Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1971/2011, cushions, stones, light. Installation view. Photo: David Heald.

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1971/2011, cushions, stones, light. Installation view. Photo: David Heald.

Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1971/2011, cushions, stones, light. Installation view. Photo: David Heald.

IT HAS BEEN SOME TWENTY YEARS since the great wave of introductions to modern non-Western art, the peak of which coincided with the popularization of such terms as globalization and transnationalism in the 1990s. Now, with those introductions complete, the project of positioning non-Western modernities in an expanded art history has taken on increasing urgency, yielding a growing number of studies and exhibitions bent on historicizing such art. “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” was an intriguing case in point. The first US retrospective for Lee, the Korean-born artist whose writings, paintings, and sculptures helped define the parameters of how contemporary art would be discussed in both Japan and Korea during the 1960s and ’70s, the exhibition covered nearly the entirety of the artist’s fifty-year career, from his days as a young philosophy student in Tokyo to his present status as one of the most celebrated Asian artists of his generation. Alexandra Munroe, the show’s curator, chose to feature mostly works from the ’60s and ’70s, or restagings of them. It was a prudent move, for these works best make Lee’s case: If he deserves attention as an important postwar artist, it has less to do with his current renown or even his voluminous body of writing than with the extent to which he struggled, in those early works, with some of the most fundamental questions of painting and sculpture—materiality, mark-making, and the role of the frame. Often he did so in ways so transparent that the works may strike viewers as obvious, but this is part of the point, for Lee has long been bent on ensuring that the works remain open and accessible to all, regardless of prior experience or knowledge. For him, the goal is to produce artworks without the artist—or to generate artworks in which the viewing encounter, rather than the artist’s background or intentions, takes center stage. In light of increasing calls to consider globalization beyond simplistic considerations of national identity and cultural biography, Lee’s first attempts to do just this were well ahead of his time.

Beginning in 1968, Lee championed the notion of the “thing,” or, in Japanese, mono, as an alternative to definitions of the artwork as an object issued forth from the creative abilities of a specific individual and categorized according to narrow conceptions of medium. Tired of an artistic establishment stubbornly wedded to such definitions, other artists in Japan soon joined forces with Lee, eventually forming a loose-knit group that would be referred to as the Mono-ha, literally, the School of Things. The members of this circle—among them Sekine Nobuo, Kishio Suga, and Susumu Koshimizu—embraced materials not commonly associated with fine art, or bijutsu, and paid close attention to what might be made of juxtaposing certain materials, such as modestly sized stones and large industrial steel plates, as in Lee’s best-known series, “Relatum,” 1968–. “Lee Ufan and Mono-ha,” a presentation installed in a warren of small rooms just off the museum’s main ramp, succinctly illustrated how productive such unlikely juxtapositions could be, particularly as the relatively low ceilings of this space emphasized the intimacy of the viewing encounter, an experience lost on the ramp, where many “Relatum” works ended up looking orphaned.

When Lee’s works emerged on the Japanese art scene, they were refreshing antidotes to a society governed by technocrats accountable only to themselves. Sufficiently modest in scale so as to promote one-to-one interaction with the viewer, these works could not be more different from the behemothlike institutions of the Japanese state, whose imposing scale was mirrored by the rise of Metabolism, an architectural movement that took a top-down approach to urban development characterized by large, vertical buildings that could theoretically be expanded into structures able to accommodate any number of users. It is hardly a coincidence that many “Relatum” works keep low to the ground. They are about holding things fast—as in Lee’s contribution to the 1971 Paris Biennale, in which a rubber mat is held down and stretched by three strategically placed rocks. It is also no coincidence that so many of these works are from 1971, the year after Metabolism’s coming-out party at Expo ’70, the World’s Fair in Osaka.

Much of what lends interest to Lee’s practice is his sense of materials. Contrary to the earnest, sometimes didactic tone of his writings, in his art Lee displays a surprising levity that keeps his work from being too obscurantist or cerebral. Another Relatum from 1971, for example, presents a cluster of variously shaped small stones, sitting on cushions as if they were guests in a traditional Japanese or Korean home, while a 1969 Relatum takes the shape of a steel cube that looks about to burst at the seams with fluffy white cotton. Still another Relatum from 1969 pokes sly fun at the idea of empirical measurement by positioning three small boulders on a giant rubber measuring tape. In some respects, this playfulness is a sign of defiance against the all-consuming seriousness of both US Minimalism, which enthralled so many younger Japanese artists at this time, and the Japanese state, whose policies could be as dehumanizing as those of an authoritarian regime.

