Active in his native Korea, as well as in Japan and Europe, the painter, sculptor, and writer Lee Ufan has created a language—at once visual, conceptual, and theoretical—that has greatly expanded the possibilities of Post-Minimalist art. Lee’s art and writings contributed to the radical international rethinking that transformed contemporary art in the 1960s and 1970s, when terms such as “system,” “structure,” and “process” recast the traditional art object into a dynamic and metaphysical event. After studying painting in Seoul, he moved to Japan, Tokyo, where he earned a degree in philosophy with an emphasis on phenomenology and structuralism. Lee is the key theorist of Mono-ha, an anti-formalist, materials-based Japanese art movement that developed in Tokyo around a series of seminal writings Lee published between 1968 and 1971. Whether in painting or sculpture, Lee has deliberately limited and distilled his formal vocabulary. His gestures as a painter and actions as a sculptor are guided by the ethics of restraint—a concept embedded both in traditional East Asian scholar painting and the aesthetics of Western Minimalist abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s—producing a deceptively simple emptiness in painted and sculptural forms that suggests infinite space and time. Rather than striving to make a painting or sculpture, Lee is more interested in the physical process that results in a finished work. He often relies on opposite compositional approaches, such as repeating brush marks in a predetermined grid-like pattern to create a painting or dropping a boulder onto a pristine pane of glass to create a site-specific floor sculpture, marked by the accidental and random structure of shattered glass.
In his From Point painting series, Lee Ufan restricts his palette to a single color (here black, but more often orange or dark blue) on a white ground, loads his brush with pigment with each stroke, and repeats this action to form regular dabs of paint from left to right until the canvas is covered by neat rows of related marks. In other works from the series he makes subsequent strokes until there is no more pigment left on the brush, and then reloads his brush for another sequence. The gestural stroke Lee employs and its performative gesture betray the artist’s appreciation of American Abstract Expressionism and French Art Informel of the 1950s, while the geometric composition of the painting recalls the neutrality of standardized grids used in Western Minimalist painting, sculpture, and installations. Lee works with a ground mineral pigment mixed with animal-skin glue, the traditional medium of East Asian painting. Tutored in calligraphy as a child, Lee’s choice of repeated point strokes relates to his early training in Korea. The point—and the line, a point in motion—is a basic structure of classical East Asian ink calligraphy and painting, a mark at once fully abstract yet capable of conveying meaningful concepts (words and images) when united in a closed composition.