Abstract Shape and Color Field Composition: The Art World of Yoo Youngkuk

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Abstract Shape and Color Field Composition: The Art World of Yoo Youngkuk

Abstract Shape and Color Field Composition: The Art World of Yoo Youngkuk

By Oh Gwangsu, Art Critic

Korean abstract art commenced in the late 1930s with two artists who had made their debut through the Jiyu Bijutsuka Group of Japan. Kim Whanki(1913~1974) and Yoo Youngkuk(1916~2002) are the two figures. Japanese abstract art became active through two axes called Jiyu-ten and Nikakai 9th Room Group Exhibition, and as Korean artists, Kim Whanki and Yoo Youngkuk had the chance to participate in the Jiyu-ten. Interestingly, they represent two different trends of abstract art, the nonfigurative and abstraction which is derived from the world’s first international abstract art group ‘Abstraction-Création’ formed in Paris, 1931. Kim Whanki focused on the nonfigurative and Yoo Youngkuk dealt with the abstraction. Whereas nonfigurative art originates from nature and tends to attain abstraction gradually, abstraction places basic geometric elements like triangles, squares and circles in the composition from the outset. Through some of his early pieces titled When the Larks Sing(1935), House(1936) and Rondo(1938), Kim Whanki created real, concrete objects inspired by nature. His later work gradually transformed into a more cubist form, and finally pure abstraction toward the end of his artistic career. On the other hand, Yoo Youngkuk’s work is consistently in line with pure geometrical abstraction as is evident in Work(1938), Work(1939) and Work(1940). Yoo utilized plywood relief for his 1938 and 1939 pieces, which was considered an experimental trend at the time. Yoo was a master of pushing the limits of his art.

Kim Whanki and Yoo Youngkuk may have used different approaches the nonfigurative and abstraction to discover their own voices respectively. However, both artistic ideologies led to interesting paths. Kim’s nonfigurative style always displayed acceptance to nature. Kim’s work evolved into a style based on a unique lyrical world stylizing the nature scene of Korea in the 1950s after liberation from Japanese occupation. This stage in his career was followed by his time in New York when he reached again for the composition of pure dots, lines, and planes. In contrast to Kim’s styles, Yoo Youngkuk generally maintained the strict geometrical abstraction that characterizes his career from the beginning with a few variations during certain periods. It would be quite rare to discover an artist who used such a process of driving himself into his own world as Yoo had done. From this perspective, it is safe to say that Yoo Youngkuk was certainly one of the only artists in the world, then and now, that created abstract art in the purest sense.

Yoo Youngkuk was extremely active in the art community during his almost 6 years in Tokyo. His debut as an artist occurred when he participated in the Dokuritsuten and the Jiyu-ten in 1937, while he was still a student at the Bunka Gakuin in Japan. The following year, he was awarded the Grand Prize at the Jiyu-ten and was admitted as a member. We can count over 100 works that he created during this period which are evidence of his vigorous creative energy. However, the Pacific War and the aftermath of the war forced him to put his creative labors on hold.

He returned to Korea in 1943 and had to make a living outside of art in his hometown Uljin until 1947. It was in this year that the Liberation took place, and Yoo could once again turn to art. He could regain his art world in 1947 in Seoul when he was invited to the Seoul National University as a professor in the Paintings Department at College of the Arts. It was also at this time when he began participating in artist groups such as the Neo Realism Group and the 1950 Artists Association. However, this peaceful period was short lived when war broke out on the Korean peninsula on June 25, 1950. He escaped the worn-torn areas of South Korea by fleeing to his hometown. Finally, after five years of once again trying to earn money for his family by working outside of the art world, he returned to Seoul in 1955 after the war.

