Yoo Young-kuk is not an artist whose work translates literally and metaphorically the moment he has to live. It is a product of the coincidence of two collapses: one produced by accelerated and forced modernization since 1910; the other, the clash of the greatest adversities with the unwavering will that defines the character of the artist, convinced that only the path of permanent search can be successful. Like any other artist, like any other human being, he is a witness of his time and context. But his work tells us about another “here and now,” or better said, the opposite of any here and now. I have tried to explain how, through his work, Yoo subtracts himself from space and time because he does not seek to belong to any spatial or historical condition, and transcends past and present times to project himself in an immaterial future. One of the characteristics expressed by the recourse to geometry, to mathematical relationships represented by forms that tend to perfection and harmony is that of being able to constitute a universal language. The geometric component will dominate the cultivation of abstract painting since the early 20th century, especially from the influence of Suprematism and Russian Constructivism. The great division of abstractlanguages that was consolidated in the 1950s, just after World War II, will recover the influence of expressionism and transmit, through the powers of intuition, explosive flares of color and contained eruptions of existential emotionality. Informal art, expressionism, prevails at the end of the 1950s, from France and Germany, in an artistic panorama that is already beginning to be dominated by artists, critics, museums, and the art market from the United States. There, expressionism will give rise to new generations of artists who will reconnect over time with constructivism and develop new types of art in a new spirit, and with industrial materials. Europe will continue to be an obligatory reference for Asian artists, among whom Koreans will continue to be attentive to its currently dominant movements and opinions. Yoo navigates, impassively and unswervingly, in that sea of styles and aesthetic positions that follow one another at faster speeds since the 1960s until his death.
For a Western eye, it is relatively easy to consider the avant-garde, the different artistic behaviors that break, more or less violently, with tradition since the end of the 19th century and, above all, the beginning of the 20th century, as one of the components that define artistic modernity. The various avant-garde expressions are born with more or less ambition to promote and create a new world, a value system that did not exist before. In some cases, they proposed to be the new visual environment for a new type of human being, a new man who, during the 1930s, both fascism and communism-Stalinism, both striving to formalize through opposite paths the expression of a new society, had publicly liquidated. In the eyes of power, the avant-garde circulates out of any order and therefore entails deep dangers. The avant-garde is the subversive part of modernity that scares by its radicalism and seduces by its novelty and transformative power.
Allow me, once again, to return for a moment to Yoo’s work and introduce some hypotheses to speculate about the genealogy and migration of forms that constitute his plastic contribution. We know that the works of his formative period, made since 1937 in Japan, were lost in the flooding of his house in Seoul in the Korean War years. But a series of reconstructions done in 1979 and in 2002-2003, based on vintage photography, allow us to access these experiments with volume and space that drift between the aesthetics of suprematism and constructivism of the early 20th century. The materials, wood and industrial elements in which no sign of handiwork can be seen, as if they had been cut and as-sembled by a machine, convey confidence in the rationality of geometry and already introduce the cultivation of the proportions found in his paintings from his mature period. Throughout his career, the problems of composition and equilibrium in the volumes, the masses of color and the lines that make up the painting, will remain unchanged, despite the changes in subject matter.
Since the late 1940s and throughout the subsequent decade, Yoo overcomes the rigors of geometry to begin a journey towards different ways of considering the landscape. In two works from 1953, Yoo invites us to carefully observe a landscape in which perspective transforms the tension between near and far into a hierarchical order, where “up-down” replaces the tension with distance. In both paintings, the right angles that almost twenty years earlier dominated his first constructions have been kindly rounded and the vertical line of a tree stripped of its leaves retains in us the idea of an autumnal landscape. From there, Yoo will try to invent landscapes with little reference to external reality. Any reference to recognizable objects has disappeared, whether they belong to the realm of nature, are domestic objects or “still lifes.” At times, I search through the clusters of lines and colors for signs to situate me in one world or another, but perspective, the horizon, and the beautiful geometric order in which we could find an up and down have disappeared. For a moment I looked for remnants of the formulas by which Picasso or Braque’s analytic cubism deconstructed reality in superimposed angles and planes. But I could only find an intuition about how, before humankind reached the moon, modern painters could give an image to what we now call cyber-space. “Sea Plant” (MMCA p. 125), “Mountain soil” (MMCA p.126), both from 1959, or “Work,” from 1960 (MMCA p129), could very well be in the wake of a restrained and almost gestural expressionism as the one that Arshile Gorky or Roberto Matta had accustomed us after the years of experimentation of Joan Miro. In Yoo’s work, the transition to the early 1960s is like a passage through the darkness of mental landscapes of an absorbing and disturbing beauty. We do not know what causes, what threatens the stillness of the soul. I sense that the experience of the Korean War continues to be transmitted more than ten years after its end in visions of a dehumanized place that only as an extreme metaphor would I dare to call landscape. For someone who, like Yoo, chose to be an artist to be genuinely free, it should not be pleasant or motivating to live under external military threat—that of North Korea—in an environment of multiple internal controls such as those exercised by the different military dictatorships that governed the country between 1953 and 1989.
