It is virtually impossible to contemplate Asian Abstraction without mentioning the name of one of the leading Korean abstract artists, Lee Ufan. Most recognised as the artist behind many enchanting and meditative works featuring unmatched poetry, minimalism, and above all, the artist’s personal philosophy, Lee has been at the heart of Asian Abstraction since its nascence, associated with both the Mono-ha and Dansaekhwa artistic developments. With an exhibition repertoire that begins with participations in the São Paolo Biennale in both 1969 and 1973, to his retrospective “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2011, to a recent solo exhibition at the Palace of Versailles in 2014; and works collected by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Tate Gallery, it is self-evident that Lee has more than solidified his status amongst the leading figures of the contemporary art world, both nationally and internationally. On offer in the present sale are three pieces from the seventies and eighties, highlighting different movements from Lee Ufan’s artistic endeavours: From Line (1978), From Line (1977) and Untitled (1985).
The From Line series serve as Lee’s ruminations on matters that span from the concepts of materiality, the contentions between real and unreal, nature, and the passage of time. Set against faint backgrounds of yellow, which are employed to “convey a sense of the natural”,1 both From Line pieces feature lengths of cobalt pigments, each an intricate remnant of the singularity of time captured. The significance of these works is manifold. At the most elementary level, the lines that form each mesmerising stroke are skeletons of artistic practice: a combination and compilation of which form images in art. They are also as Lee rightfully identifies, a universal starting point for all art forms, from a Western oil painting to an Eastern ink piece. To allow his audience to truly appreciate the impact of each stroke, Lee fuses pigment with strong glue, so that both the beginnings and ends of each line can be truly felt, and the impact and weight that each inherently holds is encapsulated in its entirety. Upon close examination, Lee’s audience can see the loaded brush slowly give way, as a waning stroke begins to fade. On this, the artist had to remark that the cobalt hues were particularly powerful, and was to some extent “unreal, even unnatural enough to produce a strong impression against canvas supports selected for their ‘natural’ yellow appearance.”2 Perhaps only accustomed to seeing bold colours in the capacity of accentuation, we are presented with canvases that seek to destabilise their viewers, allowing the blues to come to the forefront of the work.
This depth, inherent to each of Lee’s pieces, is the result of a lifetime of meditation and abundance of study. In his boyhood, the artist undertook lessons in traditional calligraphy and Eastern painting, going on to publish journals on poetry and fiction in high school, and later studying oil painting at Seoul National University in 1956. However, after visiting an ailing uncle in Yokohama, Lee was compelled to quit his studies in Seoul and move to Japan, where he enrolled at the Nihon University in Tokyo to study philosophy. It was during this time that Lee was exposed to theories beyond Asia, particularly those of phenomenology, through such great thinkers as Nietzsche and Heidegger. Upon graduating from Nihon University, Lee further studied nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at a private institution in 1961. While this study left its mark on the young artist, his thirst for creating a unique style beyond just the boundaries of Asian aesthetics motivated Lee to experiment with abstraction.
By the end of the sixties, Lee began an official probe into the notion of space, materiality, and matter, which later led to Mono-ha (literally “the School of Things” in Japanese), a group to which the artist belonged, created along with likeminded intellectuals and fellow artists. Of particular concern to the group were the notions of matter and the rejection of Western modernism, as well as the denunciation of the glorified role of the artist as “creator”. Most of the Mono-ha artists worked on solo projects, and were not a “group movement” per se, its name only a title that was ascribed in retrospect to the loosely joined efforts of the various. By the early seventies however, Lee would summarise the collective’s chief concern with phenomenology, stating that “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.”3
Although the artist eventually left Mono-ha behind by the early seventies, his summary of the group’s simple yet succinct inquiries of art can be felt throughout his later works. At the same time as leaving the group, Lee began formal paintings of abstraction, first creating the From Point series (1973), canvases filled with square globules of paint that diminished in thickness and size as the rows on which they were drawn progressed. Concurrently, the artist embarked upon the From Lines series (1977), which were in some ways refinements of the From Point series in their conceptualisation: long vertical lines that diminished in pigment as they progressed, creating the illusion that they were fading on the canvases upon which they are painted. To the artist, “This repetition evokes infinity.”4
Encompassing an emphasis on the original beauty of materials, his respect for but deviation from Eastern aesthetics, and a commitment to capturing time and space, Lee’s oeuvre includes works such as the two From Lines works from the present sale. The slightly earlier work, From Line (Lot 1055), features the original prototype of the artist’s markings. The slow fading of paint highlights the importance of negative and positive space in Lee’s work, an equalisation of the painted and unpainted, where both entities share a non-hierarchical relationship, working in harmony to contribute to the overall aesthetic of the work. Similar in this respect to Lucio Fontana, who shared a comparable belief in the equality between positive and negative space, Lee differs in that he identifies blank canvas as the negative space, whereas Fontana viewed his famous slashes as such. For Lee, and many other Korean artists of his generation, it is the singular brushstroke that holds immense importance in painting, signalling the full life cycle of a single stroke, which also serves as a record of time itself.
