Lee Ufan (b. 1936)
From Line
signed and dated 'L. Ufan 82' (lower right)
oil and mineral pigment on canvas
85 7/8 x 114 5/8 in. (218.1 x 291.1 cm.)
Executed in 1982.
Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo
Private collection, Tokyo
Private collection, 1994
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2008, lot 260
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

Lee Ufan’s 1982 painting From Line finds the artist exploring the properties of line, paint, composition and abstraction with remarkable economy and direction. Cascading calligraphic blue lines form a curtain on the painting’s surface that resembles dissipating smoke or rushing water. For Ufan, whose gestural, conceptual abstraction has earned him decades of renown throughout the world, paint and its physical and spiritual characteristics are subjects in and of themselves, prime for investigation. Born in Korea but based in Japan for years, Lee founded the Mono-ha school (School of Things) of Japanese conceptualism, and was a primary focal point of the ‘60s counterculture in that country. Seeking to counteract the ubiquity of Western abstraction in Asian art circles as typified by the Gutai group, Lee’s Mono-ha work stripped away the brash hotness often associated with New York School and second generation abstract expressionists, replacing it with a calculated stillness and a minimalist sensibility while remaining distinctly painterly. From Line, painted over a decade after his founding of Mono-Ha typifies that movement while innovating within its formal structures–the picture adds a dash of expressiveness to the mix, allowing the lines to dance down the canvas and delight, as well as challenge viewers.

Originally a sculptural movement, Lee was the primary painter of the Mono-ha school. His sculptural work, with its precarious balance of weight and lightness emphasized the natural world as a primary influence and subject. Using organic materials, Lee asserted that art and nature are, in many ways, inextricably linked. From Line, with its unmistakably organic stalactite-like forms, reflects this theory and transcribes it from three dimensions to two with remarkable grace. Despite its distinct Japanese qualities, Lee’s work boasts certain theoretical and practical similarities to the contemporaneous Arte Povera movement and its various subsequent incarnations. Valuing truth and transparency of form and material, Lee’s paintings have no pretense, appearing exactly as they were made. This frankness runs through Lee’s work of the last five-plus decades, endearing him to viewers for whom a connection is immediately formed on the basis of the work’s radical straightforwardness.

At nine-and-a-half feet long, From Line finds Lee working at a monumental scale. Indeed, his work proves most effective at this scale, enveloping the viewer and suggesting a paradox between the permanent and the ethereal. Impressive in its size but supremely light to eye’s touch, From Line boasts a sort of ingrained regality–a challenge to the untamed energy and unbridled theatricality of the best-known practitioners of Western abstraction. Describing his output of the ‘80s, Ken Johnson, in his New York Times review of Lee’s 2011 career survey at the Guggenheim, writes, “Lee loosened up his strokes and began to produce airy, monochrome compositions in a kind of Abstract Expressionist style driven not by emotional angst but by delight in existential flux” (K. Johnson, "A Fine Line: Style or Philosophy?" New York Times, June 23, 2011). For Johnson, Lee’s ‘80s work is driven by a desire to reconcile Abstract Expressionism’s freeform compositional strategies with a uniquely Eastern sense of philosophical calm and logic.

From Line’s connection to process art cannot be ignored, either. Lee, himself a great influence on subsequent process artists, places the very act of his creating the painting at its conceptual center. The hypnotic, meandering lines form an immediate mental image of Lee in the act of creation, dragging his brush down the canvas with focus and purpose. Applied directly to the canvas, the paint appears fresh and sudden, as if it were painted recently. Lee’s ability to form a connection with the viewer through such spare means belies his connection–and crucial differences from–minimalism, perhaps the greatest artistic achievement of the ‘70s. The connections are obvious, namely Lee’s unaffected approach to painting, his use of monochrome, and the literalness of his compositions. By contrast, whereas minimalism focused on the finite nature of objects and their discrete relationship to space, Lee aimed his minimalism at the infinite. Carried over from the Mono-ha movement, Lee sought to capture the impossible scale of nature and its mind-boggling breadth.

Writing in 1997, Lee posited that “[one] way of showing the idea of infinity in a picture is in the repetition of figures. As with living organisms, it is repetition of birth and death, death and birth, yet it must be sequenced so each movement is unique and separate. The organic device whereby each brushstroke, each figure is independent and mutually related makes a picture full of forces” (L. Ufan, quoted in an unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, July 1997, Tate Artist Catalogue File, Lee Ufan, A21074). Clearly, Lee sees repetition as approaching infinite, breaking substantially with minimalists like Donald Judd, who saw repetition as an effective strategy to convey exactitude, precision, and finality. Again, Lee carves a place for himself among the great movements of the second half of the 20th century not by adhering to them in any true sense, but by negating their founding principles to his own ends and presenting them in ways that are at once visually familiar and startlingly original.

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