We must wait to the late 1960s to appreciate a profound change in Yoo’s pictorial language. Geometry again breaks into the composition of the paintings, creating landscapes in which triangles abound—symbols of the mountain, as mentioned before. The circle appears frequently to symbolize the sun. In those years, the international panorama of art is dominated by the impetus of new generations of artists who experiment with even more fury than in the first decades of the 20th century. And since the 1970s, after a series of medical events of profound consequences, Yoo’s painting enters an area of peaceful tranquility. The verticality that once gave great drama to the paintings, translates into layers of overlapping horizons where plains where water, earth and sky seem to flow in silence, are interwoven. The stridency of precipices or cliffs of the postwar years has softened and accompanies Yoo’s last years with gravity, yet gently. As historian and curator Kim Inhye tells us “In 1977, Yoo had to have a pacemaker inserted in his heart. Then, from 1977 until his death in 2002, Yoo suffered eight cerebral hemorrhages that caused him to be hospitalized 37 times. Not surprisingly, starting in the late 1970s, his art became less severe and intense, in favor of a more lyrical and serene style.”
For the mentality of a Western critic or historian, art is not produced from the history of art, but from the encounter, often violent, between an individual genius and a specific context. This context is not only that of the adversities and comforts that the artist can find throughout his life, but of all those elements that make up the “spirit of time,” the debates, inventions, epics and miseries of an era. It would be interesting, although it exceeds my current abilities, to delineate the map of the “Yoo Young-kuk generation,” that is to say of those creators who, not only in the field of art but also in literature, music, etc., define their time: one of the most convulsive pages of Asian modernity and witnessing the most accelerated transformations of an entire country. Yoo still lived in a world that changed with relative slowness, if we compare it with the present moment, at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. We know that Yoo studied at one of the most progressive schools in the colonizing Japan of the 1930s, and there absorbs the European formalist vanguard. But we know little about how the forms and artistic discourses of the rest of the 20th century reach Yoo since the proclamation of the Republic of Korea. We will find him in 1963 at the Sao Paulo Biennial where he can realize that the plastic and visual vocabularies have evolved deeply since his training years in Tokyo. But, again, we know little about how that experience affects the artist, who, being a definitive pioneer of abstract art and the avant-garde in Korea, is still a deeply local spirit, rooted in an ancient culture, full of hierarchies, obedience and obeisance, not at all prone to stridencies or to the bombastic.
Yoo’s work invites us to think how what once was avant-garde rupture later comes to be seen as the basic substratum of accepted modernity. And yet, for that, the work is no less enigmatic or baffling. Western cultures, based on the Judeo-Christian beliefs and heirs to the Greek “rationality” that separates and opposes contraries, sustain a value system based in the opposition between body and soul, that which is eternal and that which is temporary, corruptible. The division between good and evil also goes through this exclusive dichotomy and everything that pretends to exist is on either side of this opposition. Asian cultures are not dichotomous-exclusive but respond to holistic conceptions where, for example, the body is not separated from the mind (or soul), but both operate as an inseparable unit. Thus, the landscape is also the subject that perceives it. Perhaps one day we can demonstrate, beyond poetic efforts like this one,
that Yoo represented himself when he sought to understand the essence of his surroundings, which he synthesized in the “idea” of a landscape. The succession of styles, aesthetics and currents through which Western art flows from the 19th century until the 1980s does not seem to have affected the mature Yoo. His pictorial consistency is solid in a country and in a world of accelerating changes since the 1960s. Neither accelerated industrialization nor the massive mediation of the art system since the end of the 20th century seems to affect him. This does not mean that Yoo was not aware of the succession of “isms” parading throughout his mature life. Nor should we think that Yoo was impervious to the forms and discourses produced by young Korean artists who, from 1989, can travel freely abroad, something vetoed to artists of his generation. Yoo must have seen with surprise, respect, and probably kindness the explosion of the arts of the late 20th century. Since the 1960s, conceptual art advocated the death of painting, and many artists since that time investigated the possibilities of making art outside and beyond the limits of the fine arts, where Yoo remained faithful and committed to a series of basic principles. The permanence of these principles makes Yoo an artist of his time who nevertheless transcends that time and becomes present outside it.
I finish this essay in these days when the mass media of almost the whole world summon us to become aware of the risks that climate change implies for our survival as a species on Earth. The development of the techniques and technologies that made us progress, in the hands of an omnivorous capitalism that only serves the continued benefit, the immediate return of investment, and the progressive enrichment of a very small minority of the population, also seems to express its capacity to consume life. The modernity we have admired and celebrated seems to have left barbarian and destructive offspring, as reads the title of a beautiful but terrifying engraving by Francisco de Goya, “the dream of reason produces monsters.” The artistic avant-gardes were one of the bastions where, a century ago, utopias capable of making us think that the world could be different were created. Yoo Young-kuk believed, with all certainty, that art was a way to build those visions that showed that the world can be different and better. That is why he appears, with the distance of time, as an activist of beauty, a thinker of the relationship between human beings and nature through ideas of apparent simplicity and profound significance. The quarrels of the times of the artist’s life seem remote to us today. Other quarrels come to take the place of past dissent, debates and intellectual and emotional oppositions. We have a vast set of paintings, his oeuvre, that, through colors and shapes, transport us to the origins of the artistic avant-garde in Asia and, perhaps, also towards the future of a peaceful and saving relationship with the natural.