4.20.17 — Gates of Perception

I shall be running through some shows of abstract art tomorrow, as a brief and, I hope, fun gallery tour. Allow me, then, in preparation an extra post today that somehow fell through the cracks this winter.

If one is going to take Mark Rothko halfway around the world, it only makes sense to rotate the painting as well. Rather than stacked pillows, Yun Hyong-keun favors rising or falling pillars, most often side by side. Yun Hyong-keun's Burnt Umber & Ultramarine (David Zwirner gallery, 1978)They may nestle against the picture’s outer edges, their rounded peaks not quite touching the top. They may start nearer the center, almost covering the whole.

Either way, they draw one up close to watch the dark oil spread, at David Zwirner through February 18. One can immerse oneself in the slivers or fields of bare cotton, stained by osmosis or the artist’s touch.

The Korean artist found a welcome in New York in 1974. Donald Judd invited him to Texas. In turn, his paintings from 1976 through the 1980s have an obvious debt to late Rothko, and he worked on the floor like Jackson Pollock. I cannot swear that he met Morris Louis, but he, too, thinned his paint to watch it run. The stains at the edges of his widening bands approach raw turpentine. One might borrow from Louis oneself and retitle the paintings Unfurled.

Still, they belong to another continent. Yun died in 2007, in his late seventies, little known here. Like Mono-ha in Japan, he adapted Minimalism to Asia. He compared his blackness to ink and its flow to calligraphy from the nineteenth century. If he has rotated Rothko ninety degrees, some older Korean writing may read vertically. One can think of the irregular stains as bad penmanship. One can think, too, of the pillars as gates of perception.

They work best that way, rather than as color-field painting. As with Rothko or Ad Reinhardt, blackness is not what it appears. The work comes in two series, Umber-Blue and Burnt Umber & Ultramarine, for its true two colors. Still, one can look a long time without seeing either one. One can look in vain, too, for a signature element like Rothko’s rectangles or Reinhardt’s squares, apart from those widening edges and their turpentine stains. One can look a long time all the same.

Not every stained canvas out there is a doorway to perception. Maybe you think of a few stalwarts and standouts as sustaining painting through its lean years, like Jennifer Bartlett or Elizabeth Murray. Maybe you think of a resurgence today driven by artists and midlevel dealers facing a system stacked against them. Still, stained canvas today has a pricy and public side as well. Glibber versions than Yun’s are turning up in the mainstream. Where others speak of zombie formalism, they approach subjectivity for the living dead.

At least they share a love of color. Katharina Grosse at Gagosian, through March 11, applies it to canvas and aluminum with a spray gun, where scale and electric hues supply an energy that the arbitrary shapes and drips may not. Adrian Gheni brushes it onto canvas, at Pace through February 18, where what may look at first like abstraction represents the lap of luxury, on balconies overlooking the mountains. I prefer Liliane Tomasko in the more modest surroundings of the Lower East Side, at Marc Straus through February 10, where bright primaries out of Joan Mitchell give a balance of luxuriance and control. With Grosse from Germany, Cheni from Romania, and Tomasko from Germany via Switzerland, has the rebirth of painting become just another tool of global markets? Maybe, but one can always return to umber, blue, and black.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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