents Yoo Youngkuk: Colors from Nature. Installed in the K2 and K3 spaces, this is Yoo Youngkuk’s first solo exhibition at Kukje Gallery.
The exhibition showcases thirty-one works that provide a comprehensive overview of Yoo’s oeuvre and legacy, and will span his early years studying in Tokyo (1935-1943) to his involvement in the burgeoning post-war Korean art scene (1948-1964), and to his “mature” period that followed his solo exhibition at the Special Gallery of the Press Center in 1964. In addition, the exhibition will encompass some of the artist’s earliest works, photographs that document his time in Tokyo, and other important archival resources in a separate exhibition space on the second floor of the K2 building. Yoo Youngkuk is regarded as one of the founders of Korean abstraction and is best known for his vibrant vocabularies that distilled Korean naturalism into basic formal elements of point, line, plane, and color. Along with his peer Kim Whanki, Yoo is celebrated for his seminal role in promoting modern art in post-war Korea.
Yoo Youngkuk: Colors from Nature features twenty oil paintings on canvas from 1964 and onwards, a period in which Yoo mastered his independent style, characterized by intense colors and the use of graphic, blocky compositions that suggest landscapes and fragmented bodies. One of Yoo’s most characteristic themes is the “mountain” motif, a subject he began to explore in the 1960s. This signature subject, depicted in varying perspectives and scales, hovers in a non-objective field of radiant tones and divided planes. Displayed collectively in K3, twelve square paintings of varying sizes are rendered in fiery oranges and reds. As a loose series, these works together provide a rare opportunity to experience Yoo Youngkuk’s unique world of abstraction in its full maturity.
Yoo has described his work as “art [that] embodies a purely abstract state based on nature.” The mountains in his work are not mere representations but active, visually embodied forms that consist of strong perspectival logic and layered rectilinear components. With triangles and apexes indicating the mountain and the circles suggesting the sun, the saturated and layered colors Yoo applies to the canvas with a knife demonstrate a sense of restrained abstraction that remains rooted in the landscape and emphasizes order. This use of geometry is a key element in the artist’s philosophy, reflecting Yoo’s belief in basic existential facts such as the dignity and freedom of human beings—values that resonate with his personal experience of the harsh realities of the twentieth-century modern Korean history.
Yoo’s unique compositional approach and formal techniques are based in his attempt to uncover a prototype of nature through composition, palette, and geometric forms; this search for an essence further highlights the artist’s desire to establish a “national art.” Yoo maintained an unshakable belief in the power of abstraction, using it to formulate a modernist view of civilization and history. Some of the seminal paintings included in the show, such as Work (1964), exhibited at the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Special Gallery of the Press Center in 1964, and Work (1999), the artist’s final work included in the twenty-first exhibition of the National Academy of Arts, Korea, embody this core philosophy and focus on the Korean identity.
Beginning in the late 1930s, Yoo Youngkuk pursued his undergraduate studies in Tokyo. His artistic aspiration was to seek utopia through absolute abstraction—a goal informed by his experience of Japanese colonial rule. At the time, the avant-garde arts, utilizing non-traditional mediums, were flourishing in Japan under the influence of Western surrealism and constructivism. Through involvement with groups such as the Jiyu Bijutsuka Group of Japan (Association of Free Artists) and Dokuritsu-ten (Independent Art Association), Yoo Youngkuk corresponded with leading artists and critics of the Japanese avant-garde, held exhibitions, and explored the mediums of photography and relief, consolidating his interest in the two- and three-dimensionalities. In addition, Yoo experimented with photograms, close-ups, and montages, pushing beyond the limitations of traditional representation and embracing constructivist approaches including the quality of material, plasticity, and the value of objecthood. Although the artist encountered the formal language of Western abstraction during his studies abroad, it was far from a passive or unconditional acceptance. This distinction becomes clear when evaluating his evolution as a first-generation Korean modernist.
If studying abroad was a time for experimenting with new vocabularies and mediums, the post-war era was a time to challenge the dominant role of the conservative National Art Exhibition of Korea. Within the newly liberated country, Yoo advocated for a new philosophy of art that was freed from the existing conservative power dynamics. This response was inevitable as abstract art encountered the reality of Korean politics and traditional aesthetics, whose roots were in conflict with the modernizing impulses of art. Yoo Youngkuk approached this tension from an institutional perspective—attempting to establish a new movement in sync with the times, getting involved with groups such as the New Realism Group (founded in 1948) and the Modern Art Association (founded in 1956). However, following his first solo exhibition at the Special Gallery of the Press Center, a major event that did not occur until the artist was nearly fifty years old, Yoo began to increasingly concentrate on his own work—deepening the relationship between the graphic vocabulary of his paintings and the rest of the society. He did so by reducing the representation of the world into geometric forms and distilling nature into a stylized index of lines, planes, and colors. With this renewed focus, the absolute abstraction based on the geometric framework explored during his early period was gradually simplified to reflect the tension between aesthetic embodiment and Yoo’s equally strident championing of humanistic values. It is this balance that characterizes his “mature” style.
Born in 1916 in Uljin-gun, Gangwon-do (present-day North Gyeongsang-do), Yoo Youngkuk graduated from the Art Department at Bunka Gakuin University, Tokyo, in 1938. He was a professor in the Department of Applied Arts at Seoul National University from 1948 to 1950, and College of Fine Arts at Hongik University from 1966 to 1970, and served as the head judge of Western painting for and was on the committee of the National Art Exhibition of Korea. Yoo’s major solo exhibitions include 100th Anniversary of Korean Modern Master: Yoo Youngkuk 1916-2002 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (hereafter the MMCA), Deoksugung, Seoul (2016), Invitational Exhibition of Yoo Youngkuk at the MMCA, Deoksugung, Seoul (1979), and solo exhibition at the Special Gallery of the Press Center (1964). He has also been widely exhibited in group exhibitions such as the Invitational Exhibition of Salon de Mai at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1978), 9th Tokyo Biennial (1967), 7th São Paulo Biennial (1963), and exhibitions of the Association of Free Artists in Tokyo (1937-1942). Yoo received the third class (“Bogwan”) of the Order of Cultural Merit in 1984, and the highest award from the Association of Free Artists in the group’s second exhibition (1938). His works can be found in the collections of major museums such as the MMCA, Korea; Seoul Museum of Art; Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art; and Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art. Yoo Youngkuk passed away in 2002.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)