The Quiet Chaos in Lee Ufan’s New Paintings
By: Zachary Small
A master of meditative minimalism, the Korean artist’s new paintings are more frenetically energized than ever before.
Painter Lee Ufan coats an aesthetic of applied philosophy onto his highly conceptual, abstract paintings. That’s probably obvious to anyone who’s seen the master of meditative minimalism’s work, which easily encompasses the metaphysics of everyone from Socrates to Plato, Buddha to Confucius, Descartes to Hegel. The artist’s new work, most of which is debuting for the first time at Pace Gallery, is something of a departure for Lee. Here, the artist paradoxically imbues his patent stoicism with an underlying, frenetic energy. It suggests chaos, bubbling to the surface of an otherwise calm canvas.
As a Korean student of philosophy and aesthetics at Tokyo’s Nihon University in the late-fifties and early-sixties, Lee began his artistic career from an anti-authoritarian, anti-colonialist angle. He applied Asian metaphysics to the dialects of European minimalist and Art Povera practices. (He even indexed some elements of the Land art movement into his “Relatum” [1968–present] stone sculptures.) Almost a decade older than his peers, Lee became a pioneer of Mono-ha (School of Things), a Japanese movement that grew out of these political-philosophical epistemes and the tumultuous postwar period.
Choosing to focus on the relationships between materials and perceptions — particularly that of industrial and nature objects — Mono-Ha gained attention in the 1970s as a fresh approach to abstraction. Lee’s work, in particular, gravitated toward the connection between the artwork and the artist’s interior world. This is best exemplified in his ongoing series, “Dialogue,” which he has been creating for nearly a decade. Each brushstroke in this series is said to relate to the artist’s breath, and although small, each work is said to have taken the artist up to a month to complete. Look closely and you will see why: Lee’s paintings are composed of a range of pigments loaded onto a wide brush that allows for large strokes with a range of hues. The artist’s patience is a virtue, layering innumerable different shades of the same color until his finished product has the appearance of seamlessly transitioning from dark to light. The surrounding blank canvas helps blur these colors into relief, touching on notions of color theory and phenomenology that naturally manipulate the eye’s ability to perceive distinct brushstrokes.
Previously, Lee has described his practice as the vibration of mental energy onto the canvas. “A work of art is a site where places of making and not making, painting and not painting, are linked so that they reverberate with each other,” quotes the Pace Gallery’s press release. This feels especially true in the artist’s new work, which seems to record the hairline fractures of an unstable political world in a polychromatic flurry of exchanges. For an artist like Lee, the presence of so many colors feels revolutionary, opening his genre of minimalist art to a new treatise on planned chaos.
That’s not to say that Lee succumbs to the offhand improvisation of some abstract expressionists or Japan’s antecedent Gutai movement. Even the paint drops across a few of his canvases look meticulously planned with little residual splatter surrounding their impacts. Still, the seething tension implicit in Lee’s work is remarkable — a truly arresting visual sight that begs one to ask how the artist will continue to slowly evolve the “Dialogue” series.