Harper’s is honored to present 20 Years After, the late Young-Il Ahn’s first solo exhibition in New York City. 20 Years After brings together six paintings from Ahn’s Memorial series, created in 2001 following the devastating events of 9/11. This presentation also inaugurates the gallery’s New York representation of the artist’s estate. Harper's Chelsea 534 is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 10am–6pm.
Born in 1934 in Gaeseong, in what is now North Korea, Ahn lived through tumultuous times, including Japanese colonial rule, civil war, Western influences, dictatorship, and rapid industrialization. Mentored by his parents—his father was a painter and his mother a musician—Ahn was both a visual artist and a musician whose practices gained recognition at an early age against all odds. In 1966, he immigrated to Los Angeles, where he lived for over 50 years, enamored by California's vast spaces and brilliant light, and the deep, glittering Pacific Ocean. According to Ahn’s writings, his new home in the United States filled him with a sense of relief and joy that had seemed all but lost in war-torn Korea.
Ahn is best known for his Water series, which first associated him with Korea’s Dansaekhwa movement. Much like his contemporaries, Lee Ufan or Park Seo-Bo, his works bridge the space between meditative restraint and gestural freedom. In the Memorial series, Ahn’s paintings utilize this ability to give form to the inner turmoil in response to the national tragedy of 9/11. Together, in 20 Years After, the series expresses an attempt to aesthetically process the life-altering event while paying homage to the destruction and lives lost in Ahn’s adopted homeland.
The underlying diagonal grids of the Memorial paintings are reminiscent of Ahn’s Self-Reflection series, some of which fragment characters from the Korean written language (Hangul) and renderings of traditional Korean masks (Tal), perhaps in reference to his own bicultural identity in flux. Yet in the Memorial paintings, Ahn’s meticulous mark-making techniques depart from the Self-Reflection series. The structure of the grids and representational forms appear and disintegrate within dynamic arrangements, veiled among layers of dripping black paints, carefully titrated to control viscosity. Black amorphous forms, splattered points, and dripping lines punctuate and consume the surfaces, deviating from Ahn’s geometry as if they are yielding to the organics of the medium. As nonrepresentational paintings, Ahn’s use of color, value, shape, and line are abstracted from any explicit pictorial references, opening up the Memorial series to a wide array of interpretations while maintaining an elegiac mood.
In 20 Years After, the first-ever singular presentation of the Memorial series, the healing process that followed 9/11 echoes Ahn’s path that led him to find solace as an immigrant in the United States. The painting titled Memorial to September 11 (E) is masked with thick black marks emoting a darkness that recalls the havoc wreaked upon a place that represented freedom and sanctuary for Ahn. In stark contradiction, the black marks dissipate in Memorial to September 11 (H), revealing a clear canvas and sparse, colorful notes behind wisps of smokey gray and inky lines that weep from horizontal bands. As a joint expression in the intimate gallery space, Ahn’s paintings affirm a deep compassion for the overwhelming destruction and grief that continued even as the dust settled after 9/11.
Amidst the ongoing hardships of a global pandemic, 20 Years After resonates with profound emotion, offering a contemplative space that encourages the viewer to travel inward and find hope in the boundless horizon of the future. Presented in New York for the first time, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Ahn’s Memorial paintings are a lightning rod—diverting shared traumas and diffusing them with empathy.
Young-Il Ahn (b. 1934, Gaeseong, Korea; d. 2020, Los Angeles, CA) received a BFA from Seoul National University in 1958. In 1966, he resettled in Los Angeles, CA, which remained his home for the following five decades until his death in 2020. Ahn’s work has been the subject of major surveys, including Young-Il Ahn: Reflection, Kavi Gupta, Chicago, IL (2021); Young-Il Ahn, Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA (2017); Unexpected Light: Works by Young-Il Ahn, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA (2017); Before Water, Gallery Sesom, Changwon, KR (2016); A Memoir of Water, Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA (2015). Ahn’s work is included in the public collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA; and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, Seoul, KR.