Lee Ufan's From Line, 790294 from 1979 is a masterful presentation of the elegant, performative qualities of painting for which Lee is renowned. The powerful simplicity of From Line, 790294 plays on presence and absence, tension and sensation, and how these binaries can be revised in order to gain a fuller understanding of pictorial possibilities. In this way, From Line, 790294 is in dialogue with Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings and the sensibilities of John Cage, whose insistence on the decentralization of the art experience is pervasive in a myriad of art forms of the latter half of the twentieth century. The focus in Lee's painting is not just the importance of the artist's mark but also the space between the marks as it relates to the cadence of their undulating rise and fall during their creation. Both visually and philosophically, From Line, 790294 bridges the creative landscapes of East and West in the second half of the 20th century.
Lee Ufan is an important figure and key theorist of the Mono-ha, or "Object School" movement that emerged in Japan in the late 1960s and continued through the mid-1970s. In 1956, Lee had moved from his native Korea to Japan, where he studied philosophy with a particular interest in writers that spoke to both Eastern and Western ideas along with the recent developments of French phenomenology. For Lee, Mono-ha is an anti-formalist approach to art focused on choices about materials and the artist's relation to the environment, rather than to the Modernist notion of the primacy of the artist's identity. ("On Reflection: Interview with Lee Ufan," Freize Magazine 140, June-August, 2011). Mono-ha works used manufactured materials like steel and glass in conjunction with materials sourced from nature like sand and rocks. In 1971, the Paris Biennale introduced Mono-ha to Europe and Lee made his first trip to the city where he would eventually work, dividing his time between Paris and Japan in the future. At the Paris Biennale, Lee experienced his first direct contact with current Wester art including important developments in Conceptual art presented along with films by artists such as Vito Acconci, Janis Kounellis, and Bruce Nauman, among others.
From Line, 790294 is a classic example of Lee's important From Line works and the related From Point works first exhibited in 1973, and these canvases developed the seminal imagery that consumed the artist for the next ten years. In Lee's paintings, the legacy of calligraphic mark-making in Eastern art is stripped to its simplest incarnation, while retaining the maker's internalized qualities of its employment. In his 1975 essay titled "Using a Brush," Lee reflected on the communicative ability of brushwork beyond mark-making alone: "The scholars of East Asia have thought with the brush for centuries, using it both for writing and painting. The object before the eyes and the image in the mind are all constructed of points and lines, and expressed in rhythm with the rising and falling of the breath. Because of this, the viewer... can observe the dynamic relationship between the painting and the canvas, the condition of the painter's body, the movement of his heart, his character and the atmosphere of the age." (Jean Fischer, ed., Lee Ufan: the Art of Encounter, Cologne, 2008, p. 25).
Lee's aesthetic philosophy activated the viewer as a participant in the reading of his From Line and From Point painting, Lee shifted the emphasis from the individual identity and exclusive intent of the artist to the experience of the viewer (Joan Kee, "Points, Lines, Encounters; The World According to Lee Ufan," Oxford Art Journal vol. 31, no. 3, 2008, p. 406). The composition itself is non-figurative, so referents derived by the experience of the viewer are unique interpretations that are not encoded into the painting. From Line, 790294 exemplifies Lee's grand intent to present us with a work whose autonomy is unhampered by the mechanisms and symbols that control information and images.
The result of Lee's philosophical and artistic thinking is an inquiry into the fundamental tenants of experience. Even Lee's description of his artistic process is rich with sensory experience and ritual practice: "Cobalt blue powdered mineral pigment (or orange powdered mineral pigment) is dissolved in glue, or sometimes in oil, and left for a while until the color stabilizes. Before working, I calm my breathing, correct my posture, and hold my brush quietly." (Exh. Cat., New York, Pace Wildenstein, Lee Ufan, 2008, p. 7). Loading the brush with paint, Lee's measured downward strokes exploit the properties of the medium and reference the act of the painting's creation. By visually traveling the path of Lee's mark-making, the viewer also retraces the artist's process. Thereby, the act of looking also accentuates the temporal element of Lee's work that renders visible the moment of the brush-stroke's creation and the gradual evolution of its transformation through its expiration. Cy Twombly's mark-making comes to mind, as both artists seek to wed the act of making with the act of seeing in their most elemental and basic form. For Lee, the elegant fade of the paint into nothingness leads the artist to recommence his process, and Lee elaborates on the intricacy of this seemingly simple process. As he explains: "In a different way from athletes or Zen priests, I train my mind and body and discipline my behavior in order to obtain greater freedom and enter a more brilliant world. The orderly arrangement of the painted surface is only a superficial result. Following a certain rule may seem to be mechanical or automatic, but actually is not." (Ibid, p. 8).
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