GI remembers Korean contemporary artists

Contributor: Victor Leo

Some 51 years ago, I had the opportunity to befriend Bae Yoong and Kim Foon. They in turn introduced me to Youn’s artwork. As a U.S. soldier stationed at Yongsan Garrison there was little free time, so it had to be used wisely. Art fit that nicely.

Topic: Art, Yongsan Legacy

Some 51 years ago, I had the opportunity to befriend Bae Yoong and Kim Foon. They in turn introduced me to Youn's artwork. As a U.S. soldier stationed at Yongsan Garrison there was little free time, so it had to be used wisely. Art fit that nicely.

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By Victor Leo

Flashbacks and reflections, they happen all the time… they are fast, specific and rapidly appear and disappear. The good news is that when we get older, the “flash” seems to last a lot longer. Today, while sitting at my kitchen table in Michigan, contemporary art pops into my mind, specifically the work of three South Korean artists: Bae Yoong, Kim Foon and Youn Myeung-ro.

Some 51 years ago, I had the opportunity to befriend Bae Yoong and Kim Foon. They in turn introduced me to Youn’s artwork. As a U.S. soldier stationed at Yongsan Garrison there was little free time, so it had to be used wisely. Art fit that nicely.

One evening over dinner at Bae’s house, he explained the meaning behind his 1964 print titled “History.” He described the lower part of the print as representing humanity, “It’s like a coiled spring that relentlessly unfolds as it shapes the future.” The white specks seen in and above the coil are innovators that preceded civilization’s progress. Bae was gentle, friendly and outgoing. He was also a serious person and thought philosophically about his artwork. It was one of those evenings where conversation about art was effortless.

'History' by Bae Young, which Victor Leo recalls hanging on the artist's wall / Courtesy of Vic Leo
“History” by Bae Young, which Victor Leo recalls hanging on the artist’s wall / Courtesy of Vic Leo

Kim was an artist with a real sense of humor ― what a delight. In 1969, he was doing very insightful contemporary artwork. Back then I imagined him a famous artist and a celebrity in Seoul. In our brief time together, I soon realized that behind his humor and relaxed style was a very intense person when it came to talking about contemporary art in general and his work in particular. His painting of the Korean mountains and its many moons grabbed me instantly.

'History' by Bae Young, which Victor Leo recalls hanging on the artist's wall / Courtesy of Vic Leo
An untitled photo showing Korean mountains and moons by Kim Foon / Courtesy of Vic Leo

His print depicting a rider and his horse was both humorous and frightening.

'History' by Bae Young, which Victor Leo recalls hanging on the artist's wall / Courtesy of Vic Leo
An untitled painting of a horse and rider by Kim Foon / Courtesy of Vic Leo

Bae and Kim introduced me to the artwork of Youn Myeung-ro. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him. Nevertheless, he always seemed to be present with us when Bae and Kim spoke about the landscape of contemporary art in South Korea. I was fortunate to find one of Youn’s prints called “Experience,” and recognized that underneath his design was poetry, emotion, sensitivity and rejection of the status quo. Youn was certainly an innovator in the 1960s, and continued to be so from then on. Before the end of my tour in Yongsan I was able to buy some works from such inspiring artists and take them back with me (see attached photos) Ever since, they have been on the walls of my home in the U.S.

'History' by Bae Young, which Victor Leo recalls hanging on the artist's wall / Courtesy of Vic Leo
“Experience” by Youn Myeung-ro / Courtesy of Vic Leo

I’m far from an art historian, but I’m confident that Bae, Kim and Youn played an important role in South Korea’s contemporary art movement. Back in 1969 I liked these artists, their work, energy and inspirational qualities. Today, in 2020, my assessment holds firm.

There is one final flashback/reflection although it may be a stretch. In my recollection, extraordinary innovations occurred throughout South Korea in the 1960s. It’s possible that a large number of innovators, including those from the contemporary art scene ― like Bae Young, Kim Foon and Youn Myeung-ro ― helped create the foundation for the country’s spectacular development over the next 50 years. Thankfully, I was there and felt it in my bones.


Victor Leo (E-5) was stationed at Yongsan Garrison in 1969. He returned to Ford Motor Company in 1970, retired in 2000 and began his second career as a glass artist. Visit 
dickersonartgallery.com to view some of his artwork.

This article was published on the Yongsan Legacy column of The Korea Times   https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/12/113_300965.html