Beginning in 1956, there were rumblings of new artistic movements brewing around the art world. Yoo joined up with Han Mook(1914~), Hwang Yeomsoo(1917~2008), Lee Kyusang (1918~1964) a n d P a r k Kosuk(1917~2002) among others to form the Modern Art Society. This group was also the spark that ignited the formation of other ideological circles. Up to this point in the art world, there had been only fraternal societies. However, a new era of ideological rivalry had now sprouted in the Korean art world. The Modern Art Society was a group of artists who had been pursuing Modernism. As part of this group, Yoo Youngkuk and Lee Kyusang were practitioners of pure abstract art. Park Kosuk and Hwang Yeomsoo were of the Expressionist school of thought, and Han Mook worked within the Late Cubism movement. The artists were united by a shared goal of searching for a new form of art in the broader arena of modern art. In 1958, new members such as Kim Kyung(1922~1965), Moon Shin(1923~1995), Chung Kyu(1923~1971) and Jeong Jeomsik(1917~2009) joined the Society.

After Yoo came back to Seoul in 1955, his creativity flourished starting with the Modern Art Society Exhibition in 1957 and soon afterwards, the Invitational Exhibition of Modern Painters. At this point, Yoo’s works seem to deter slightly from the absolute abstraction he had pursued before the Liberation. This shift in style is perceptible by examining a few aspects of his work. First of all, prior to joining the Society, his works were simply titled with names such as ‘Painting’ or ‘Work’. After becoming a member of the Modern Art Society in 1953, the titles of his works became more specific. Examples include Mountain, Tree, At the Beach, City, Road, Fish, Lake, Bird, Hill, and Woods. Despite these titles, he did not, of course, describe the nature as it is, painting a tree on a canvas or a hill with its obvious features. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the great changes in regards to the parts of nature evoked by his art.

By and large, there seems to be a consistent flow in the composition of color fields in contrast as well as in the use of thick matière in his works between 1955 and 1958. The most characteristic element is the thick black flexible line that forms structure in his compositions. It is as if a thick rope were tied across the paintings. The composition of color field contrast is accompanied by a strong evocation, and the texture of matière that is thick like a rock adds a firm structure to the whole canvas.

In 1958, Yoo’s canvas becomes much more flexible in composition. The thick black lines transform into sharp diagonal lines, and the color field contains flexible compositions. The mobility of bright, intense color fields and sharp crossing lines that explode remind us of huge explosions of the earth’s crust. This change in his style can be traced to the contemporary aesthetic mentality. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Korean painters concentrated on abstract art in energetic forms, Informel. The wave of intensive expression had deeply touched the elder generation as well as the new generation. Nevertheless, Yoo was able to include this new trend in his work while still maintaining his uniqueness, keeping a certain distance from the contemporary phenomena. As he looked for the reasons underlying the change within him and not from external forces, the transformation shown in his works was not abrupt but manifested itself through a natural progression. This is exactly how an artist with a strong personality would be.

When Yoo left the Modern Art Society and participated in organizing the Invitational Exhibition of Modern Painters, his range of activities expanded beyond the art world. Small scale groups were formed to act in anti-government movements, and Yoo became a central figure in these movements representing the Modern Art Association. There were two revolutions in 1960 and 1961 that caused social change, and the constant demands for innovation that sprung from these anti-government art communities began to bear fruit.

However, Yoo began to see that these movements may have reached their limit. He concluded that the extent of change that these movements could bring about was at its apex. His final act as a member of the art groups pushing for social changes came when he took part in the Sinsang-hoe Exhibition in 1963. After this, his maturity was obvious in his decision to hold solo exhibitions separate from the art groups. After the revolution, the National Art Exhibition began to appreciate abstract art as a result of reform. Naturally, Yoo was the most recognized artist and participated as a judge for the National Art Exhibition.

The early 1960s, especially 1963 and 1964, seem to be a particularly critical period for Yoo. He participated in an international exhibition for the first time in 1963 at the São Paulo Biennale, and soon after he was invited to the Congress for Cultural Freedom Invitation Exhibition. These experiences helped shed the global and mental borders of his work. Even so, he sank into a more focused and profound plane of artistic existence. His art had reached farther into a mental space than it ever had. Kim Byungki, who had participated in the São Paulo Biennale, wrote the following about Yoo’s work:

“Yoo Youngkuk’s mineral-like boundary of vision, along with the reflection of the landscape formed by water, air and the hot sun burning against it, they are all typical objects of abstraction that exist within the relation with a certain form. Yet, they have gone beyond such typical characteristics and have reached a single spiritual space.”

