Lee Ufan’s current exhibition at the Guggenheim New York is his first major show in the US, and only the third by an Asian at the prestigious space – the previous being by Cai Guo-Qiang (I Want to Believe, 2008) and fellow Korean Paik Nam-june (The Worlds of Nam June Paik, 2000).
With three-dimensional installations and “structures” (Lee prefers this word to describe his work, rather than “sculptures”), the nature of the gallery space takes on more importance than it does with two-dimensional paintings. Lee’s attempt to take on a Venetian merchant’s house as an exhibition space in the Biennale collateral programme 2007 was only partially successful, while his favoured London gallery allows little room for his work to breathe. Against this backdrop, the opportunity to view Lee’s work in the openness of the Guggenheim is to be welcomed.
Lee spent over three weeks in the Guggenheim struggling with the shape of the space, particularly in relation to the positioning of the big Dialogue installation on the ground floor of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda. It is not an entirely easy conversation, the stark rectangle of the sheet steel battling with the curved spiral of the ramps. But as you climb the ramps, with the curves introducing you to new works as you turn, the dialogue with the building works much better.
The exhibition is a comprehensive retrospective, encompassing all main strands of Lee’s work. In his From Point and From Line series (commenced in 1972/3), Lee mixes cobalt blue (representing the sky) or dark orange / ochre (representing the earth) mineral pigment with animal skin glue, painting parallel rows of dots or lines until the paint is expended. As the brush moves along the canvas the paint gets thinner until it gradually vanishes: we therefore get a sense of the passing of time as we look at the simple, repetitive composition. For Lee, points and lines have special meaning:
All things in the universe start from a point and return to a point. 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 line1
In his Relatum series, which covers most of his sculptural works, Lee seeks to explore the relationships between viewer, object and site. Most of these works comprise squares of steel, perhaps the most basic of man-made materials, and rocks, one of nature’s elemental building blocks. Lee’s rocks seem to echo the importance of stone in Korean traditional gardens, which in turn is a consequence of their place in Confucian philosophy2. Are all things of natural beauty in their own right. And by placing them in juxtaposition with sheet steel, or carefully arranging them on a cushion, Lee seeks to encourage us to walk around or through the installations, exploring our relation to the objects and to the space around us.
The rocks used in the structures carefully assembled for this exhibition come from Long Island. One particularly red-tinted rock worked well with the ochre Dialogue painting on the wall behind it.
If you think of Lee’s work as displaying a sense of inner peace and meditation, you might be surprised by some of the work on show. His From Winds and With Winds series displays more chaos than order, while his Pushed-Up Ink (1964) almost shows anger in its aggressive poking of the paper with a paintbrush as he explores techniques inspired by traditional Korean ink painting. His Relatum (formerly System A) (1969), a steel cube seemingly exploding under the pressure of its cotton-wool stuffing, and a cotton mattress with bits of steel poking out, seem to be more surrealist than minimalist. But these works are exceptions to the general theme of points, lines, rocks and steel, all carefully and meditatively illuminated.
Lee’s later series of works are Correspondance and Dialogue. The former consists of a few broad brush-strokes placed on a white canvas, inspiring a range of ceramics by potter Park Young-sook; the latter include greyish squares of paint on canvas often in three-dimension arrangements on folding screens.
Possibly the highlight of the exhibition is the site-specific work that you come to last. In fact, you could almost miss it, tucked away as it is at the end of the big gallery area on level 7 in which several of his Dialogue works benefit from the generous space. Painted onto three of the four walls of a large white cubicle are single instances of his trademark Dialogue squares, brightly lit from above so that each is surrounded by a halo of light. As you stand in the middle of the room, the grey square in front of you seems to become detached from the wall, floating into mid air and resonating with a strange intensity. Lee describes the room as “an open site of power in which things and space interact vividly.” A Korean commentator opined to me after seeing the exhibition that the room had a special energy (기). It’s a room you need to be in on your own, so you have to hope that your fellow visitors never make it there.
Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, runs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, June 24–September 28, 2011, with numerous associated educational events. There is a helpful catalogue of the exhibition which has been of assistance in providing supplementary material for the above review.
Image credits and artwork details:
- From Line, 1977, Glue and mineral pigment on canvas, 182 x 227 cm, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Photo courtesy Lee Ufan
- Dialogue, 2009/11 Steel and stones Two plates, 200 x 1.5 x 400 cm each; two stones, approximately 70 cm high each Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul Installation view: Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, June 24–September 28, 2011 Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
- Top: From Line (1980). Glue and mineral pigment on canvas, 218 x 291cm, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo / From Point (1977). Oil and mineral pigment on canvas, 182 x 227 cm. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Installation view of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, June 24–September 28, 2011. Photo: LKL, 23 June 2011.
- In foreground: Relatum – a response, 2008/2011: Steel and stone. Plate, 2.5 x 160 x 150 cm; stone approximately 60 cm high. Photo: LKL
- Left: Pushed-Up Ink (1964). Ink on Japanese paper, mounted on wood. 70 x 55 x 4.5 cm. Private collection, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Right: With Winds (1989). Oil on canvas, 292 x 219 cm. Private collection, Seattle. Photo courtesy Lisson Gallery, London
- Relatum (formerly Language), 1971/2011. Cushions, stones, and light. Dimensions vary with installation. Private collection. Installation view: Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, June 24–September 28, 2011. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
- Lee Ufan making Dialogue—space (2011) during installation of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 2011. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
- Dialogue—space, 2011. Acrylic on wall. Dimensions vary with installation. Installation view: Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, June 24–September 28, 2011. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
- Exhibition website at the Guggenheim
- LKL visits Lee Ufan: Resonance at Palazzo Palumbo Fossati, Collateral Event in the 52nd Venice Biennale, 10 June – 21 November 2007
- Main Guggenheim website
- Lee Ufan talking at the opening of the exhibition, LKL
- Quoted by Alexandra Munroe in her essay Stand Still a Moment in the exhibition catalogue, p 22.
- “Yi Gok (1298-1351), a Confucian scholar from the late Koryo dynasty … pointed out that in the natural world, flowers and plants cannot control their own fate but are dependent on changes in the seasons. Stone, however, transcends the normal vicissitudes of nature. It has stayed the same since the beginning of time. It is a tried and true companion … A stone is not ostentatious nor does it strut around demanding attention … That is precisely why scholars in the past liked to sit and contemplate the virtues of stone … When our ancestors built gardens … they would find an unusual rock somewhere and move it into their garden.” Heo Kyun (Tr Donald L Baker) Gardens of Korea – Harmony with Intellect and Nature, Saffron Books 2005 pp 54-55.