Executed in 1978, From Line No. 780231 stems from the definitive series of works for which Lee Ufan is best known. Created largely between 1971 and 1984, it was this series, along with the From Point works of the same period, that were responsible for launching the artist to international acclaim. Representing a gestural, expressive extension of his earlier restrained vocabulary, in these works Ufan deploys ground mineral pigment suspended in a type of viscous animal-skin glue, characteristic of the Japanese nihonga
tradition in which he was trained. The artist drags his brush down the canvas in a series of cascading lines, maintaining contact with the pictorial surface until the powdered, crystalline substance expires. Ufan adopts a symbolic approach to colour, with shades of deep blue or orange applied to a blank ground, evocative of the sky and earth respectively. Through these minimal, serialised gestures, Lee
creates what he describes ‘as a pictorial enactment of the idea of infinity’ (L. Ufan, quoted in press release, ‘Lee Ufan Works Acquired by Tate Gallery’, 12 January 1998, http:/www.tate.org.uk/ ).
Animating the void of the picture plane, Ufan conceives each brushstroke as a progressive act of distancing between himself and the work. His systematic means of articulation is designed to remove his own presence from the painting, creating instead a temporal and spatial dialogue with the viewer. The artist refers to this as yohaku – the art of emptiness. Referencing the structural principles of
minimalism through their appeal to grid-like formations and serialisation, these works impart a new, gestural dimension to this vernacular, foregrounding the basic act of mark-making as a physical trace of existence. As the artist has explained, ‘One way of showing the idea of infinity in a picture is the repetition of pictorial elements. As with living organisms, it is a repetition of birth and death, death and birth, yet it must be sequenced so that each moment is unique and separate. The organic device where by each brushstroke, each element is independent and mutually related makes a picture full of forces’ (L. Ufan, quoted in press release, ‘Lee Ufan Works Acquired by Tate Gallery’, 12 January 1998, http:/www.tate.org.uk/).
Born in South Korea in 1936, Ufan studied painting at the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University for just two months before moving to Japan to study philosophy. He came to prominence in the late 1960s as a founder and theoretical leader of the avant-garde group Mono-Ha (literally ‘School of Things’), one of the first Japanese contemporary art movements to be recognised on a global
scale. Whilst his early works deliberately went against the abstract expressionism of the contemporary Japanese Gutai movement, their intense focus on the pictorial surface would go on to inform the central principles of Mono-ha. Closely related to the European Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, the group’s aesthetic aims were centred on materiality and perception, rejecting Western notions of representation in favour of artworks that attempted to induce a physical experience in the viewer. Ufan was also a central figure of
the Korean school of tansaekhwa, or monochrome painting, which sought to breathe new life into minimalist abstraction, attempting to record the passage of time through gestural, bodily traces. From Line and From Point represent the clearest expression of this aesthetic, and their technique would continue to evolve in his subsequent Correspondence works of the 1990s. As a writer and philosopher as well as an artist, Ufan combines his practice with a deep interest in Asian metaphysics, and his prolific output of critical texts work in close tandem with his paintings and sculptures. Now Professor emeritus at Tama Art University, Lee has recently
been the subject of major solo exhibitions at Chateau de Versailles (2014) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2011). In 2001, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s most prestigious international prizes. Today his work is held in international museum collections, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Tate, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Japan.