PRINT May 2011

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Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan hunting for stones, East Hampton, NY, October 2010. Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

June 24–September 28
Curated by Alexandra Munroe

LEE UFAN WAS A CHAMPION of the global long before the global turn actually came to pass. As the theoretical pillar of the Mono-ha, or Things School, the loose constellation of artists whose use of ordinary materials such as cotton, wood, rope, and even dirt significantly affected the Japanese art world in the late 1960s, and a pivotal figure in the tansaekhwa (monochromatic painting) movement—arguably the most important artistic development in twentieth-century Korea, which offered a fundamentally different approach to modernist abstraction—Lee emphasized materiality as the means by which to produce “encounters” that would connect objects and viewers, which in turn would show the “world as it is.” He did so by drawing on multiple conceptions of the physical object as gleaned from both Western and non-Western practices. Lee’s series “Relatum,” 1968–, seemingly unpremeditated arrangements of stones together with sheets of iron, cushions, and glass plates, responded to the intensely turbulent social climate of Japan during the late ’60s by presenting a model of interaction based on parity—between the artist, the viewer, and the artwork. Lee paired his artistic practice with a prodigious body of criticism that drew from his formidable store of philosophical knowledge. His influential writings fluidly moved from the ideas of thinkers such as Foucault—who was enormously popular in Japanese intellectual circles by 1970—to those of the Kyoto School philosopher Nishida Kitaro-, whose reflections on the notions of self and place resonated profoundly for Lee, a Korean-born artist living in Japan, where frequent discrimination against Koreans served as a troubling reminder of an unresolved history of colonization.

By way of raising the stakes, Lee turned to painting in 1973, when artists in many parts of the world had all but left it for dead. His series “From Line” and “From Point,” both 1973ca. 1983, address a particular history of modernist abstraction, taking into consideration its best-known paradigms—seriality, gesture, the grid, and the monochrome—and turning them inside out via alternative conceptions of the mark, the edge, and the surface. That they nevertheless bring to mind the work of artists such as Agnes Martin and Niele Toroni emphasizes the degree to which Lee proposed correspondence (the title of another of his painting series), rather than difference, as a means of rethinking a world divided by conflicting ideologies and national boundaries. In the series titled “Dialogue,” 2007–2009, Lee expanded his argument by focusing on the moment at which the brush encounters the support.

Though he achieved wide recognition in Europe and Asia, Lee has received surprisingly little attention in North America. That omission should, to a great extent, be remedied this summer, with this major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York—organized by the museum’s senior curator of Asian art, Alexandra Munroe—which will exhibit some ninety works made between 1964 and the present, including sculptures, paintings, and works on paper, as well as an installation created especially for the exhibition. The accompanying catalogue will contain essays by the curator and Tatehata Akira, director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan. In the wake of the “global turn,” it is high time the world recognized an artist so profoundly invested in the realization of its potential. Joan Kee