Lee Ufan cut a sober but gracious figure as he contemplated the installation of his new paintings and sculptures, on view last fall at New York gallery PaceWildenstein’s cavernous Chelsea space. Lee has attained near-legendary status in Asia and enjoys a high degree of recognition in Europe: over the past four decades he has held dozens of solo shows in Tokyo, Seoul, London and Paris and during the past 15 years his work has been included in major group exhibitions at the New York Guggenheim and Tate Modern in London. In spite of major retrospectives of his work at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, Germany, in 2001 and the Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan, in 2005, he has never been the focus of a solo exhibition in the United States. PaceWildenstein has sought to redress this imbalance with a two-part exhibition of Lee’s work: new paintings and sculptures at its Chelsea space and a concurrent mini-retrospective of his paintings on paper and canvas from the 1970s to the early 1990s at its East 57th Street space.
Lee was born in 1936 in the small town of Haman in Gyeongsang Namdo, a mountainous province in southeast Korea, where he grew up knowing his homeland as an annexed territory of Japan between 1910 and 1945. At the age of six he began taking lessons in calligraphy and painting, and he published poetry and fiction in journals when he was in high school. By his late teens, the Korean War of 1950–53 had devastated and divided his country, but while he acknowledges that it left some psychological scars, he says it did not affect the development of his work. Interested in classical Chinese painting, he went on to study oil painting at Seoul National University in 1956. A visit to a sick uncle in Yokohama and that uncle’s suggestion that he remain there led him to quit his studies in Korea and move to Japan. At Nihon University in Tokyo, he became interested in the history of thought outside of Asia and his studies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty immersed him in theories of phenomenology.
Although Lee speaks fluent Japanese today, the difficulty of mastering the language during his university years, when he read literary giants such as Tanizaki and Mishima, forced him to relinquish his literary ambitions and turn to art criticism. His career as an artist began concurrently: following his graduation in 1961, he attended a private school to study traditional Japanese painting (nihonga), a style of art from which he could earn a living. However, his unshakeable interest in the world beyond Japan and Asia soon led him to experiment with abstraction: works from this period included canvases marked with oil paint applied directly from the tube—an attempt to render visible the gradual absorption of the paint into the fabric.
In May 1968, Lee was inspired to take a new turn in his work when he saw the exhibition “Tricks and Vision – Stolen Eyes,” held at Tokyo Gallery and Muramatsu Gallery. Organized by emerging critics Junzo Ishiko and Yusuke Nakahara, its display of 19 artists who used “tricky” visual effects in their work (“tricky” being a Japanese adaptation of the English to refer to trompe l’oeil optical illusions) encouraged Lee to consider how art could question the uncertainty of one’s perception of reality. A notable work of Lee’s from this period was Fourth Composition A (1969), a large, flat oval board painted in fluorescent red to look like a three-dimensional Möbius strip.
However, at the end of the 1960s, Lee’s questioning of visual perception gradually began to encompass a broader concern with the interrelationships of space and matter. This turning point was brought about in November 1968, when he saw Nobuo Sekine’s Phase — Mother Earth in Kobe’s Suma Rikyu Park. There, Sekine and a number of artist friends including sculptor Susumu Koshimizu had dug a cylindrical hole roughly three meters deep and two meters across and compacted the 20 tons of excavated earth into a monolith of exactly the same dimensions next to it. Inspired by topology—a branch of mathematics that studies the structure of space—the simple displacement of soil in Phase – Mother Earth was meant to demonstrate the world “as it is,” that the material universe is finite and no humans can add or subtract from it.
Phase – Mother Earth proved to be the starting point for intellectual discussion among Lee, Sekine and several other students at Tama Art University outside Tokyo. Lee was the key theoretician in the group, which included Koshimizu, Kishio Suga and Katsuro Yoshida. By juxtaposing manmade objects such as iron plates, glass, mirrors and rope with natural materials such as rocks, earth, cotton and water, Lee and these artists sought to reduce artistic invention and personal expression to a minimum, leaving the work as an indication of the interrelationships between materials, space and the viewer.
