LEE UFANFrom Line, 1979, glue and mineral pigment on canvas, 61 cm x 73 cm. Courtesy Pace London. 

LEE UFANEast Wind, 1982, glue and mineral pigment on canvas, 162.2 cm x 130.3 cm. Courtesy Pace London. 

LEE UFANFrom Point, 1979, glue and mineral pigment on canvas, 145.4 cm x 112.1 cm. Courtesy Pace London. 

From Point, From Line, From Wind

Lee Ufan

Pace London
UK Korea, South Japan

As soon as one walks into Pace’s gallery space on Burlington Gardens, we are immediately immersed into a space that is distinctively Lee Ufan. Four of his seven major series—“From Point” (1972–84), “From Line”(1972–84) “From Winds”(1982–86) and “With Winds”(1987–91)—are on show in his third solo exhibition at Pace since joining the gallery in 2007. The show, which is his first solo presentation in London, reconfirms Lee’s status as a renowned figure in contemporary Asian art, providing viewers with an insight into his prolific career. It initiates the viewer, whether an established Lee Ufan enthusiast or art novice, into a space where they are cast into a dialogue with his most seminal works, to contemplate the relationship between the work, the site and the observer.

The exhibition at Pace includes three classic paintings from Lee’s “From Point” series. In creating works for this series, the artist paints a brushstroke on the canvas with cobalt-blue paint, applying it horizontally until the color is exhausted. This act is then systematically repeated until the rows of fading marks reach the bottom of the canvas. This series embodies the concept of Mono-ha, quite literally “the school of objects”—for which Lee is a major proponent. Japan’s first contemporary art movement to receive international recognition, Mono-ha became a landmark for minimalism and strove to eschew expression and intervention for the fluidity between experience and materials.

Lee’s gestural acts not only represent a figurative manifestation of the ephemerality of time, but, considering that the artist takes around a month to finish each painting and no more than 25 works per annum, it is also a materialization of his lived experience. This approach to minimalist abstraction can be traced to another movement of which Lee is a crucial figure—the Korean school of art called Tansaekhwa. In another work in the Pace exhibition, Lee’s sequence of marks on canvas takes on a different compositional structure. Yet the rhythm of the marks is still even and consistent with Lee’s view that, through his works, he is rearranging the elements without changing their harmony.

Moving along at the Pace exhibition, Lee’s “From Line” series is what visitors encounter next. Here, visitors are met with canvases adorned with cascading vertical singular strokes, which are perhaps Lees most recognizable works. The systematic approach is again evident here, with the repetitiveness evoking Buddhist mantras on the balance of being, emphasizing Lee’s invocation of literati principles that lines and points are the basic units of the cosmos. His remarkably meticulous approach to his works pervades every instance of his work. It is particularly evident in the paint he uses, made from combining ground mineral pigment with animal-skin glue nikawa—the traditional medium of East Asian painting on silk—that calls back to the art of nihonga painting, in which Lee was trained.

“With Winds” and “From Winds” belong to one of Lee’s newer series of paintings, both of which began in the mid-1980s. The strokes here are multi-directional and calligraphic; the systematic approach is seemingly forgotten, with brushstrokes changing direction mid-way. It is visibly more frenzied, the strokes multi-layered and indefinable, calling on viewers to focus more on the metaphorical meaning of the work, which supplemented by Lee’s great oeuvre of theoretical writing. The unpredictability suggests an expression of being unburdened from borders, categorization and serialization.

The dynamics of distance is something Lee is often quoted as having had a consequential impact on his works. However, it is this very transnational dynamic that allows Lee to be such a masterful creator of dialogues—between his materials and his audience, wherever the location. “From Point, From Line, From Winds and With Winds” invites us to meditate with Lee and reasserts the artists’ status as the grandmaster of balance. 

Installation view of LEE UFAN’s “From Point, From Line, From Winds and With Winds” at Pace London, 2015.

Lee Ufan’s “From Point, From Line, From Winds and With Winds” is on view at Pace London until October 31, 2015.