Young-Il Ahn Korean-American, 1934-2020


Young-Il Ahn developed a distinctive oeuvre defined by meticulous, abstract paintings that explore his relationship with beauty, nature, and music. Ahn’s most famous body of work, the Water series, has been associated with Dansaekhwa, an aesthetic position specific to Korea characterized by the expression of natural processes through a monochromatic palette.


Ahn was born in 1934 in Gaesong, a city now located in North Korea, which was then considered part of colonial Japan. His first mentors were his father, who was a painter and art teacher, and his mother, a musician. Ahn’s early paintings tended towards expressionist figuration, but after relocating to Los Angeles in 1966, he became enamored with the famous Southern California light, especially the interplay of sunlight on surfaces. His first California paintings were semi-abstract, light-filled studies of beach umbrellas, sails, birds, and musicians.


Ahn’s new life in California included frequent long fishing trips in the waters between between Santa Monica and Catalina Island. On one such trip, Ahn had the harrowing experience of becoming lost in a dense fog. When the fog finally lifted, the sea around him was completely calm. The sunlight shimmered on the waves. He wrote about that moment in his autobiography, And still it flows towards me: A Life Lived with Art:


“My favorite colors from nature stretched to infinity. The sunlight crashed and reflected against the water every moment, dispersing splendid and sparkling colors in layers.”


The experience inspired Ahn to create his Water series, on which he worked for more than 30 years, until his death.


In addition to his Water series and his earlier paintings, Ahn created a semi-abstract body of work he referred to as his Self-Reflection series. Some of these paintings include fragments of Korean Hongul text; others take stock of the personal sadness and shock Ahn felt when his adoptive nation was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. 


Ahn’s first solo exhibition was in a gallery in Tokyo, when he was six years old. In 1949, while in middle school, he won the First Korean National Art Exhibition; the following year, he took the Special Prize in the National Art Exhibition, an even higher honor. Ahn first visited America in 1957, when his work was included in an invitational exhibition at the World House Gallery in New York. He earned his BFA from Seoul National University in 1958. In 1959, he had his first American solo show at Hull House Gallery in Chicago. He emigrated to the US in 1966.


In 2015, Ahn had his first solo museum exhibition, A Memoir of Water, at the Long Beach Museum of Art. In 2018, he became the first ever Korean American painter to receive a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Ahn's paintings are included in the collections of LACMA, the Long Beach Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, among others.

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