In the 1930s, Yoo Youngkuk (1916-2002) left the remote hinterlands of Uljin, North Gyeongsang Province, where he had been born and raised, and went to study art in Tokyo, one of the world’s most modern cities. He returned to Korea in 1943, amidst the tumult of the Pacific War. Through the ensuing years of Korea’s independence (1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), he sustained himself by working as a fisherman or by brewing and selling his own liquor. After 1955, he fully resumed his art activities, becoming a leader of many early avant-garde art groups in Korea (e.g., New Realism, the Modern Art Association, Contemporary Artists Exhibition, and New Form Group) and establishing himself as one of the true pioneers of Korean contemporary art. In 1964, however, he announced the end of his association with art groups and held his first solo exhibition. From then until his death in 2002, he was devoted solely to working alone in his studio, day in and day out, such that he left about 400 magnificent oil paintings.
In Yoo’s abstract works, basic visual elements—dots, lines, planes, forms, and colors—emerge as the protagonists. Often in tension or competition with one another, these elements maintain a certain sense of balance, which ultimately amplifies their potent innate energy. Although his works are reminiscent of the deep water, rugged mountains, clear valleys, and red sun of his hometown Uljin, he makes no attempt to depict these aspects of nature realistically. Nonetheless, the power of the abstract aesthetics themselves induces the viewer to approach the essence of nature in a more direct way.
Looking at his modern works, it is almost impossible to believe that he was born a full century ago. As an artist, Yoo had the rare gift of combining an extraordinary aesthetic insight with a firm sense of practicality. He is not a legendary artist who enjoys great popularity among the Korean public. Somehow, during even the most turbulent times of the twentieth century, he alone demonstrated an uncanny—almost surreal—ability to avoid the worst of the trauma and adhere to his solitary and high-minded life as an artist. We hope that this exhibition will help to renew people’s appreciation of Yoo Youngkuk, the consummate Korean modern artist who deserves our remembrance and love.