The Guggenheim Museum began 2011 with "The Great Upheaval," a survey of the colorful sturm und drang of early European modernism. Now, the pendulum has swung back to an almost mystical Eastern serenity, via a meditative 40-year retrospective of artist Lee Ufan (b. 1936). Titled "Marking Infinity," the show inhabits the museum's spiraling exhibition ramp, rotunda and two ancillary galleries with minimalist expanses of canvas and spare configurations of stone and steel. It's a Zen Garden of matter, form and space.
Despite relative anonymity here -- this is his first major U.S. exhibition -- the self-effacing artist, Korean-born but now based between Paris and Kamakura in Japan, is esteemed abroad as a seminal figure in the development of East Asian modernism. Having moved to Japan from a partitioned Korea in 1956, he rose to prominence in the late ‘60s as a leading theoretical and practical proponent of the Japanese avant-garde movement Mono-Ha, “school of things,” which sought to illuminate the relationship between materials and space, and developed concurrently with comparable international movements including Minimalism, Arte Povera and Anti-Form.
Over the last four decades, Lee has practiced as a political activist, sculptor, painter, art critic and philosopher, opposing peace to violence and simplicity to chaos. Last June saw the inauguration of the Lee Ufan Museum in a semi-underground building designed by celebrated architect Tadao Ando on Naoshima Island, Japan.
“Marking Infinity,” however, is the first many of us have seen of his work; its mild, reductive forms offer a refreshing contrast to the deafening, if familiar, cacophony of mediums and technologies that characterizes most contemporary exhibitions.
Presenting some 90 sculptures and paintings made since the 1960s, the retrospective highlights the artist’s method of working in “iterative series," collections of works produced by using the same technique, to subtly modified effect. Two early examples of such iterations, From Point and From Line (1972-1984), result from the repetition of an isolated gestural mark: in this case, a brush dot and a brush stroke, respectively, which begin at one side of the canvas and move systematically across it until the pigment is used up and the trace gradually disappears. The fading of each mark charts the passage of time and suggests the inevitability of decay.
An appealing tension between the obsessive and the disciplined characterizes much of Lee’s work; his canvases seem to be both catharsis and symptom, products of release and restraint at once. In Pushed-Up Ink (1964), he explores the meeting of material and material, repeatedly pressing the tip of an ink-soaked brush to the surface of fibrous Japanese paper until its bristles burst through. The resulting painting could be hysterical female cousin to Agnes Martin’s rigorous line grids: a swarm of sensuous black blobs, each punctured at the center by a vacant womb.
Other works exemplify Lee’s involvement with the Korean tansaekhwa (monochrome painting) school. These large paintings feature expanses of bare canvas accented by one painted square, whose gradient, silver pigment dissolves to white; they are frequently displayed as diptychs and triptychs under the iterative title Dialogue.
Lee’s sculptures, ranged along the museum’s ramp and mingling with his canvases, frequently juxtapose natural materials with industrial ones: stones, cotton and sticks are placed in staged conversation with steel plates, metal rods, sheets of rubber, glass. Most are “re-enactments” of works from an ongoing series called Relatum (1968-), new versions of earlier sculptures that substitute locally sourced materials -- stones gathered from a New York quarry, steel from a New Jersey mill -- to recreate the original physical relationships.
Every object, Lee has explained, has a “presence,” and each of his installations features spatial interactions of varying proximity and contact between such presences. The Relatum sculptures, in their numerous manifestations, are deployed throughout the exhibition in locations which beg, and occasionally require, the viewer’s interaction with them. Here, jutting out into the path of foot traffic from its recessed bay, is a stone which has been dropped on a plane of glass, shattering it; there, in the middle of the ramp, sit three stones arranged on the edges of a rubber sheet -- and a fourth set apart, on the floor.
Other works are more discreet: a side gallery presents Relatum-silence b (2008), perhaps the most iconic of Lee’s staged dialogues. In front of a tall, spot-lit slab of steel which leans against the wall perches one solitary stone, shadow pooling around it. The physical rapport between the two objects engenders a living dynamic which animates and personifies them: we “experience the tension” generated by the small, timorous stone as it cowers at the feet of the stern metal plate.
The materials’ relationship to one another, to the wall, to the ground, moves as we do; we project satisfaction, alienation or shame into the shifting space that they share. In their simplicity and resolution, they seem to express the world not as it is, but as we might wish it to be -- at least for a few, quiet moments.
“Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity,” June 24-Sept. 28, 2011, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10128.