An Ambiguous Medium: On Lee Ufan

An Ambiguous Medium: On Lee Ufan

The aesthetic illusions of a Korean artist.


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.”

Still, I wonder how much this apparent adherence to tradition should be emphasized. Yes, we Western viewers should be directed to art-historical allusions and echoes that might be unfamiliar to us but second nature to our Asian counterparts—though not at the cost of making innovative art like Lee’s seem nostalgic or convention-bound. Munroe avoids doing so, but I worry that her emphasis on Lee as a proponent of “distilled gestures, guided by restraint,” in which “the self coalesces with an expanded situational wholeness,” may inadvertently evoke a central-casting view of Eastern wisdom and reticence, of the timeless Asia of Buddhas and temples but not the modern world of industrial and commercial tigers. The Asia that Lee inhabits is both at once.

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I’m not suggesting that Lee has banished tradition from his work. His paintings draw on the conventions of both Asian ink painting and European oil painting. His sculptures—which almost always use found, unworked stones, among other materials (most often steel sheets)—inescapably evoke Zen gardens as well as minimalism. And his writings, although they reflect his immersion in the ideas of Western philosophers like Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, whom he studied at Nihon University in Tokyo, sometimes have similar overtones, such as when he speaks of his wish to “lead people’s eyes to emptiness and turn their ears to silence.” (A selection of Lee’s writings is included in the catalog for “Marking Infinity”; a larger cache can be found in his book The Art of Encounter, published by the Lisson Gallery in London in 2008.)

But there’s another dimension to Lee’s art that these sibylline utterances belie: a down-to-earth quality, and sometimes a humor, that is neither Eastern nor Western but simply universal, as a sly and subtle wit can be. Yes, he wants to convey “the way of being of everything as it is, of the world just exactly as it is,” but he is shrewd enough to discover that even inanimate things, at least under a human gaze, cannot help being other than what they are. They cannot help feigning. “In my sculpture,” he admits, “untreated industrial steel plates pretend to be more nature than artifice, while untouched natural stones play more artifice than nature.” His sculptures all bear the same title, Relatum, and in a 1971 Relatum (originally titled Language) a group of stones sit on colored pillows, like little princes or maybe Buddhas. A related work from 1969 (originally called Perception A) consists of a single stone on a royal purple pillow that’s backlit, as if it were emanating illumination. Looking at these stones, one sees something laughable in their pretension to sensitivity, their apparent need to be cushioned to protect them from direct contact with the hard floor. Another Relatum, dated 1978/1990, uses two steel-and-stone pairs: one stone sits openly, confident as can be, on a steel rectangle situated on the floor; the other seems to peek out from behind the second metal sheet leaning against the adjacent wall. Again, the anthropomorphism is comical, and comically self-defeating. We viewers, failing to resist being lured into reading human or at least animal behavior into a thing, can laugh at the thing’s failure to fully succeed in its affectation of animate behavior. What we should be laughing at is how our perceptions contradict themselves, not at the things themselves.

Lee’s art implies that we cannot entirely objectify things in the world any more than we can securely find an echo of our subjectivity in them, and that therefore we should conceive of people and things as neither antithetical nor comparable. The artwork, in his view, exists to dramatize this state. In a striking passage from a 1969 essay, “Word and Structure—Collapse of the Object (Thoughts on Contemporary Art),” Lee compares the function of artworks to that of the Buddha. He calls the Buddha an “ambiguous medium”—using the terminology of art rather than of spiritualism—because he revealed something about the world by revealing himself. “The world is the world acting as the world with or without the presence of the Buddha, but it is by the Buddha’s presence that the world is revealed.” For that reason, in principle anyone could be the Buddha, “a person who shows that the world penetrates him and is simultaneously of the world of reality and the world of cognition.” Actually, this is just the normal way of things, in Lee’s view; elsewhere he writes, “The world does not remain external but penetrates the body and permeates its interior.” In discussing the work of his Mono-ha colleague Sekine Nobuo, Lee concludes, “Structure is characterized by nonsense and humor, and through it, the performer is at the same time performed on.” By “performer” Lee seems to mean “artist,” but by the logic of his argument it could just as well mean “viewer.”

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Lee does not use the nonrepresentational materials of his sculpture—primarily stones and steel—to create images. He presents stone as nothing but stone, metal as nothing but metal. He doesn’t construct anything out of them, but simply juxtaposes them. Relatum, the title he gives to each of them, is a word of Latin origin that refers to one of the objects between which a relation is said to hold. The title conveys how the elements out of which the sculptures are arranged exist in some relation to one another, just as the sculpture at some point in time exists in some relation to its beholders. The relation is the whole situation, so it is misleading to attribute cognition, desire or perception to humans alone. These are attributes of situations we share with things, which is why it can sometimes make sense to speak of an inanimate thing like a steel plate “pretending,” while it can equally make sense to speak of a person, such as Siddhartha Gautama, being “penetrated” by reality.

Lee’s sculptures remain abstract, even as, through the relations they embody, they may also seem to suggest other sorts of relations that only the language of feeling and intention can convey. There is less temptation to speak this way of Lee’s paintings. They possess a more “objective” character than the sculptures, perhaps because they do not share our space with us. Consider a set of paintings from the series From Point, consisting of works made in the 1970s. They are painted in a systematic manner. Using a single color, the artist has dipped his brush and made a succession of marks horizontally across the white canvas, each small mark depositing progressively less color until the last marks become practically indiscernible; then the process starts again. In some of the From Point paintings, each horizontal line of marks represents a single load of pigment gradually being exhausted, so that the entire left side of the painting is heavily marked while the right side is nearly bare; in others, the sequences of marks begin and end at unpredictable points along the line, leaving the light and heavy marks distributed in an even rhythm across the canvas.

