LEE UFAN: The Art of Present Realityby Robert C. Morgan
SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | JUNE 24 – SEPTEMBER 28
Lee Ufan is among the truly remarkable artists of our time, one who has gone deeply within his own tradition in order to become universal. Some may perceive this as going the opposite way of recent art—that art is supposed to reach outside of interior consciousness and to absorb the signs of branding that inundate our global environment. Known for his large-scale brush marks on empty canvas and his sculpture in which boulders are placed on glass or weathering steel, Lee’s works in recent years—titled “Dialogue” and “Relatum”—are sparsely maneuvered as if to recall certain aspects of early Minimalism. But Minimalism was never the source behind Lee Ufan’s work. Rather, his ideas emanate from Eastern and Western philosophy, ranging from Lao-Tse and Bodhidharma to Plato, Hegel, and Heidegger. The recently inaugurated exhibition, Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity transforms the atrium, ramps, and side galleries of the Guggenheim Museum with over 90 works, from the 1960s to the present. For many critical observers, particularly in East Asia and Europe, the question has been raised as to why the Americans took so long to recognize this artist—a question that was also raised three decades earlier when Joseph Beuys was shown at the Guggenheim in 1979. Could it be that museum curators in the United States are under the thumb of Boards of Trustees who follow trends more than connoisseurship? Or do American curators simply lack the insight of their European counterparts? Either way, the curatorial guidance in the current exhibition moves away from these negative patterns. Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity offers the vitality of a heightened aesthetic purpose founded more on significance than on symptomatic politics or fleeting trends.
To experience the immanent brushstrokes of Lee Ufan, or his boulders and steel plates, is to receive a much different point of view than what one finds in much current art. The signifiers of a spiritual world that emit from the work of Lee Ufan travel beyond commercial or politicized media, or the obvious images, routine jobs, and mundane news that we encounter in the everyday world. With digital signs and electronic currents flowing constantly around us, there is the assumption that the virtual world will become inevitable, and that there is nowhere else to go. What I have come to appreciate about Lee Ufan over the years, since our meeting in 2004, is the artist’s humility and warmth combined with a unique consciousness that allows a certain distance in relation to how we see worldly phenomena.
Some may associate this point of view with Zen, or with an intrinsic belief in nature, as in Taoism, the watercourse way. But it is also a way to think about art and to produce signs that enter our consciousness and alter our relationship with the everyday world. The way the water flows in a mountain stream, for example, is often associated with a Taoist point of view. This point of view exists in connection to everything that is real. The basic questions of Hegel and Husserl, among other Western philosophers, are further related to how we encounter what is real. I believe this is also a basic question Lee Ufan addresses in his art. It is a question that exceeds the past and future, and focuses precisely on the present tense. For Lee Ufan, the question of what is real is a hypothesis without words, a proposition without language. Thus, a boulder on a steel plate, seen in relation to another boulder set outside the steel plate, opens up a new possibility to think about meaning in terms of material, and to discover consciousness in terms of emptiness.
Lee Ufan, now in his early 70s, was born in Korea but has spent most of his career living in either in Japan or France. In 1956, at age 20, Lee left Seoul to study philosophy at Nihon University in Tokyo. There, upon graduation, he became active as a writer on both politics and art while experimenting in theatre, music, and painting. A turning point occurred in 1968, when he met the painter Sekine Nobuo along with other important Japanese artists, including Jiro Takamatsu and Suga Kishio. Eventually they founded “Mono-ha”—a group of experimental artists 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 Art 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.
Three of Lee Ufan’s were shown at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati during the 52nd Biennale di Venezia in 2007, in a rather modest, yet exquisite series of rooms, filled with ambient light, above a simple, intimate courtyard. His stones are not huge, but heavy, and his steel plates are usually flat-cut rectangles or occasionally curved or rolled slightly up in order to give the surface an undulating affect. His elegant spatial paintings, completed over the past seven or eight years, consist of one, two, or three marks made with large brushes. He is interested less in the gesture than in the indelible mark of the brush. To create this phenomenon, each mark is performed slowly, without breathing, over the duration of several minutes. The steel/stone sculptures and the single brush mark paintings are, at times, installed in relation to one another. The point of this placement is to transform the space and make it come alive. The material arrangement is as much about precision as intuition. It is nearly impossible to discern where one begins and the other ends. Most likely, they are the same: precision and intuition. The fact remains that these elements exist without equivocation as they illuminate space and manifest a sense of time. In doing so, Lee’s materials transform our perception of what is real, leading us into a passage or transition point between material and dematerialization. Such a transformation does not happen through complication, but through indelible complexity and a reduction to exact proportions.
The Guggenheim exhibition—Lee’s first in the U.S.—shows early paintings and watercolors from the ’70s and ’80s, as well as stone, steel, and paper installations. Many of the recent brushstroke paintings, entitled “Dialogues”, and a selection of his important sculptural works, generally titled “Relatum,” are also included. The corresponding effect between “Dialogues” and “Relatum” may be puzzling for some and exhilarating for others, though some may detect a kinship between the paintings of Robert Ryman and 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 the orthogonal in Mondrian’s 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 as spatially balanced as Mondrian’s intersecting vertical and horizontal lines. On the other hand, his three-paneled painting, “Dialogue”(2007)—nearly three decades later—evokes an equal sense of silence, with three large brushstrokes—one occupying each white panel—utterly defining the parameters of visual space. The important formal issue of Lee’s work, whether it exists in two or three dimensions, is its 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 in “Dialogue”’s three separate panels.
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, less in actuality than conceptually. While this may be difficult to discern in vernacular terms, it comes close to the kind of phenomenology that Heidegger and, especially, Merleau-Ponty wanted to clarify. The transensory experience—the arbitration of touch through the retina—is nothing less than the human desire to know the place and time of one’s existence. Rather than transforming the appearance of objects and signs, Lee Ufan 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— that by empowering the act of seeing, we admit “the marvelous void” that we, too, occupy. In fact, the concept of “the marvelous void” is often equated with the large scroll paintings of Sesshu, the 15th-century Japanese artist who traveled to and from China in order to learn about the void. At the time, Sesshu’s journey was considered kind of unusual. Very few scholars and artists traveled outside of Japan.
One might argue that Lee Ufan’s career has functioned in a way similar to that of Sesshu. Whereas Sesshu went to China in the Ming Dynasty, Lee went from Korea to Japan, and from Japan, he went to France in the era of Modernism. His continuing journey between cultures allows him to experience new ideas and to achieve, on global terms, the essence of an aesthetic, Sesshu’s “marvelous void,” which, ironically, is the pursuit of emptiness. But this also suggests a search for the essence of painting that has a remarkable similarity to the work of the American painter Ad Reinhardt. For Lee Ufan, the terms of much painting and sculpture today may be too loaded with a kind of fetishizing impulse—something both he and Reinhardt would want to avoid. Lee Ufan’s testimony to the enduring absence of a marvelous void in today’s world is the assertion of the kind of spirit desperately needed in a faltering market economy ignorant of the spiritual balance necessary for recovery and survival. In a world that has become virtually removed from its own historical reality, Lee brings the tactile.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.