The interplay between negative space and the potency and omnipresence of time would continue to progress into the From Winds series in the eighties, where loose gusts of paint sporadically filled vast canvases. When one turns to the later From Line piece (Lot 1053), it is not difficult to glimpse the beginnings of From Winds. Here, the strokes take on a bamboo-like quality, each single stalk growing vertically beside the other, each a unique record of time. The proximity of each stroke can be further viewed as the fleeting overlaps of experiences, each holding spatial and temporal importance but never fully parallel. This singular preoccupation with the passage of time would remain in Lee’s oeuvre throughout his artistic career, creating works that cover a variety of form and shapes.
If Lee’s time in Mono-ha insisted upon a rejection of the artist as benign “creator”, it did not limit the artist in his exploration of self. In 1975, Lee Ufan wrote, “The only way I can bring about events in which the world subtly resonates between my self and the canvas is to hold a brush in my hand. The hand becomes an eye that fuses and concentrates all five senses and sees things whole through the process of expression.”5 For the artist, the brush is an extension of his selfhood, and each stroke a distinct singularity; a temporal stamp bearing the imprint of an inimitable moment. The brush—an integral component of traditional ink works—becomes all the more important in Untitled (Lot 1054), a series of folding screens featuring flurries of bold ink markings. Perhaps an extension of his mind, the ink strokes are reminiscent of calligraphy and Asian ink paintings, and hark back to Lee’s boyhood training in classical Eastern aesthetics and poetry. The similarities between Untitled and traditional calligraphy—usually in traditional Chinese—come to mind, but perhaps even more significant are Untitled’s evocations of Korean identity itself. Established in 1446, the system of the Korean language (Hangul) was created by King Sejong during the Joseon Dynasty in the mid-fifteenth century, but was not recognised as an official language until the country’s independence from Japanese rule in 1945. The usage of Hangul in Korean calligraphy can thus be read in line with a post-colonial yearning for country rebuilding and holds immense cultural significance. With this in mind, Untitled’s parallels to calligraphy itself—not quite resembling any formal characters or a specific language, but perhaps an elicitation of them—are not unlike the motives of Dansaekhwa artists, who sought to investigate “Koreanness” through monochromatic renderings. Although the term “Dansaekhwa” was ascribed to the art form ex post facto, it was and remains a veritable artistic development in contemporary Korean artistic discourse. Considered part of Dansaekhwa, Lee Ufan’s work is on a simple level “Monochromatic”—from the From Line works to Untitled this is self-evident—but most importantly with the ascribed title comes cultural characteristics that are a culmination of centuries of Korean tradition. Read along this vein, Untitled is thus an extensive and mature prototype of “abstraction” itself, a pure distillation of form evincing the essence of calligraphy.
There is no eluding the fact that Lee Ufan is among the giants of contemporary art—within Asia and beyond. With a mind as rich as his canvases, his art form is an amalgamation of poetry, philosophy, and painting, and emits an aura that is lasting—in spite of an artistic concern with the ephemerality of time itself. Combining a traditionally Western medium with Eastern aesthetics, Lee produced the simple yet mesmerising From Line works, and his conflations of East and West are also reincarnated in ink and paper, as can be seen by Untitled. The real triumph of Lee Ufan however, whose oeuvre has been at the heart of countless exhibitions and academic dialogue, is more than simply his artistic adroitness, but rather, is his unique ability to delineate time itself.
1 Interview with artist by Joan Kee, author of Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), quoted on p.149
2 Refer to 1
3 Ashley Rawling, "Illusions and Interrelationships: Lee Ufan" Asia Art Pacific, Issue 62, 2009
4 Refer to 3
5 Lee Ufan, The Art of Encounter, p.25 (London: Lisson Gallery, 2008)
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