The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City opened “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” in June 2011. The artist-philosopher’s first American retrospective features over ninety sculptures, paintings and installations and spans fifty years of his career.

Lee Ufan is regarded as one of the most important Asian artists, critics and thinkers and is often associated with the Mono-ha art movement. An entire museum dedicated to his works, the eponymous Lee Ufan Museum, was opened in Naoshima, Japan, in 2010 in collaboration with architect Tadao Ando, underscoring the significance of Ufan’s artistic vision. But in spite of his prominence as an artist, his works have yet to be absorbed into the mainstream American consciousness.

Installation view of "Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity", Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 24 June to 28 September 2011. Image by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, depicts Lee Ufan as “an artist of extraordinary creative vision.” He goes on to say that while Lee is “admired, even revered, abroad”, surprisingly little is known about his work in North America. He calls the museum’s late-career survey “overdue.”

“Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” features pieces that are on loan from several galleries and institutions from the United States, Asia and Europe. The whole exhibit is installed throughout the entire museum, from the rotunda floor up to two annex-level galleries.

Moreover, the show presents more than just static art forms. American choreographer and new media artist Jonah Bokaer created a site-specific dance work entitled On Vanishing, performed on the Rotunda floor and intended as a dialogue between dance and sculpture as well as a homage to Ufan’s use of space. A gallery reading entitled Art of Encounter, film screenings of Anpo: Art X War and a tour called Mind’s Eye accompany the exhibition contributed to the multimedia experience.

Stark contrasts and comparisons

Art critic Ken Johnson, writing for the The New York Times, comments,

[Ufan’s] sculptures call to mind those of Richard Serra, but shy away from the brute physicality of Mr. Serra’s works; his paintings invite comparison to those of Robert Ryman, but are less pragmatically inventive. In its modernisation of classical Asian gestures, his work is more suavely stylish than philosophically or spiritually illuminating.

He continues less-positively with, “His art is impeccably elegant, but in its always near-perfect composure, it teeters between art and décor.”

“Marking Infinity” put culture tumblelog The Ranunculus in mind of Richard Serra, too.

‘Marking Infinity’ is an impeccably curated show, a mix of sculptures (which conjure up thoughts of Serra), paintings and drawings. The stark contrast of the canvases, sculpted metal plates, and stones provide warmth and add to the philosophical dynamic of Mono-ha in the big, white rotunda.

Lee Ufan. 'Relatum (formerly 'Perception A')', 1969/2011, stone, cushion and light, approximately 8 x 45 x 40 cm. Image by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Minimalism as trend, philosophy

Though he lived through a time of turmoil, Lee Ufan’s pieces emanate a sense of peace. The Financial Times notes that “he has carved a pristine universe where people can confront art in peace and silence” and adds that “Lee’s elegant simplicity exerts a restrained force, producing a stark, consoling beauty.”

AM New York said that although “there’s not a lot to Lee Ufan’s work” it gives viewers “a lot to think about.”

This retrospective clearly demonstrates Ufan’s minimalist tendencies. Johnson, of The New York Times, begins his review by saying, “For the hot, tired and frazzled masses, the Guggenheim Museum offers an oasis of cool serenity this summer,” pertaining perhaps to the Zen-like feel the artist’s pieces provoke.

Edward Gomez of The Brooklyn Rail interprets Lee Ufan’s minimalism as being “rooted in an Eastern appreciation of the nature of materials and also in modern European phenomenology.” Gomez continues,

Sometimes his art seems to give physical expression to the kind of sensibility that informed the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s classic treatise, ‘The Poetics of Space‘ (1958).

In the book by Bachelard, he applies a phenomenological approach to architecture; the experience that an architectural structure will provoke for a person is more important than how that structure is used.

Lee Ufan, 'Dialogue', 2009/2011, steel and stones, two plates: 200 x 1.5 x 400 cm each, two stones: approximately 70 cm high each. Image by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Gallery as space

The Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is said to be a challenging venue for artists because of its already unique interiors. Even the museum’s director Richard Armstrong admits that the space “is so unique that every artist has a difficult time getting control of it. A very strong personality is required. It is an immense challenge for artists.”

In spite of this, Art in America Magazine states that “the strong character of the museum ramp adds tension to the sculptures.”

London Korea Links appears to agree,

With three-dimensional installations and ‘structures’ (Lee prefers this word to describe his work, rather than ‘sculptures’), the nature of the gallery space takes on more importance than it does with two-dimensional paintings.