Their efforts landed them with the name Mono-ha, literally “School of Things,” a dismissive, mocking term coined by critics who saw their work as consisting of mere “things” that had been carelessly thrown together. In fact, the Mono-ha artists were less concerned with things than with matter, and they rejected Western modernism and the privileging of the artist as creator—such had been the characteristics of much Japanese contemporary art during the mid-1960s, notably the abstract expressionist paintings and happenings of the Gutai group.
Lee and his peers were not operating as a coordinated movement, however. Their Mono-ha works were often perceived by exhibition organizers to be about destruction rather than creation, which led to their exclusion from mainstream group shows. Like other Mono-ha artists, Lee worked alone, holding solo shows at commercial galleries while elaborating his ideas and theories about Mono-ha through symposiums and essays. In the early 1970s he summed up Mono-ha’s phenomenological outlook: “The highest level of expression is not to create something from nothing, but rather to nudge something which already exists so that the world shows up more vividly.” In no work did he demonstrate this more clearly than Phenomenon and Perception B (1968), a rectangular sheet of glass over 2.5 square meters that had cracked under the weight of the large stone block placed on top of it.
In 1986, Lee wrote of this work:
If a heavy stone happens to hit glass, the glass breaks. That happens as a matter of course. But if an artist’s ability to act as a mediator is weak, there will be more to see than a trivial physical accident. Then again, if the breakage conforms too closely to the intention of the artist, the result will be dull. It will also be devoid of interest if the mediation of the artist is haphazard. Something has to come out of the relationship of tension represented by the artist, the glass, the stone. It is only when a fissure results from the cross-permeation of the three elements in this triangular relationship that, for the first time, the glass becomes an object of art.
This triangular relationship became crucial to Lee’s thinking and to ensure that the titles of his work suggested it more clearly, in 1972 he systematically renamed his Phenomenon and Perception works as Relatum (Japanese: kankeiko). The former title, Lee explained in a 1997 interview, was borrowed from Merleau-Ponty’s writings, but he later felt that it had no particular significance. The shift to the broader, mathematics-derived term “relatum” was intended to draw the focus of attention away from the relationship between things themselves and to emphasize the space around those things.
In fact, the context in which Lee envisages his work is not limited to its immediate surroundings but encompasses the whole character of the city. His sculptures are as much about the invisible as the visible, and the environment in which they are exhibited is of vital importance. Gesturing towards the ex-warehouses across the street from PaceWildenstein’s Chelsea space, Lee remarked, “New York, of course, has Central Park and other signs of nature, but ultimately it is a very mechanical and artificial place.” He continued, “This is very important. A place that is too close to nature would be very difficult for me to work with as the stones in my work would quickly blend in with everything else.”
Standing in front of Relatum – expansion place (2008), two long, curved iron plates stood on their sides facing each other, flanked by a round black stone at one end and a white stone at the other, Lee explained that the work is inspired by the power of the stones in relation to the multiple natural and man-made elements that surround them. “Compared to Japan, the air here is very dry. In the humidity of Japan, the works look smaller, but here they expand and appear larger. The stones exert a pressure that creates an inflated look. It’s an illusion. When you look at the ocean horizon from a mountaintop, it looks round. And if you look at it from sea level, it looks straight. Both visions are real.”
Lee began to drift away from Mono-ha in 1972 as he returned to his experimentations with abstract painting with a dedication that had not been possible while making three-dimensional work. PaceWildenstein’s mini-retrospective at its East 57th Street space charted Lee’s progress through three major series of paintings that he produced during the 1970s and 1980s, each of which was characterized by significant shifts in composition and brushwork.
In the “From Point” (1973) series, the picture field is filled with rows of square dots of dark blue oil paint that decrease in physical thickness as they progress from left to right. By the early 1990s, in the “Dialogue” series, the number of points on the canvas had dropped from double to single figures, resulting in sparse, single applications of paint of varying sizes that float freely against the void of the background painted a pale cream-white. Similarly, for the “From Line” (1977) paintings, Lee loaded the brush with the same dark blue oil paint and dragged it from the top to the bottom of the canvases until the paint runs out and the lines fade to nothing. In some works the lines run down the entire height of the canvas; in others, they are clustered together in repeating sequences of short vertical strokes that progress horizontally—only from left to right—across the picture field.
