Lee Ufan

It is 9:45 on a winter morning in Kamakura, Japan, and a wet breeze is blowing in from the ocean. Lee Ufan closes the front door and beckons me to follow him to his studio on the second floor of a spacious new wooden house abutting a bamboo grove in a residential district in this coastal city 30 miles south of Tokyo. The structure is simple and sparsely furnished, in keeping with the artist’s minimalistic paintings and sculptures, which are displayed inside and out. Built by local craftsmen, it is a source of pride for the otherwise humble, soft-spoken 75-year-old Korean-born Conceptual artist.

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Lee’s exhibition in a private palazzo during the 2007 Venice Biennale, featuring paintings created with single brushstrokes and sculptures of stone, steel, and other materials, won him critical acclaim and a wider audience. Coinciding with this year’s Biennale he will be participating in a François Pinault Foundation group show in Venice at the Palazzo Grassi and the Palazzo Bembo. Currently he has a solo exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, in Salzburg, and beginning June 11, RH Gallery, in New York, will be displaying both collaborative and individual works by Lee and Young Sook Park. (Lee’s primary dealers are Pace, in New York; Kukje, in Seoul; Scai the Bathhouse, in Tokyo; and Lisson, in London.) On June 24 a retrospective of his work opens at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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Lee switches on some music in the studio. He likes Mozart, Bach, and Debussy. Contemporary music, he says, disturbs his concentration. On one wall are rows of philosophy books; on another, paintings on racks. Rooms to the left and right are used for storage and displaying paintings for visitors. Although small, the space is luxurious by Japanese standards. It is also extremely peaceful, with a direct view of the bamboo grove through two large glass doors.

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Lee works quickly and quietly, laying a prepared canvas on the floor, then getting brushes, powdered pigment, and bottles of oil-based binder from shelves below the bookcases. Twenty minutes pass as he mixes the paint, blending white and black to get the grainy blue gray that is his hallmark hue. He selects a brush from a hanging rack and begins to load it with paint.

He makes a single, slow, deliberate downward stroke on the canvas and goes over it again and again until all the paint is transferred from the brush. He refills it and begins the process again, this time pushing down heavily at the beginning of the stroke to create a lip or ledge of excess paint, some of which he gradually smooths out.

On average it takes Lee about a month to finish a painting, on canvases that typically measure about 60 by 90 inches, although they can vary in size from a few inches to 10 feet per side. He works on a canvas for a couple of hours, then leaves it to dry for a week, doing this three or four times until he has built up a thick layer of paint. He tells me he does not know how many layers it takes to complete a pattern, each of which is slightly different. Although the strokes resemble one another, the execution varies depending on the humidity and temperature and the composition of the pigments in the final application. Lee completes no more than 25 works a year.

His goal is simple: to create powerful graphic images that arouse or evoke instant feelings of serenity. Indeed, his repetitive pictures are surprisingly engaging, even mesmerizing. The attraction lies partly in the vibration of the patterns — which are dense, gritty, and almost sculptural — and partly in the ambiguous relationship between inside and outside, figure and ground. Because his paintings operate as much on a visual level as on one of ideas, Lee is not strictly a Conceptual artist.

Lee has been painting the same thing — brushstrokes — since the 1960s, when his compositions consisted of repetitive arrangements of smaller multiple swipes. About 15 years ago, these were pared down to one, two, or three larger marks, to create a more concentrated and formal impression and also to deemphasize repetition while stressing the relationship between the painted and unpainted parts of the canvas. Extra-wide custom-made brushes enable him to produce the specific breadth he wants. "Color is not so important here," he tells me, putting down the first stroke. "The most important things are placement and texture."

Lee paints for about two hours a day, then breaks for lunch. During the afternoon he reads, makes telephone calls, or, a few times a week, goes to Tokyo to view art shows. "I don’t do so much writing anymore," he says. "I have many ideas. I just don’t find the time." Over the years he has authored 17 books of poetry, art history, and criticism on topics as diverse as Conceptual art, sculpture, and German philosophy.

In a way it was philosophy that brought Lee to Kamakura more than 50 years ago, in 1959. That summer one of his philosophy professors, Yoshio Sezai, invited the artist to mind his house in the city, at the time a haven for Japanese artists, writers, and thinkers. The authors Kitaro Nishida and Yasunari Kawabata lived there, and Lee met and conversed with them. He fell in love with the place and later, when he landed a job as a professor of art at Tama Art University, in Tokyo, decided to return there to live.

Lee began to study painting at Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts. At 20 he moved to Tokyo and enrolled in the philosophy and art departments at Nihon University. He spent his early working years juggling careers as an art critic, philosopher, and artist. He came to prominence in the last role in the 1960s, as the leader of the Mono-ha earth-art movement. Mono-ha artists, like their peers in the U.S. and Europe, were interested in blending nature with art and vice versa.

His sculptures from this period are composed of steel plates, glass stones, lightbulbs, rubber, cotton, paper, and wood and tend formally to resemble Arte Povera or post-Minimalist works. His intention, Lee says, was not to dominate or reshape his materials, as other, more traditional sculptors do, but to reveal their intrinsic qualities through juxtapositions or what he calls "re-presentations." Rarely exhibited examples of these pieces will be in the Guggenheim retrospective, which will comprise 90 works from the 1960s to the present, installed throughout the building. "Lee’s sculptures are part of the radical disappearance of the art object in the late ’60s and ’70s, when art shifted from being an entity unto itself to becoming a fluid and dynamic event occurring in real time and space," says Alexandra Munroe, Samsung senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim. "Lee took himself out of the equation of the creative act, allowing the relationships among viewer, materials, and site to stand in for the experience of art."

Lee continued to paint throughout the 1960s and ’70s, making monochromatic formalist paintings out of repetitive arrangements of multiple brushstrokes. These works are intimately connected to his sculptures, emphasizing process and materials and the overall experience of art emerging from a set of relations in a given environment. Here too the artist does not try to dominate or cover over all the canvas but rather creates conversations among figure, ground, and wall. "Canvases are industrially produced, a neutral field of expression linked to the walls and surrounding environment," Lee explains. "In other words, they stand in the intermediary position between the interior and the exterior, and the simplest touches on the canvas radiate. Therefore, it is not only the simple touches on the canvas but also the resonant vibration that is emitted from the canvas onto the wall and into the environment that make it a painting."

More prosaically, Lee has described his work as "the art of encounter," a phrase he also used as the title of his 2004 anthology of English-language essays. To me this seems a more direct description and an entirely accurate one, for although his artworks have little immediate content, they are not devoid of subject matter. Relations of time and space — these are the real themes explored in the artist’s large and inventive body of work, even if they are sometimes hard to see.

"Lee Ufan" originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2011 Table of Contents.