Lee Ufan’s body of work seeks to redefine what art is. The artist has always closely combined philosophy and artistic creation. In the mid-1960s, he was one of the founders of the Japanese minimalist movement Mono-ha, which interested itself in the very nature of materials, seeking to establish a dialogue between those made by human hands and raw materials, so initiating reflection on the artificial and the natural. Humankind’s place in nature and various questions on such dualities as present and eternity, full and empty, and finite and infinite are at the heart of his work, while environmental considerations are an integral part of his creative process.
“Encountering a place and communicating with the outside world are as important as the tools and materials I need in order to create a work. All these components are brought together in my approach; they collide with each other until perfect harmony or dissonance results. It’s exactly like musical instruments, each one with its own character, under the direction of a conductor. Each work also requires my total physical and mental involvement,” the artist stated in 2017 on the occasion of the inauguration of Topos (Excavated) at Castello di Ama in Italy.
Since the 1960s, Lee Ufan has worked and continued his reflections between his homeland of South Korea, Japan and the West, in France in particular, as well as between philosophy and art. His works are the embodiments of encounters and experiences to live through. While his sculptures and environments play with space, his paintings focus more on time; all of them testifying to the artist’s desire to tame the infinite. All his works express essential philosophical principles. “It’s not the universe that’s infinite, it’s the infinite that’s the universe”, he asserts for example.
His sculptures usually combine several materials (natural ones such as wood, stone and, cotton and manmade components such as metal, glass and mirrors), selected to resonate with the place that is to receive them. For example; in Arles in 2022, Requiem was specially designed to echo the city’s ancient necropolis. The 13 Relatum – a term that Lee Ufan has used since 1972 to designate his sculptures – are reminiscent on the rectangular stones aligned along the path leading to Saint-Honorat Church and set in its chapels. Always choosing to connect the made and the unmade, Lee Ufan creates a poetic space based on the principle that “seeing, choosing, borrowing and moving are already part of the act of creation”.
His works are simple; they don’t represent objects or scenes. There’s no story to discover or symbol to decipher, the focus is entirely on feelings. According to what the artist himself says, you have to feel the presence of air and space. Lee Ufan meditates for a long time and then breathes deeply before making the first move. When he paints, he spends a few minutes applying the brush gently to the pristine canvas, repeating the action several times, and then leaves it to dry for a week before resuming. A process that is repeated three or four times in succession.
The picture’s surface is never painted in its entirety. Lee Ufan refuses to treat the area of the painting as a land to be conquered. He wants his work to arise from the line he draws between the inhabited part and the empty part, which he refers to as the present part and the absent part of the creation. For him, it’s an encounter between his inner world and the outside world. When the encounter takes place, an image comes to the surface, initiating an infinite sensory dialogue with space and in time. The goal is always the same: to generate reflection. Lee Ufan creates with restraint and moderation. The artist holds back his words in the same way as he holds his breath. He encourages us to look at the world for ourselves and pay attention to nature rather than speech.
Lee Ufan was born in 1936 in South Korea, where he studied poetry, painting and calligraphy, along with the thoughts of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, before leaving for Japan at the age of 20 in order to focus on western philosophy. After graduating from Nihon University in Tokyo, he started out in life as a philosopher and art critic, his thinking influenced by Nietzsche, Rilke, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. In 1968, Lee Ufan made the acquaintance of the artist Nobuo Sekine (1942-2019), to whose ideas and artistic practice he immediately lent his support. The following year, he was awarded the Art Critic’s Prize sponsored by the Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha review, for an article intituled From Inanimate Objects to Living Existence.
As a result, he became the theoretician and spokesman for Mono-ha (“The School of Things”), a Japanese avant-garde movement active from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. The movement’s works put manufactured materials presented in the form of objects alongside unaltered natural materials, in order to highlight possible relationships between the natural and the artificial. Like other movements active in Europe and the United States at the same time, Mono-ha participated in the profound reassessment of the fundamentals and even definition of art.
In 1971, Mono-ha’s concept was presented at the Paris Biennale. Lee Ufan became a teacher at Tama Art University in Tokyo in 1973 and turned his attention to monochrome painting. He continued developing his practice and teaching (until 2007). Through his favourite themes – the relationships between things and the space that surrounds them, between full and empty, and the dialogue between natural and industrial, and between interior and exterior– Lee Ufan provides us with visual meditations embodying a very personal definition of contemporary art, detached from language and apprehended as an immediate sensory experience.
His work has been exhibited countless times across the world, at such institutions as the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the Serpentine Gallery and the Pace Gallery in London, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Olivier Debré Contemporary Creation Centre in Tours, the Château de Versailles, the Museum of Modern Art in Saint Etienne, Jeu de Paume National Gallery, the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul; as well as in the context of numerous artistic events, including the Biennales held in Venice (2007 and 2011), Gwangju (2000 and 2006), Shanghai (2000), Sydney (1976), São Paulo (1973) and Paris (1971). He was awarded the Praemium Imperiale for painting in 2001 and the UNESCO Prize in 2000.
In 2014, Lee Ufan was the guest artist at Louis XIV’s Park and Palace at Versailles, and his work was presented at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in the context of the Formes Simples (2014) and Japanorama. A New Look at Contemporary Creation (2017) exhibitions, and Inhabiting Time (2019). In April 2022, the artist inaugurated the Lee Ufan Arles Foundation, housed in Hôtel Vernon, a 17th-century building located near the city’s Roman arenas and redesigned by the architect Tadao Ando.
Lee Ufan has been represented by the Kamel Mennour Gallery since 2013.