Yoo Youngkuk - Korean Abstract Art Pioneer

by Joan Kissler, 14/08/2016


Yoo Youngkuk was one of the first-generation abstract artists in Korea, making him a pioneer of modern art. Unlike other artists who began as figurative painters, he was committed to abstract painting from the outset.

Yoo’s work paved the way for contemporary Korean abstract artists like Sky Kim, and he serves as inspiration to countless other contemporary Korean artists today. Born in Uljin, Gyeongbuk, Yoo was trained at Tokyo Art Academy’s College of Fine Arts in Japan during his early 20s, where he enrolled in oil painting, participated in group exhibitions, and led a number of avant-garde art groups. During this period of his life, Yoo’s artwork was incredibly diverse. He created geometrical abstract paintings, three-dimensional collages, and even experimental photographs—all of which were representative of his propensity for abstractionism.

Upon Yoo’s return to Korea, which was around the time when South Korea was under Japan’s colonial rule, he was forced to give up on painting and work for a living—but he never let go of his artistic pursuits. After all, to an artist like Yoo, art was life.

Lee In-bum, an art critic and professor at Sangmyung University who wrote an autobiographical book about Yoo in 2012, revealed that the artist was so rigidly focused on his art that he quit his professorial jobs at Seoul National University and Hongik University without hesitation after realizing that having these jobs kept him away from his paintings and took up too much of his time.

Such was Yoo’s dedication to his art.

Lee also wrote that Yoo, a prolific painter, kept regular working hours when he was painting in his studio—just like any other employee.

“With no exception, at eight o’clock in the morning, he would go to his studio and then leave it to have lunch at noon and then go back to the studio to work until 6 p.m.,” Lee wrote.

While Yoo’s early work focused on using simple lines and achromatic colors, his second phase was more nature-inspired. In the 1960s, Yoo’s abstractionism hit its peak, when he turned to abstract expressionism after endless experimentation with abstract art.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Korea’s modern masters, the Deoksugung branch of the MMCA is staging a comprehensive retrospective of his work.

Featuring 120 abstract paintings, 20 sketches, and other materials, the exhibition will highlight the artist’s lifelong quest to create dynamic geometric abstract images. Many of Yoo’s works emphasize nature and space using basic elements like dots, lines, surfaces, and colors.

Like most abstract artists, Yoo was notoriously taciturn and tightlipped when it came to his work. He said that abstract art, in any and all forms, do not have one specific, correct interpretation. Much like most abstract work, his paintings are open to interpretation, and people can find meaning as they see fit.

Fans of modern art have probably heard of a place called MoMa—otherwise known as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In South Korea, the equivalent of NYC’s world-renowned art museum is the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul.

Built in 2013, the MMCA is the country’s first national museum to primarily showcase Korean modern art, particularly works from the 20th century, as well as works from international artists. The museum’s inception began with former South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who announced during his administration that he wanted to build a modern art museum that would put the country on the map in the international art world. The main purpose of the museum was to establish Seoul as a place of culture and to garner worldwide recognition for Korean artists.

"A vital institutional mission is to function as a connecting bridge between the domestic and beyond—we will put our best effort to introduce Korean art to the world outside and vice versa," former MMCA director Chung Hyung-min said in a local interview.

The MMCA is the only one of its kind in South Korea. It is truly a mecca for modern art - a place where visual art meets technology.

Exhibition starts 21 October: see What's Going On for more details

About the Author: Joan Kissler is a budding photographer, travel enthusiast, and aspiring blogger. In 2014, she quit her job as a paralegal to pursue her dream of traveling the world and creating beautiful pictures for a living, and she hasn’t looked back since. Apart from traveling and photography, Joan’s hobbies include reading mystery novels, hunting for vintage vinyl records, and watching obscure foreign language films.

Image Source: National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA)

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