Lee Ufan

Born in Korea in 1936, Lee Ufan emigrated in his late teens to Japan, where in the late 1960s and early ’70s he was among the protagonists of Mono-ha, “the school of things,” a movement that to some extent paralleled Western arte povera and post-Minimalism. He now divides his time between Japan and France. Most of his recent paintings fall within a series titled “Dialogues,” 2005–, and are produced according to the same method: Between one and four brushstrokes of gray paint are made on pure white canvases.

But perhaps it is misleading to call them brushstrokes; they are not singular traces of a free movement of the brush across the surface of the canvas, as in the works in his series “From Line,” 1973–82, which feature parallel lines indexing the transition from loaded to empty brush. For the “Dialogues,” Lee uses a very wide brush, which results in marks that are blunt and squarish, though somewhat wider at the beginning and narrower at the end, where the brush has lifted off the surface. There is an artificiality to the marks: They have great physical density, not only because they actually comprise many layers made on top of one another over the course of weeks or months but also because the pigment has been mixed with crushed stone, which gives the paint a darkly glittering quality. The pressure of the brush against the paint creates ridges at the top of the marks and along their sides, giving them strong definition. And the delicate gradation of tones from light to dark across the marks creates a sense of illusion at work; one could almost believe the shading had been spray painted across the surfaces.

These marks are thus neither mechanical and systematic, like those of Niele Toroni, nor are they pictures of brushstrokes, like those of Roy Lichtenstein, any more than they evoke traces of inner impulses, like those of the Abstract Expressionists. They are very similar among themselves, though not identical; what seems to count, in any case, is not the stroke itself but how it occupies the canvas. For this reason the smaller paintings, as in a four-part Dialogue from 2007, seem unsuccessful, since a small canvas does not provide enough space for the mark to resonate. And the mark made directly on the wall in Dialogue–Space, 2008, falls fl at because the space with which it means to interact lacks definition; the acrylic paint lacks physical presence, seeming more like an illustration of a brushstroke than an example of one. But in the majority of cases here, the “dialogue” between mark and space is both concentrated and vast, refined and powerful.

The sculptures from Lee’s series “Relatum,” 1979–2008, have great physical presence yet are surprisingly pictorial in conception. Most are based on the pairing of a large stone—one not “interesting” or unusual—with an iron plate (or a multiple of such pairings: two stones with two plates, four stones with four plates). In the relation between the two elements, the same dialectic of figure and ground is set up (and transcended) as in the paintings. But as a group, the sculptures are more varied and elusive than the paintings. They allow for anthropomorphic metaphors that the paintings avoid—for instance, the two stones in Relatum–Lover, 1986, seem to reach toward each other in a kiss across the boundary formed by the meeting of the iron sheets on which they sit—even while maintaining their distance, as natural objects, from the human intention that has merely borrowed them.

Barry Schwabsky