As one of the world’s most recognised Korean artists and minimalists, Lee Ufan has enchanted the global audience with his poetic, philosophical and minimalistic artistic language. From his participation at the São Paulo Biennale in 1969, to his major retrospective exhibition, “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity”, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2011, the artist has created an impressive exhibition history that seeps through geographical and national boundaries. In 2014, Lee is further honoured with an invitation to hold a solo exhibition at Château de Versailles. This feat not only allows the artist to bring his unique artistic vision onto a new stage at the former French royal residence, but also proves his intricate relevance to the contemporary art world today. Sotheby’s is pleased to offer the exceptional From Line (Lot 138) from 1978, an important work from the seminal From Line series. Produced from 1973 to 1984, the decade-long series documented Lee Ufan’s first experimentation on the ephemerality of mineral pigment, laying the foundation for his unique minimal abstraction for the next four decades to come. Paintings from the From Line series are represented in the collection across world class museums, such as From Line (1978) from the collection of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London, making the present work to be of tremendous art historical value and heavily sought-after.
Born in 1936 in South Korea, and working primarily between Kamakura, Japan and Paris, the artist is equipped with fine art training and modern philosophy both in Korea and Japan. Having graduated from the Department of Philosophy at the Nihon University in 1961, Lee passionately pursued his early career as a critic and sculptural artist, ultimately establishing the Mono-Ha sculptural movement in the late 1960s. Literally translated as “a school of things”, the movement advocated the idea of the intrinsic beauty of material, and the meticulous rearrangement that amplifies such beauty without altering the material’s original characteristics. Through this principle, the artist was to debut one of his first canvas works, the iconic Landscape I, II, III, in the summer of 1968 at the “Contemporary Korean Painting” exhibition held at Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art, the largest Korean contemporary art exhibition ever held outside of Korea at the time. The work was to be a prelude to the fundamental creation of the two remarkable series: From Line and From Point in 1973.
It is clear that Lee has demonstrated impressive consistency and persistence from his early sculptural creations to his later two dimensional works. The From Line and From Point series are performed with blue or orange-red mineral pigments on a stage of yellow or white backgrounds. The pigments are used to deliver Lee’s aesthetic ideals, but simultaneously reveal the personality of the medium. Although at first glance appearing uniformly, each stroke is subtly different from one another as the pressure applied varies. Furthermore, each painting in the two series has a slightly different colour as the amount of glue added differs each time. Deliberately remaining painterly objective instead of overtly expressive, the mineral pigments used from the two series are as much a focus of each work as Lee’s concept and direction.
The current work on offer, From Line, produced a decade after the artist’s important debut on canvas works, represents a subtle maturation stage in the artist’s thoughts and technique. The work emphasises the vertical movement of blue pigment; from the buoyant flow on the top edge of the canvas to the eventual fadeout on the bottom. The viewer can feel the artist’s construction of the picture, re-visualising when the brush was pressed against the canvas, along with where the balance and control of the pressure was applied. The element of time is also an important theme for From Line. Each brush stroke is, in essence, recording a moment of time, which becomes traceable from reenacting the application of the pigment. A sequence of straight, repeating lines of blue pigment cuts the canvas into different time zones. From afar, the simple lines together resemble the movement of a waterfall. Each line recreates the flow of water from top to bottom that eventually disappears into the pool of the canvas background.
While works on canvas are traditionally regarded as a Western art practice, the selection of combining pigment and canvas has successfully allowed Lee Ufan’s concept to be understood universally by audience from both the West and the East. In Lee’s paintings, the canvas, a Western vehicle, wondrously encounters and combines with mineral pigment, a far Eastern traditional medium, through application with a flat and broad animal hair brush. Each line is the result of impressive concentration and discipline. Every stroke is irreversible and unique. One after another and one next to another, the passage of time is constructed with no overlaps. As the artist ultimately explains, “because each mark and brushstroke, which creates its own space-time, has a strong presence, I cannot be permitted to paint over, to touch it up. Each moment of time occurs only once, but because everything is a continuation of single moments, it is necessary for them to repeat and resonate with each other.”1 Considering this, as exemplified in From Line, the From Line series is certainly the exemplary of the hybridised philosophy practiced by Lee Ufan that garnered him the title of one of the most recognised visual artists of our time.
1 Lee Ufan, The Art of Encounter, ed. Jean Fisher, London, 2004, p. 202
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