signed and dated ‘L. UFAN 99’ (on the lower right side); titled ‘ Correspondance’, dated ‘ 1999’ and signed ‘Lee Ufan’ (on the reverse)
oil, mineral pigment and glue on canvas
146 x 112 cm. (57 ½ x 44 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo, Japan
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above by the present owner)

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Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

"For me, space means the infinite…Buddhism teaches that being is possible only because there is also nothingness, and appearance coexists with disappearance." - Lee Ufan

The play of the two regions of painted space versus unpainted space holds an important fascination for Lee Ufan. In his From Point and From Line series (1972-84), Lee sought a harmony between the painted and unpainted spaces. But subsequently in his From Wind (1982-86) and With Winds series (1987-91), Lee evolved his work into a more forceful painting style which focused more on the dynamic energy of his paint strokes, making the intervals between the paint secondary. Then finally in his Correspondence (1991-2006) and Dialogue series (2006-), Lee returned to his probe of the space between the paint, and the empty space between the brush strokes became the central subject of the painting itself.

From Winds (Lot 27) featured here is a perfect early example from the From Wind series. The blue mineral pigment from the previous series remains, but the canvas here reveals a different approach. The static points and lines of the canvas from previous works were replaced by free-flowing brushstrokes, displaying a more spiritual freedom.

In the work, Lee strives to achieve a perfect example of completion. Reserved yet powerful, static yet rhythmical, every element is in perfect harmony. Primarily due to this perfect balance, From Winds is one of the most sought after series from Lee’s oeuvre. The pulse of the artist is imbued in the rhythm of the brushstrokes, which acts as a medium to connect the painting not only with the world outside but with the viewer of the painting as well. The brushstroke is not there to express itself, but exists to evoke the interval around the brushstrokes as well, calling attention to the empty space, revealing another world in the area of the unpainted regions. Lee Ufan continued in this expressive style for over two decades. After this series imbued with kinetic motion, Lee’s works became more meditative as apparent in his Correspondence (1991-2006) and Dialogue series (2006 onwards).

Correspondence (Lot 28) exemplifies how Lee expresses meditative discipline of the tradition of Asian ink painting. An overlapping curiosity on the subject of infinity is apparent in this work. The bare canvas is the infinite space where Lee faces the world as it is. Lee seeks an encounter with the world in relationship with others, rather than just limited to a sphere within himself. In an understated yet poetic gesture, Lee consistently seeks to relate himself to the world through minimal interaction with his work. Lee’s art is the medium or passage which connects the poles between the artificial and nature, I and others, making and unmaking, and made and unmade. It is a completely new approach to art, breaking the modernist definition of creation and the boundary of modern painting and sculpture. In his extremely meditative works, Lee Ufan tell us that we should not stop our endeavor to encounter the world as it is because it is the only way we can stay awake and live a true life.

Characteristic of this series, Correspondence is painted on a white background using a monochrome colour. With a wide-tipped brush and a refined gradation of thick pigment, Lee would layer his strokes three or four times over a period of days, applying a new layer of paint onto a half-wet layer. The laborious and highly specific process often takes the artist one month of repetitive action to complete new work. This highly choreographed and deliberate movement of the brush echoes the practice of Asian ink painting—great masters were said to have controlled and concentrated on every movement of the body, including their breathing, to compose their works. Most often, Lee’s practice is re-contextualized into a western narrative, mostly compared to the level of precision shown in the works of Agnes Martin. Yet, his works are imbued with a certain depth and vitality whose roots trace back to Lee’s early literati training in classical Asian art. These compositions communicate a hope for simplicity, peace, and understanding that stems from the artist’s personal trauma and philosophical beliefs. It is in this simplicity of form, material, and action that Lee’s works expand the artistic dialogue of contemporary art. With a new fusion of identity and experiences, Lee’s painting demonstrates a possibility for a solely distinct Asian contemporary artistic language that declares itself independent from and entirely equal to the Western model.

Lee Ufan is one of the most highly recognized and sought after Korean artists in the international art world. He is one of three Asian artists who held a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York along with Paik Nam-June and Cai Guo-Qiang. He is critically recognized for his unique and prudent approach to breaking the boundary of modernist formalism in painting and sculpture. A truly profound philosopher-artist, Lee has an equally crucial influence on his contemporary artists and art theorists. He will undoubtedly remain in the history of art as a master who expanded the definition of modern sculpture and abstract painting.

Born in 1936, Lee was educated in traditional East Asian philosophy with emphasis on calligraphy, poetry, and painting since childhood. He developed a serious interest in the arts during his high school years and enrolled in the College of Fine Arts, at Seoul National University in 1956. During a trip to Tokyo to visit an ailing uncle, Lee was impressed with the contemporary Japanese art scene and realized that a solid philosophical training was essential for him to become an international artist. He decided to move to Tokyo and majored in philosophy at Nihon University from 1958 to 1961. Lee continued to paint during this time and always stayed involved with various artist groups in Tokyo. In the end of 1960s, he established himself as a key theorist and artist of the Mono-ha ( ??), an anti-formalist, materials-based art movement of Japan in the 1960s, by publishing a series of seminal writings and exhibiting his signature sculpture series, "Relatum". Lee soon became an influential figure of the Dansaekhwa ( ???), the Monochrome painting movement of Korea throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

It is crucial to understand the two concepts of 'encounter' and 'body' to fully understand Lee's work. His central concept of ‘encounter,’ is thoroughly articulated in his famous 1970 essay, “In Search of Encounter.” Lee also stressed the importance of the ‘body’ or ‘bodilyness,’ the interconnection between the body, the mind and the world. Deeply versed in modern Western philosophy, particularly the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merlearu-Panty, Lee formed his own theory that art should aim to encounter what he variously calls “the other,” or “the world.” He combined Western thought with the metaphysics of Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who suggested a new system of thought based on Zen Buddhism. Through his series of sculptures and paintings, Lee visualized his core concept of ‘encounter’, in other words, relationship with others, and the body as a significant medium for the encounter, a direct experience between matter and existence.

From 1971, Lee was given opportunities to participate in numerous international exhibitions, such as the 7th Youth Paris Biennale, Kassel Documenta, and Sao Paulo Biennale. After experiencing the international art scene on a global level, he felt an urgency to make a statement challenging contemporary Western art. Although he had painted in the 1960s, a time when he focused mainly on sculpture, it was from 1972-73 that Lee began his first signature series of painting, "From Point" and "From Line". Lee wanted to demonstrate the possibilities of overcoming modern Western abstract painting which appeared to Lee and other critics as approaching a dead end. Recalling the literati principles that he had absorbed as a child, Lee returned to the notion of the point and line in search of a new abstraction. The repetition of drawing point and line as a way of mastering breath control is the basic training in the course of learning classical Eastern writing and painting. The act of painting and calligraphy is in itself a spiritual cleansing of the artist; the actual process of painting the brushstrokes enhances their selfawareness and self-negation in chorus, returning them closer to nature. Summoning the literati principles, Lee saw point and line as the basic units of the universe, the primordial basis for the origin of the cosmos. Lee once articulated his idea on point and line, “One point calls up a new point, and extends into a line. Everything is a scene of gathering and dispersal of points and lines. Existence is a point and life is a line, so I am also a point and a line.”

Two marvelous works featured here clearly illustrate that Lee’s work is not an abstract painting but a form of calligraphy. Alternatively, one can see it as an entirely new abstract painting of spirit and material unified into one. In this way, Lee successfully opens a new possibility of painting by distinguishing his work from Western geometric abstract paintings that primarily focus on form alone.

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