Days before the opening of his painting and sculpture retrospective at the Guggenheim, as visitors watched from a few feet away, Lee Ufan squatted on a square-ish sheet of glass laid atop a steel plate of the same size and put his arms around a boulder, hefting it an inch or two in the air and letting it drop. Faster than the eye could see, the glass shattered, radiating fracture lines to the edges, the point of impact concealed by the stone. Without a word, he had created Relatum (formerly Phenomenon and Perception B), 1968/2011.
Lee, a 75-year-old Korean who moved to Japan at the age of 21 and now divides his time between Kamakura (near Tokyo) and Paris, is showing about 90 works dating from the 1960s to now, distributed throughout the rotunda and in two side galleries. His long history is little known in the U.S., but he has shown extensively in Europe and is, you could fairly say, revered in Asia. Lee studied philosophy (to “find himself” as a foreigner in Japan, he modestly explains). He came to local attention as a member and chief theorist of the Mono-ha movement, producing a number of essays in Japanese art magazines.
Mono-ha (“School of Things”), which fostered an Arte Povera-like engagement with materials, was popular between 1968 and ’72. It began as a sculpture movement, but Lee extended its literalness to painting. Loading his brush, he patted marks in a row until the paint was exhausted, then dipped the brush again and repeated. He took the same approach with lines continued until the brush was empty.
Through the years Lee’s concept has been consistent, but scale, composition, color and control have varied in the paintings, which have grown larger and more spacious. His recent examples, just as physical, are expanses of emptiness featuring a single heavy stroke made with a wide brush.
“My work is very pure but very open,” Lee told me, and he hopes visitors will interpret it as a bodily, rather than intellectual, experience. “Breaking glass is something any child can do, but when an artist does it, there’s more.” Speaking sometimes in English and sometimes through an interpreter, Lee said that he tries not to create with too much control, because he regards his work as a cooperative interaction of materials, highlighting their natural characteristics.
Among the early works in the show are spectacular sculptures of cotton wadding and wood; a cube of cotton bulging out from behind steel face plates; and an expanse of cotton with steel rods poking out, like some nightmare futon. A lattice woven of stainless-steel strips 6 or 7 feet long (Relatum, 1968/94) has others strips piled around the edges as if the construction could transcend the work’s boundaries. Lee later narrowed his choices to steel, stone and glass, alone or in combination. One of the first sculptures seen in the show is Relatum-silence b (2008), in which a 3-foot stone seems to address a 10-foot steel plate that leans imperturbably against the wall.
At the Guggenheim, the strong character of the museum ramp adds tension to the sculptures. Lee was at first quite concerned about the suitability of the structure to his work. His solution was to hang white scrims between floors, obstructing views across the central space, creating intimate passages and a poetic quality of light.
In the museum’s final room the artist presents Dialogue-space (2011), which comprises one distinct brushstroke on each of three walls. The high-ceilinged enclosure is thus nearly empty, yet the wide strokes are sensuous and touched with delicate light. The effect, to this viewer at least, is far more spiritual than that of the gloomy Rothko chapel. Lee would undoubtedly minimize that claim, merely asking visitors to have, in his favored word, an encounter. “Contemporary art has tended nowadays to be very conceptual, and that’s OK,” he said. “But this will be a chance for viewers to reevaluate.”
“Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” is on view at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 24-September 28, 2011.