Lee Ufan, 'Relatum (formerly 'Language')', 1971/2011, cushions, stones and light, dimensions vary with installation. Image by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

In spite of this, the museum as a setting may not be the most ideal venue for the philosophy this kind of installation requires. Ken Johnson says:

The problem is that in a museum setting it is next to impossible to experience stones unclothed by cultural, symbolic associations. We have seen too many rocks used as landscape ornaments and read too many poems about them. Looking at a ‘Relatum’ from 2008, in which a boulder is placed in front of an 80-inch-tall steel plate that leans against the wall, the juxtaposition of nature and culture is too familiar, too formulaic, to be revelatory.

Ways of seeing

Lee Ufan’s appeal lies mostly in the fact that his pieces are not merely works of art but also present to their audience a deep artistic meaning. Says The Ranunculus,

This quantum-minded perspective is seen throughout the show. Smaller elements become links in the chain of larger themes. It partially why the show resonates strongly with the visitor, and partially why his sculptural works tend to create a different dialogue when placed in a natural context.

In an article by The New York Times, sculptor Richard Serra, whom Lee Ufan has often been compared to and, incidentally, whom he shared a gallery with in Germany, was struck by the complexity of Lee Ufan’s vision and how he transforms normal objects.

At first they looked casual and unintended and without interest for me. They’re passive, but I walked by them every day for months, and over time they became much more meaningful to me than some works that intend so hard to elicit a response. You could think these objects always existed together. They’re timeless in that way.

Lee Ufan making 'Dialogue—space' (2011) during installation of "Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 2011. Image by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Final impact

The part of Lee Ufan’s exhibit that has been eliciting the most reactions is his installation entitled Dialogue-space (2011), which is a part of the “Dialogue” series. This installation is not a static work; it involved the artist himself painting directly on the walls of the museum with single grey-black brush strokes, emphasising the white, empty space of the room. The Financial Times examines the work:

This technique reaches its minimalist apotheosis in the last room, where Lee has slathered one grey brushstroke on each of three walls. These careful smears read as both positive and negative space; they could be windows on to some hazy dimension or solid bodies floating in mid-air. They are Lee’s signature, his tag, his mark of Zorro, the vital swing of an arm against the harrowing void.

This concept of void and space resonates with what AM New York has to say about the work,

The viewer is surrounded by these blocks of color that appear to lift off the wall, making one very aware of the unpainted negative space of the rest of the room. It’s an engaging experience – fittingly located at the pinnacle of the museum’s famed helix.

Lee Ufan, 'Dialogue—space (installation view)', 2011, acrylic on wall, dimensions vary with installation. Image by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

According to Art Observed,

Lee’s artistic thrust asserts itself in the clearest, most direct form in this final room, as the viewer is able to encounter the materiality and intentions of the artist’s career without unintended environmental or social distractions.

London Korea Links states in their review,

As you stand in the middle of the room, the grey square in front of you seems to become detached from the wall, floating into mid air and resonating with a strange intensity. Lee describes the room as “an open site of power in which things and space interact vividly.” A Korean commentator opined to me after seeing the exhibition that the room had a special energy. It’s a room you need to be in on your own, so you have to hope that your fellow visitors never make it there.

About Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan (sometimes Ou-Fan, or U-Hwan) was born in Haman-gun, Gyeongsang Nam-do, South Korea, in 1936. He studied painting at the College of Fine Arts at the Seoul National University and then moved to Japan where he earned a degree in Philosophy from Nihon University.

He is well-known as one of the precursors of the Mono-ha (School of Things) movement which focuses on the nature of objects and their interrelations as opposed to the Western ideas of representation. He is also one of the pioneers of the Korean tansaekhwa (monochrome painting) school that brings a fresh approach to minimalist paintings. Ufan was a professor at Tama Art University, Tokyo, where he eventually held the title of Professor Emeritus. He was also invited to teach at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

His list of exhibitions, both group and solo, is extensive, and includes shows at the Tate Liverpool, Jeu de Paume, Musée d’art Moderne Saint-Etienne and Yokohama Museum of Art. His work is held in the permanent collections of prestigious institutions such MoMA, Guggenheim Museum, Kröller-Müller Museum and Centre Georges Pompidou. He received the UNESCO Prize at the Shanghai Biennale in 2000.

“Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity”, of which Samsung is the major sponsor, is supported by organisations such as the Korea Foundation, the Japan Foundation, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art, organised the exhibit and the Leadership Committee also had a hand in the exhibition.



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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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