LEE UFAN (Korean, B. 1936)
From Point
signed 'L. UFAN'; dated '79' (lower right)
titled 'From Point No. 790142'; signed 'Lee ufan' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
145 x 111.5 cm. (57 1/8 x 43 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1979
Private Collection, Asia

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Lot Essay

Lee Ufan is one of the most recognised 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 recognised for his unique and prudent approach to breaking the boundary of modernist formalism in painting and sculpture. A truly profound philosopher-artist, Lee Ufan has an equally crucial influence on his contemporary artistsies 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 realised 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' in order to fully understand Lee's work. His central concept of 'encounter,' is thoroughly articulated in his famous 1970 essay, "In Search of Encounter." He 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, in particular 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 visualised 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, he 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, Lee 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 to master 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 self-awareness 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."

In this 1979 master piece From Point (Lot 19), featured here, Lee strives to achieve a perfect example of completion. This work is from the end of the series. Reserved yet powerful, static yet rhythmical, every element is in perfect harmony. It shows Lee's concept of point as the origin of the universe, as he stated "all things in the universe start from a point and return to a point." It is typical in this series that Lee loads his brush with pigment and dabs from left to right until there is no more paint left on the brush, which leaves gradually fading marks on the canvas. The point disappears, marking its existence, evoking the ephemerality of our life, and then it resumes again. Lee calls it "repetition of infinity," which represents a rhythm of time. 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 point is not there to express itself only, 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. Here the repetition of the point is not a geometric figure or pattern, but it becomes the rhythm of a living organism that has a resonance with the world outside. 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.

From Point epitomises Lee's specific choices of palette, materials and working methods which combine the traditional and modern, and link East and West. Blue is universally considered a royal colour, representing at times, hope, life, integrity and spirit, as well as evoking the sky or the sea. It is also most intimate with Asian tradition, a frequent palette for the decorative imageries on Blue and White Porcelains (fig. X). Echoing the same austere beauty of the blue against the stark splendor of white ceramic together with the discipline of immaterialist philosophy, Lee's examination of life is unraveled in flights of blue points arranged with tension and concision. He carefully adopted traditional Eastern mores and modernised it by inventing his own material by mixing ground mineral pigment with the animal-skin glue that is the traditional medium of Asian painting on silk. His act of painting also echoes traditional Asian painters, by employing the traditional literati painting method that places the paper or canvas in this case on the floor while painting. Yet Lee chose the canvas over paper to avoid an excessively direct hint to Eastern ink painting.

The play of the two regions of painted space versus unpainted space holds an important fascination for Lee. In his From Point and 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.

An overlapping curiosity on the subject of infinity is apparent throughout his entire 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 tells 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.

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