Lee Ufan

New York

Installation view of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: Foreground: Relatum (formerly System A), 1969/2011. Steel and cotton, approximately 170 x 160 x 150 cm; dimensions vary with installation. Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. All photos: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.Installation view of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: Foreground: Relatum (formerly System A), 1969/2011. Steel and cotton, approximately 170 x 160 x 150 cm; dimensions vary with installation. Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. All photos: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

By Alexandra Shimo

Lee Ufan
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
June 24 September 28, 2011

Since the 1960s, Lee Ufan has been offering artistic, calming responses to the hectic, frenetic demands of modernity. Ufan has gained a reputation in Asia for work that questions the failure of rationalization and scientific progress. With Marking Infinity, a five-decade retrospective and his first in a North American museum, Lee celebrates the natural world with elegant sculptures and paintings that exemplify the tension between action and restraint.

Born in Haman-gun, a remote village of South Korea, in 1936, Ufan grew up surrounded by war, witnessing World War II, the first nuclear bomb and the division of his country into two states. Against this turmoil, the artist was schooled in a stable and intellectual environment; his father was a liberal newspaper journalist and his mother was a homemaker versed in Classical literature. Ufan continued in the humanist tradition, first tutored in East Asian calligraphy, poetry and painting, and then studying art at the Seoul National University, before leaving after only two months to study philosophy in Japan, graduating in 1961. Japan in the 1960s was a time of civil unrest, as students questioned U.S. cultural hegemony and the increasing commercialism. Rejecting the traditions of Western art, the artist came to prominence as one of the founders of the avant-garde Mono-ha (School of Things) movement. Like Italy’s Arte Povera movement, their aim was simply to bring ‘things’ together, as far as possible in an unaltered state, allowing the juxtaposed materials to speak for themselves.

Relatum (formerly Perception A), 1969/2011: Stone, cushion, and light. Cushion, approximately 8 x 45 x 40 cm; stone, approximately 35 cm high. Private collection.Relatum (formerly Perception A), 1969/2011: Stone, cushion, and light. Cushion, approximately 8 x 45 x 40 cm; stone, approximately 35 cm high. Private collection.Lee’s work often celebrates raw, simple materials – rough boulders or sheets of steel. Through their juxtaposition, Lee questions the meanings between interdependent things and the space surrounding them. In his Relatum (formerly Phenomenon and Perception B, 1979), a heavy beige boulder sits on a dark grey steel slab covered by a plane of shattered glass, cracks radiating from the point where the stone hit the transparent surface. The uneasy tension between the still and the shattered, the stone (natural) and the glass (man-made) suggest the implicit tension between man and nature, with the cracks reminiscent of the tortuous consequences. This theme continues in other sculptures in his Relatum series, such as a floor sculpture consisting of cotton wool bunched like clouds and twisted slithers of rusted wire. The soft whiteness attracts the audience, comforting and childlike, even as the spikes of metal suggest the uncomfortable harshness that lies beneath.

The artist’s drawings and paintings are lighter and more ephemeral. Canvases are filled with repetitive brushstrokes that drift towards infinity or textured lines that seem to hover above the canvas. Lee’s conceptual work is always thoughtful and, being trained as a philosopher, he is also known for his criticism and essays. His thoughts and writings, which appear throughout the show as quotes or as audio clips, encourage a fresh relationship between viewer and art, demanding a physical and durational encounter that would strip away modernity’s “worldliness and brain-centred thinking” (Lee). Lee’s work itself demands such a response, as his powerful, calming sculptures and paintings encourage the viewer ever closer to the sublime.

Alexandra ShimoA former editor at Maclean’s, Alexandra Shimo writes cultural criticism for a variety of publications, including Azure and The Globe and Mail. She is currently researching her second book based on her stay on an isolated First Nations reserve.