What one sees in looking at the From Point series is not a relation among the brush marks or sequences of marks but both the entire field and the individual marks, none of which is quite identical to any of the others, although each is the product of the repetition of a similar gesture. In either case, however, the visual dynamic of the paintings is contrary to the order of their making: although it is evident that the spots of paint were brushed onto the canvas starting on the left, the visual rhythm of the paintings goes from right to left, from lighter to darker. Lee turns the literalism of his process against itself, generating a subtle illusion that prevents the painting from becoming a simple demonstration or illustration of the process.

The presence of illusion in Lee’s work is important, and it is something that distinguishes him from many of his Western contemporaries. Artists in the tradition of minimalism and postminimalism have generally sought to make their work as literal as possible by eliminating illusion and metaphor, a goal most famously summed up in Frank Stella’s brutally tautological dictum “What you see is what you see.” It’s interesting to learn that, by contrast, Lee was influenced early in his career by a tendency in Japanese art called torriku, that is, “tricky”—work that, as Munroe explains it, uses optical illusion “to upset normal perception.” It would have been helpful to know more about torriku and Lee’s relation to it. (In general, while Munroe’s essay is a worthy introduction to Lee’s work, it could well have been much longer, conveying more about his artistic context, which is unfamiliar to most Western art lovers.) In any case, artistic illusion is clearly something that fascinates Lee. The illusion is much more powerful in the From Line paintings, particularly those from early in the series, done in the 1970s, than in From Point. In addition to a paradox of direction similar to that found in the From Line series—although the lines have been painted from the top down, the energy they evoke is ascending, with the strokes seeming to push up toward the sky—the paintings in Front Line also produce an intense sensation of light: the white canvas seen through the dark brush strokes seems to glow as if the paint were backlit. In later From Line works the lines are shorter and more widely and irregularly dispersed on the canvas. Their illusion is not so much of light as of space; without recourse to any device of perspective or color interaction but simply through the placement of the monochromatic marks on the canvas, Lee creates a suggestion of three-dimensional space.

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The titles Lee gave his paintings from the 1980s through the beginning of the ’90s, From Winds and With Winds, suggest a greater emphasis on the metaphorical overtones of his work. At times it really does seem as if some tremendous wind had blown Lee’s previously well-ordered brush strokes hither and yon. But still, the marks are rigorously nondescriptive; they do not construct larger shapes, and only rarely does a hint of landscape sneak in, notably in a From Winds dated 1989. These are the most unpredictable of Lee’s paintings, and unlike those of his earlier series they don’t seem to be the extended working out of the implications of a single idea. Yet in a broader sense they are the proof of that idea, that the individual brush stroke “must become a living organism brimming with energy in its relationship with otherness.” In his earlier paintings, the simple dabs of paint or the linear strokes manifested their energy most vibrantly, yet that energy was also constrained to some extent by their preconceived ordering—an imposition of the artist’s rationality. The windswept, turbulent yet casually volatile movement of the marks in Lee’s paintings of the later 1980s should not be seen, I think, as a form of expressionism—they are not necessarily the manifestation of some inner turbulence, another way for the artist to impose himself on his materials. Rather, they seem to reflect a freeing up, a willingness to follow rather than control the movements of the brush.

I wonder whether Lee eventually sensed that this kind of liberty could not be maintained indefinitely. To think otherwise would be to pretend to be one with nature—and as Lee knows, we cannot be one with things as they are any more than we can detach ourselves from them. In his essay “Word and Structure” he suggested that it was just such a hope that eventually drove Jackson Pollock to madness. In any case, Lee’s more recent paintings, called Dialogue, are the most severe, simplified and formulaic he has ever done. Each painting presents one, two or three large, squarish, gray brush marks. The marks have a heavy physical presence; the paint is dense and tactile. You can see how the big brush pushed the paint against the canvas, leaving ridges along the edges of the mark. Each mark is something like a self-contained painting within the painting—a picture of paint painting itself. Each mark has its own atmosphere—the paint is not a solid gray but rather contains a tonal range within each brush stroke, with the gray being lighter, nearly white, at one edge and becoming gradually darker (though never close to black) toward the other. It’s as if the physical mark were one thing and its tonality something that had been applied completely independently.

There is a disturbing sense of artifice to these big, imposing traces of paint. And yet as one observes the paintings, it becomes clear that the traces exist not for their own sake but mainly to activate the empty canvas that surrounds them. This is the “dialogue” evoked by the title—the dialogue between rhetoric and silence, excess and emptiness. They coexist uneasily; there is a slight tension between them. All of Lee’s work is marked by the recurring problem of how something can have a relation to a place. Lee shows this not as a specifically human problem, much less a social or cultural one. On the contrary, he seems to find it in some inherent logic of existence, latent even in inanimate things. And yet, after all, one can hardly disentangle Lee’s fascination with this conundrum from his self-chosen condition of displacement. He is a relatum, one might say. And his will toward opening into relation with that which he is not, in allowing himself to be penetrated by it, is exemplary.

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