As previously mentioned, the core element common to his art world is the contrast between strong colors and the density of composition. Like lava shooting up and flowing out of a volcanic eruption, this contrast and density resulted in a dramatic effect in his art from 1958 until 1968. The acute diagonal lines that crisscross over the canvas intensify this drama. Lee Kyungsung comments on this saying,
“…… The contrast of primary colors or the arrangement of the planes shows how this artist has pursued the world of grandiosity rather than of elegant grace.” Lee Yil also comments via a critique on the solo exhibition in 1966 writing, “…… the coloring that has been treated with long endeavor allows the work, originally embedded with decorative features in terms of structure or form, to be surrounded with a warmer temperature. Furthermore, the color expression that seems to be fulfilled with luminosity that has slowly emerged from within, is such a rare sight that reaches maturity.”

Kim Youngju’s critique reveals once more a similar tone.
“It is the world that has realized the dream of pure power, and it is art that has overcome oneself. …… Because his art talks about the history of perfection, we can imagine what the glorious monumental work of our contemporary era is like, with the 15 pieces of his art which are the essence of his 30 years of creation in hardship.”

The reason numerous critics describe the works of Yoo Youngkuk from this period as attaining the state of maturity or perfection is that they were created during a stage in his artistic career that he painted with the utmost passion. It is hard to find another artist who strived to create works with such passion despite being cramped into a tiny studio that measured only around 7 pyung (approx. 23m²) for 10 hours a day. The strong urge to create, the fierce battle with oneself, and the realization of the spiritual world through form which sum up the attitude of a truth-seeker, all demonstrate Yoo’s masterful abilities.

In 1968, Korean modern art was introduced in Japan for the first time. The Contemporary Korean Paintings Exhibition took place in the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The exhibited works of Yoo showed transformation from the previous flexible composition to a refined geometrical composition. The works titled Circle and Mountain appear in a reduced form of circle and triangle, which do not display the previous explosive composition. It may be deduced that circle has as its object of nature the sun, and the triangular shape is meant to be a mountain. However, they are not explicitly the sun or a mountain. Instead, they are forms that have been refracted into a circle or a triangle. A quote by the artist himself makes this point clear. “My works are based on nature to create the image of its pure abstract state.” He points out that he does not exclude inspiration from nature, but his works do not represent nature exactly as we see it in the tangible world. It is up to the viewer to approach the works and find elements that remind them of the sun or a mountain. For the artist, the ultimate image which remains, as always, is only the image of absolute abstraction.

From 1968 until the 1970s, thick matière disappears from his canvas. It is replaced with flat planes spread with a knife. Triangles, squares, and their other shapes all overlap to create change. The compositions tend to have a more flattened look, but the forms go through a lot of variations. From the 1980s until the 1990s, the last phase of the artist’s career, contemplation takes a hold of his artistic life. He learns to observe the whole world around him with ease. The meticulous density which allowed no gaps and the explosive internal energy that used to characterize his work had calmed. His canvas was filled with extremely mild, purified colors and compositions which invite the viewer to comfortably interact with the paintings.

“As an old man, I am currently in need of a little bit more elderly excitement. In the tightening tension that I feel in front of a painting these days, I am reborn in the midst of this feeling, and I learn new determination and passion. I will continue working with this tight rope of tension tied around me as long as I live.”

Perhaps, this statement describes the attitude of the artist that dominated his lifetime rather than only his determination in his old age. From the series of experimental works shown at the Jiyu-ten before the Liberation to the Neo Realism Group activities after the Liberation, from the Modern Art Society of the 1950s to the Invitational Exhibition of Modern Painters and even until the era of solo exhibitions, each of his works provides us with the chance to see an absolute world with no compromise. This is how strict he was on himself. He did not allow any loosening of this rigidity during the 1980s or 1990s despite his older age.

It would be truly rare to find an artist who has been as consistent in pursuing perfection in his art world with such flame of fierce spirit as Yoo Youngkuk. When one encounters the front of Yoo’s canvas, one cannot deny feeling the sheer happiness of this seeker of self-perfection and truth through colors and shapes.