Lee Ufan breaking the glass for Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception B), 1968/2011, during installation of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June – September 2011.
On view at the Guggenheim, the Korean-born Japanese artist-philosopher Lee Ufan’s work asserts a quiet beauty, a perfection of formal arrangement, and a deep belief in contemporary art’s power to make meaning — even spiritual meaning.
Lee breaks down artistic production to its most essential elements: a long, single mark on a canvas, a rock positioned on or near a sheet of rolled steel. In this new context, Lee’s work is utterly without inflection, cynicism, or irony (all of the things we’re accustomed to here in New York).
Lee’s first retrospective in North America, organized by Alexandra Munroe, consists of over 90 works, dating from the 1960s to the present. Munroe has consistently brought important artists in Asia to New York who are perhaps underrepresented in museums in the US (such as Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang). Munroe seemingly envisions the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda as a spiritual temple of learning, filled with mystical energy.
Both Lee and Munroe believe in the power of art to mean, or to create meaning. Especially in comparison to more humorous (Cory Arcangel at the Whitney), front-loaded conceptual (Charles Atlas at the New Museum), or technologically innovative (Talk to Me at MoMA) approaches, the Guggenheim stands in opposition to current trending in New York. It allows work to be beautiful and meaningful, in a beautiful and meaningful space.
Lee builds a unique artistic language closely related to East Asian artistic traditions such as Zen rock gardens and calligraphy — the latter in which the artist was trained as a child. However, he uses forms native to recent Western art history, such as Modernist-scaled stretched canvases, Serra-like steel, and unaltered materials found in nature, like Heizer, Smithson, and Goldsworthy.
His early works — particularly the sculptures in conjunction with the Mono-ha (“School of Things”) group, such as a rock sitting on the floor, its shadow traced directly on the floor with oil paint — were refreshingly idiosyncratic and charmingly obtuse.
As many works do not travel — or under their conceptual premises must be recreated on site — Lee’s physical presence is palpable. Notably, Lee had two very large scrims installed at specific places, separating the walkway from the rotunda; apparently, he felt the Guggenheim was too large to take on as a whole, and attempted to make certain areas more intimate. The high level of involvement and collaboration Lee had with Munroe and the museum underscores the performative nature of his works.
His paintings are not just paintings, but a remnant or marker of the act of painting; not just a stone on glass, but dropped there in order to break it, and left in place; not the ruminant artist working alone in his studio contemplating the essential qualities of “painting” or “sculpture,” but rather a more generous offering that engages directly with the viewer.
While Lee’s oeuvre is esoteric, heavily influenced by cultures quite separated from the US’ general cultural understanding, it was Lee’s physical presence at the museum and hands-on approach to installation that gave the retrospective life.
Published in ArtPulse magazine Issue No. 9, November 2011.