Korean-born painter and sculptor, Lee Ufan, now in his early seventies, spends much of his time living in either Japan or France. Known for his sparse, large-scale brush marks on empty canvas and his sculpture in which boulders are placed on glass or weathering steel, Lee—like his fellow countryman, the late Nam June Paik—has indeed spent most of his career outside of his native Korea. In 1956, at age twenty, Lee left Seoul to study philosophy at Nihon University in Tokyo. Upon graduation, he became active as a writer both on politics and art, while experimenting in theatre, music, and painting. A turning point happened in 1968 when he met the painter Sekine Nobuo along with other important Japanese artists, including Jiro Takamitsu and Suga Kishio. Eventually they founded the “Mono-ha”—an experimental group inspired by the Arte Povera movement in Italy. By the early ’70s, Lee became active as a sculptor juxtaposing boulders with steel and wood, among other industrial materials. He continued to write theoretical essays during this period and in 1973 was appointed as a professor at Tama University (a rare opportunity for a Korean artist) where he began painting seriously once again, using glue and ground mineral pigments on canvas. By the early ’80s he was well into his seminal “Wind” paintings, this time using oil and stone pigments on canvas—a medium he has used regularly up to the present day.
Lee Ufan’s Zen-like brushworks and boulders are held in high esteem by critics, art historians, curators, and collectors worldwide. He has received many prestigious awards and is frequently shown and collected by major museums. Even so, he has never had a major show in the United States until a large, two-gallery exhibition opened last month at Pace Wildenstein. While the 57th Street space included mostly early paintings and watercolors from the ’70s and ’80s, the West Chelsea location presented many of the recent brushstroke paintings, entitled “Dialogues,” and a selection of his important sculptural works, generally titled “Relatum.” The corresponding effect between these two groups of works may be puzzling for some and exhilarating for others. Those who follow the paintings of Robert Ryman may find a kinship in Lee Ufan—the difference being the pragmatism of the former in contrast to the pure intuition of the latter.
The rock and steel sculptures, for example, are precisely placed in a way that echoes Mondrian’s orthogonal in the neo-plastic paintings of the 1920s. Lee’s placement of a weighty plane of steel against a wall with a formidable stone in front, as in “Relatum – Silence” (1979), feels spatially in balance—every bit as balanced as one of Mondrian’s intersecting lines. On the other hand, his three-paneled painting “Dialogue” (2007) evokes an equal sense of silence, with its three large brushstrokes—one occupying each white panel—utterly defining the parameters of the space. The important formal issue of Lee’s work, whether it exists in two or three dimensions, is the visual weight. In this sense, the placement of the stones in three-dimensional space is fully equivalent to the “weight” of the brushstrokes in terms of how and where they appear on the three separate paintings of “Dialogue.”
What makes Lee Ufan’s work exhilarating is the structure—not in the pragmatic sense, but in the virtual/tactile sense; that is, the manner in which the “weight” comes down to the gravity of seeing: we see and touch the work in phenomenological terms, less in actuality than in concept, approaching the kind of phenomenology that Heidegger and, especially, Merleau-Ponty wanted to make clear. The transensory experience—the arbitration of touch through the retina—is nothing less than the human desire to know the place and the time of one’s existence. Rather than transforming the appearance of objects and signs, Lee Ufan’s work appeals to the active presence of the viewer. This active presence makes these objects and signs appear real to us, not simply as extensions of who we are, but of who we are in relation to what we are seeing. This is the major contribution of Lee Ufan’s art—the signification of the point in which the act of seeing admits the marvelous void that we, too, occupy.