It is through painting, however, that Lee’s engagement with materials is most convincing. One of the strong points of “Marking Infinity” is the display of Lee’s rarely seen works from before 1968, many of which demonstrate that the artist regarded the surface as a contested entity, suspended between flatness and plasticity. For From Cuts, 1965, he applied drab white-gray paint so that the eye moves from the flatness of the picture’s edges to a ridged impasto in the center. In one of the show’s most astute pairings, From Cuts is placed next to Pushed-Up Ink, 1964, in which a brush laden with ink has repeatedly punctured a fragile paper surface. Together, the works show how Lee considered the surface as a site through which to explore the mark as both a flat trace of bodily movement and a three-dimensional presence separate from that movement.

Indeed, Lee’s strength lies in his repeated questioning of the mark. Besides “Relatum,” his best-known works are those belonging to the “From Line” and “From Point” series, both ca. 1973–83, whereby mineral pigment of the kind ordinarily used for nihonga, the style of Japanese painting based on traditional materials and techniques, is repeatedly applied to canvas. Both series descended, in part, from a refusal to submit to the more histrionic tendencies of gestural abstraction: Witness Lee’s extraordinary degree of control over the movement of the brush and of pigment. And despite Lee’s stated intentions to recalibrate the artwork according to the viewer’s experiences, the orderliness of the marks in “From Line” and “From Point” compels the viewer to look and move in certain directions. The paintings include the viewer, but on terms unilaterally determined by the artist. Later, Lee embarked on a process he called “disfigurement,” which, in the context of his paintings in the ’80s, could be seen as a deliberate attempt to undo the determinism so palpable in his earlier works. In From Winds, 1989, for example, the once orderly mark dissolves into a monochrome in embryo.

In sensing the need to balance restraint with freedom, Lee also turned to ink painting, a medium in which the artist was formally trained and whose status as a means of contemporary art production in Korea and Japan was deeply contested in the ’60s and ’70s. Although artists such as Suh Se-ok in the former and Morita Shiryu in the latter had, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, attempted to claim a place for ink painting by way of gesture, painting in both countries remained very much bound to an oil-versus-ink dichotomy, reframed as a separation between modernity and tradition, or as West versus East. How to overcome these binaries and, in turn, restore ink painting’s relevance to discussions of contemporary art was a pressing question for both Lee and some of his colleagues in South Korea, where ink painting continued to be regarded as contemporary art long after it had elsewhere been dismissed to the realm of tradition. For them, ink painting served not as a marker of cultural difference but as a necessary first step in underscoring intercultural experience as a critical premise of an expanded modernity. In “Marking Infinity,” this point could have been emphasized by comparing Lee with his colleagues in the Korean monochrome movement tansaekhwa, many of whom also grappled with the legacy of ink as a way of making a case for painting at a time when numerous art worlds had all but left it for dead.

Lee is not an easy artist to categorize. The fluidity with which he moves among cultures, theories, and the so-called gap between East and West often elicits a certain discomfort, if not misreadings of glibness. To be sure, some works—particularly those paintings from the “Dialogue” series, 2007–2009, that feature a single square brushstroke in gray on a large ivory canvas—are too elegant to do the heavy lifting required by Lee’s ambitious project. But his explorations in the ’60s and ’70s exude a rawness that attests to his struggle to engage with a specific time and place without being tethered to it. This struggle was in turn reflected by the organization of “Marking Infinity,” which shifted from framing Lee within the bounds of a time and place to emphasizing his connections to systems theory, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and other ideas and movements associated more closely with postwar art in Western Europe and the US. For Lee, whose artistic debut coincided with intense debates concerning the definition of contemporary art in both Japan and Korea, the condition of being contemporary meant rethinking one’s position as a matter of community: Who, in short, should our contemporaries be? Lee’s efforts to clear a path that avoids both easy parallels based on pseudomorphological comparisons and narrow conceptions of the local and the global constitute the most lasting impression of “Marking Infinity,” and they are certainly worth exploring in the name of rethinking the ways in which we might rewrite the history of modern and contemporary art now.

Joan Kee is an Assistant Professor in the department of art history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.