Lee Ufan is one of the most sought after Korean artists in the international art world. He is one of three Asian artists who held a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York along with Paik Nam-June and Cai Guo-Qiang. Lee's works are exhibited at the Palace of Versailles following successful shows by Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.
Born in 1936, Lee was educated as a child in traditional East Asian philosophy with emphasis on calligraphy, poetry, and literati painting. Lee developed a serious interest in the arts at Seoul National University and realized that a solid philosophical training was essential for him to become an international artist. He decided to move to Tokyo and majored in philosophy at Nihon University from 1958 to 1961. During the mid-1960s he established himself as a key theorist and artist of the Mono-ha, materials-based art movement of Japan in the 1960s and an influential figure of the Tansaekhwa, the monochrome painting movement of Korea throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Deeply versed in modern Western philosophy, Lee formed his own theory that art should aim to encounter what he variously calls 'the other,' or 'the world.' He combined Western thought with the metaphysics of Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who suggested a new system of thought based on Zen Buddhism. Through his works, Lee visualized his core concept of encounter, in other words, relationship with others, and the body as a significant medium for the encounter, a direct experience between matter and existence.
From 1971, after experiencing the international art scene on a global level, Lee felt an urgency to make a statement challenging Western contemporary art. Lee became motivated to begin his first signature series of painting, From Point Series and From Line Series in 1973-1974. Lee wanted to demonstrate the possibilities of overcoming modern Western abstract painting which appeared to Lee and other critics as approaching a dead end. Recalling the literati principles that he had absorbed as a child, Lee returned to the notion of the point and line in search of a new abstraction. Summoning the principles of classical Eastern writing and painting, Lee saw point and line as the basic units of the universe, the primordial basis for the origin of the cosmos. Lee once articulated his idea on point and line, '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 line.'
In this 1978 master piece From Point (Lot 66), Lee presents a spiral pattern, a rarity amongst his works which showcases his concept of point as the origin of the universe, as he stated 'all things in the universe start from a point and return to a point.' It is typical in this series that Lee loads his brush with pigment and dabs until there is no more paint left on the brush. The point disappears, marking its existence, evoking the ephemerality of our life, and then it resumes again. Lee calls it 'repetition of infinity,' which represents a rhythm of time. Here the repetition of the point is not a geometric figure or pattern, but it becomes the rhythm of a living organism that has a resonance with the world outside.
The play of the two regions of painted space versus unpainted space holds an important fascination for Lee. In his From Point Series and Line Series (1972-84), Lee sought a harmony between the painted and unpainted spaces. But subsequently in his From Wind Series (1982-86) and With Winds Series (1987-91), Lee evolved his work into a more forceful painting style which focused more on the dynamic energy of his paint strokes, making the intervals between the paint secondary. East Wind (Lot 67) featured here is a perfect example from the From Wind Series. The blue mineral pigment from the previous series still remains, but the canvas here reveals a different approach. The static points and lines of the canvas from previous works were replaced by free flowing brushstrokes, displaying a more spiritual freedom. Lee continued in this expressive style for over two decades. After this series imbued with kinetic motion, Lee's works became more meditative as apparent in his Correspondence (1991-2006) and Dialogue Series (2006-).
Lee's work is not an abstract painting but a form of calligraphy. Alternatively, one can see it as an entirely new abstract painting of spirit and material unified into one. In this way, Lee successfully opens a new possibility of painting by distinguishing his work from Western geometric abstract paintings that primarily focus on form alone. Lee's art is the medium or passage which connects the poles between the artificial and nature, I and others, making and unmaking, and made and unmade. It is a completely new approach to art, breaking the modernist definition of creation and the boundary of modern painting and sculpture.