Claude Viallat, 2022/OB018 - Tribute to LEE UFAN, 2022 © Claude Viallat, courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière


Lee Ufan and Claude Viallat: An Encounter

By Alfred Pacquement

Published Friday, May 12, 2023

Lee Ufan and Claude Viallat were both born in 1936, a few weeks apart, very far away from each other, and in very different cultures. Their background, their history, and the starting points of their respective works are quite distinct. After receiving a classical education in his native Korea, which included poetry, calligraphy, and painting, Lee moved to Japan somewhat by chance at the age of 20 when he brought medicinal herbs to an uncle. This was when Korea, long under Japanese domination and then divided into two distinct enemy countries, experienced a devastating war and a series of authoritarian regimes. Lee then settled permanently in Japan and studied philosophy and art there. He began his mature work at the end of the 1960s, at the time of his first exhibitions. First, we see his sculptures combining different natural and industrial materials, followed a few years later by a series of abstract paintings based on repetitive brushstrokes. Subsequently, the two genres came to coexist in his work.

Claude Viallat was born in Nîmes in the south of France, where he still lives today. He will always be strongly associated with his native region, the local cultures, and especially the bullfighting traditions. He studied art in Montpellier and then in Paris, interrupting his studies to complete his military service in France and then in Algeria. Quite early on, he began to teach in art schools. His first exhibitions took place in the second half of the 1960s in cultural venues as well as outdoor locations. Canvases without frames, choosing a unique shape, but also mesh, knotted ropes, and driftwood were incorporated into his vocabulary from the outset.

Within one or two years, the two artists found their paths at the same time, Viallat through an uninterrupted pictorial quest based on repeatedly using a shape, which has since maintained its relevance in his work, as well as his decision to use fabrics of all kinds as a support. These were often second-hand, sometimes oversized. He rejected the use of a frame, opening the door for all sorts of unconventional hanging devices. His works frequently featured objects made of found materials that were often fragile and pieced together. Lee’s sculptures were conceived as an encounter between materials, like natural stones accompanied by glass or metal plates, but also highlighted the opposition between heavy stones and lighter materials, such as cotton, canvases, paper, etc. Concurrently, he pursued painting influenced by his discovery of the black-and-white canvases of Barnett Newman during his first trip to New York in 1971. His subsequent series consisted of brushstrokes filling the surface, then wide paint streaks, which gradually gave way to large sections of white canvas.

Lee Ufan_Correspondance_1992_Representative Image

Lee Ufan, Correspondence, 1992, oil and natural pigments on canvas, 218 x 291 cm ©Lee Ufan /ArtistsRights Society(ARS), New York

The two artists met at the Biennale de Paris in the fall of 1971, where their works cohabited for the first time. Viallat took part in the exhibition as part of the Supports/Surfaces movement with a huge canvas. Meanwhile, the nascent group was already beginning to disintegrate, with some artists opting for a political statement rather than exhibiting their pictorial studies.[1] Lee was traveling to Europe for the first time for this event. He was invited to participate in this exhibition as part of the Korean selection with several works representing his sculptural approach. Several Japanese artists then associated with the Mono-ha movement also participated in this exhibition.[2] Even though Lee had no discussions with Viallat on this occasion, he could not have missed the free canvas that Viallat had hung in the exhibition space. He would later say how impressed he was. Viallat, in turn, had observed the works of the Mono-ha artists with great interest during the previous Biennial in 1969, where he also participated. [3] Thus, the formal and intellectual relationship between the two artists, as well as between the two groups with which they were associated, were in the air at the time, and their meeting was a natural outcome.

Supports/Surfaces is the name of a group of artists founded in 1970, whose duration as a group was as short-lived as its impact on the art scene in France was decisive. Its contribution to a reconsideration of painting and its components, the freedom that the artists demanded to dispose of the support/canvas which could, for example, be detached from its frame and float in space, as well as the desire to reconnect with abstract practices following a decade dominated by the object and the image, fomented the emergence of a new generation of painters. They would profoundly impact the 1970s and beyond with this ambition to demystify the object-painting. The short history of Supports/Surfaces was, however, shaken by various upheavals and conflicts among the artists participating in the group’s exhibitions. The political situation was in a period of extremes, coming shortly after the events of 1968, when student demonstrations expanded to the whole working class and then to a general strike threatening to topple the government. Many artists had been involved in these events, occupying the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and creating many famous posters with overt slogans. The militancy exhibited by some, but also the divergent aesthetics, contributed to dividing the group.

Although the Supports/Surfaces name appeared in 1970, the activities and works of the those involved began a few years earlier. Even before the group was founded, exhibitions had cited the collaborative contributions of artists, living for the most part in the south of France, in questioning the classical attributes of painting. Initiated by the artists themselves and often mounted in unusual places like beaches or on the streets of towns or villages, these events sought—to borrow from one of their titles— “to question painting.” Viallat produced his first paintings on free canvas in 1966, with his study of form being reduced to the repetition of the motif that would become his trademark and to the vagaries of recovered supports, allowing for a continual renewal of his work while emphasizing color.

An extract from Alfred Pacquement’s introductory essay in the forthcoming fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, to be published later this year.

  1. Though they had been invited to the exhibition, the Supports/Surfaces group was only represented by the wall inscription “Supports/Surfaces: Peinture Cahiers théoriques” followed by the names A-P. Arnal, V. Bioulès, L. Cane, M. Devade, D. Dezeuze, J-P. Pincemin. Only Claude Viallat and Noël Dolla exhibited works.
  2. Included in the exhibition were Enokura Koji, Koshimizu Susumu, and Yoshida Katsuro.
  3. Narita Katsuhiko, Sekine Nobuo, Takamatsu Jiro, and Tanaka Shintaro were grouped together by the critic Tono Yoshiaki under the name 4 Bossots.
  • Essays — Lee Ufan and Claude Viallat: An Encounter By Alfred Pacquement, May 12, 2023