There’s a stranger at the Guggenheim. An artist we hardly know has occupied its great spiral. Although his paintings and sculptures have only rarely been shown in North America, Lee Ufan, a Korean who makes his home in Japan, is widely esteemed in Europe as well as Asia. Yet the Guggenheim’s big Lee exhibition, “Marking Infinity” (on view through September 28), seems to have been somewhat overlooked, provoking little discussion. That’s a shame, because Lee more than deserves from museumgoers and critics here the sort of attention and acclaim he has received abroad. With stones and steel as well as colors on canvas, he has conceived an art of rare transparency and lightness.
Lee might not be surprised that “Marking Infinity” has not been met with ready plaudits. He seems sanguine about being the odd man out. Whereas “Koreans see me as being Japanized,” he has said, “the Japanese see me as being fundamentally Korean, and when I go to Europe, people set me aside as an Oriental…. I am left standing outside the collective, seen on the one hand as a fugitive and on the other as an intruder…. The dynamics of distance have made me what I am.” Regarding Japan, he’s probably exaggerating his outsider status; he was a leading figure of Mono-ha, or “school of things,” a major movement in Japanese art of the late 1960s and ’70s, and the equivalent of Western tendencies like postminimalism, antiform and Arte Povera. Yet there’s an irony in Lee’s being touted as the figurehead of a quintessential Japanese movement: he is not only a foreigner but an émigré, and from a country that Japan once occupied and with which it officially normalized relations only in 1965, nine years after Lee emigrated at 20.
In the setting of the Guggenheim, a danger for Lee could be getting “set aside as an Oriental,” either marginalized as the embodiment of an immemorial Asian culture that commands respect but may seem of little relevance to modern life except as an antidote, or treated as someone suspiciously familiar, a mere imitator of aesthetic practices already commonplace in their Western guises. The exhibition’s curator, Alexandra Munroe, seems well aware of at least the second of these pitfalls. Her essay on Lee in the catalog for “Marking Infinity” begins with an extended comparison between his work and that of Richard Serra, and goes on to address Lee’s connections to other Western contemporaries like Carl Andre and Joseph Beuys, as well as to an elder artist Lee has acknowledged as an influence, Barnett Newman.
Munroe attributes Lee’s return to painting in the early 1970s, after several years focused on sculpture, to an encounter with Newman’s work—and indeed, one of the many paintings Lee has titled From Line, in this case dated 1978, could easily be seen as an hommage to the Abstract Expressionist. It presents a single blue line bisecting the canvas, not unlike one of Newman’s famous “zips”; though unlike Newman’s, Lee’s line is not a fastidiously painted band of color but a single stroke of the brush, thick with pigment at the top of the painting and diminishing in density toward the bottom. Munroe ascribes Lee’s difference from his American precursor to a return to Asian tradition: Lee was invoking literati, a type of painting he had studied with a Chinese master as a boy in Korea. “The literati principles instill point and line with cosmic meaning,” she explains, and certainly Lee’s translation of Newman’s zip, whose beginning and end points are off-canvas, into a finite line emanating from a single point of contact between brush and canvas becomes more resonant with this gloss in mind. The medium Lee used in making the paintings in the From Line series (and the From Point paintings he was making a little earlier) confirms the recourse to this heritage: “He mixed ground mineral pigment with nikawa, the animal-skin glue that is the traditional medium of East Asian painting on silk.”