When asked about the systematic compositions of these paintings, Lee explained: “This repetition evokes infinity. But after working on these paintings for about a decade, I gradually became so tense that I became ill. I am not a machine, and because I had been frantically working like a machine, my body started to reject being in front of the canvas. I would shake, and from the late 1970s it became more and more difficult to create straight lines: they began to waver until they gradually broke down in the 1980s. Literally, the system broke down.”
Lee’s systematic applications of paint devolved into expressions of chaos in the “From Winds” series during the 1980s. Although these paintings are characterized by erratic brushstrokes flying in all directions across the canvas, he continued to perceive the concept of infinity within this collapse of compositional order.
Jackson Pollock’s paintings do not immediately spring to mind when looking at Lee’s works, but when asked about the relationship between the artist’s body and the space in the work, Lee cites the mid-century American action painter. He observes that whereas Pollock’s work was the result of physical freedom in the act of painting, his own practice is governed by predetermined routines within a regulated space. Whereas Mono-ha had led Lee to consider the existence of objects and matter, his independent pursuit of painting made him acutely aware of the immediacy of the body’s role in the act of creation.
In fact, like Pollock, Lee paints with his canvases laid flat on the floor; the brushstrokes in the “Dialogue” series are the result of several applications of oil paint mixed with mineral pigment, meaning that even though they look simple, building up the thickness of the “single” brushstrokes can take Lee over a month.
When asked about the correspondence he is trying to initiate between horizontality and verticality in his paintings and sculptures, Lee says: “This is a very complicated issue. If you look at the paintings closely, you can see that they are not something I painted with the wall in mind. Although they are meant to be hung on a wall, they convey the relationship they have with the floor and with the space. But if you look at that iron plate leaning against the wall, it doesn’t matter whether it is flat on the floor or stands upright, because the work is simply about making one aware of the space.”
Lee’s conception of space is related to yohaku, the unpainted spaces in classical Chinese, Korean and Japanese painting. Often translated as “margin”—as it was in the title of Lee’s retrospective at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2005, Yohaku no Geijutsu (Art of Margins)—the characters in yohaku signify “remainder” and “white,” implying a void. In classical painting, these spaces are deliberately left empty and are treated as integral parts of the composition that balance the painted subject. In the same way that the invisible interrelationships between objects were crucial to understanding Lee’s Mono-ha work, the yohaku are essential to the character of his paintings. However, he does not limit himself to conventional considerations of what they represent. “In Asia, people define yohaku as unpainted space, but my conception of it is different. For example, when you strike a bell, we say it ‘rings,’ but actually it is not only the bell that rings. There is also the person who strikes the bell, the bell itself, and the space around it, the air. This overall vibration is what I call a yohaku. The wall and the air are reverberating with the space— they are the yohaku.”
As Lee explains, the aesthetic connection between Lee’s yohaku and classical Chinese and Japanese painting is clear, but the conceptual context differs. When asked whether American viewers who are unfamiliar with his work have tended to contextualize it in terms of Zen or esoteric Buddhism, Lee is pleased to say that few have: “Most have responded to the energy and vibrations in the work. People asked so many different, interesting questions, and nobody brought up Asia or referred to it as exotic or mysterious. I was happy to find that they saw it in a very straightforward manner.”
Not losing track of the inherent straightforwardness in Lee’s work, in spite of its underlying complexity, is essential to understanding it. His emergence may have been synonymous with Mono-ha, but Mono-ha’s concerns were underwritten by a cultural and ideological dialectic between East and West at a time when Japan had an uneasy political relationship with the US. As an individual, Lee’s intellectual and artistic curiosity transcends these divisions. His ongoing questioning of modernism and his exploration of painting not as a form of self-expression but as a means to relate to the world is rooted in Western philosophy as much as in Asian tradition, and he maintains studios in both Paris and Kamakura, a quiet seaside town of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines southwest of Tokyo. Rather than attempting to shape the world and its varied discourses through his painting and sculpture, he works towards establishing a connection with them. Lee’s works do not attempt to forge a conclusion, what matters is the ongoing dialogue.