Focus on Lee Ufan. A minimalist and universal œuvre

[02.10.2020]

The artist Lee Ufan is a paradox disguised as an artist. At the crossroads of several civilizations, he very much rows against the world’s currents and pushes art into new territories…. as we will soon be able to discover at his new foundation in Arles.

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Contemporary art needs time”. Lee Ufan

Born in 1936 near Busan in a Korea occupied by the Japanese, Ufan LEE remains very influenced by his traditional education. The meticulous search for the perfect gesture in calligraphy and the long periods considered necessary for any kind of learning process. Arriving as a young adult in Japan, he wanted to study literature and philosophy, and militated actively for the reunification of the two Koreas. He overcame the language barrier not by drawing kanjis on paper, but by expressing himself through his art, by provoking what he calls “encounters”, where the artistic gesture brings together elements against their own nature, such as natural and industrial materials. The most contrasting substances – especially opposites – tell us something about space and time when brought together. A rock resting on a broken glass plate in 2011 at the Guggenheim in New York; a 15-metre tall polished steel arch butted by two large natural rocks, opening a view onto the green and blue of the royal park of Versailles in 2014 (Relatum-The Arch of Versailles).

Master of the School of Things

The works are as communicative as their author is humble and discreet: the empty spaces in many of his canvases, the volumes of his sculptures, the rhythms of his motifs, the distances between the elements, and the shadows and lightoften juxtaposed, they tell the story of the world. This is the School of Things, the Mono-Ha movement, of which Lee Ufan was the principal figure and theorist. This movement, which included the artists Nobuo SEKINE and Jiro TAKAMATSU, found an echo in the Arte Povera movements in Europe and in Land Art in the United States. It all started in earnest in October 1968 with the opening of Kobes first outdoor Contemporary sculpture exhibition and Nobuo Sekine’s monumental work Phase-Mother Earth. The works focused as much on the interdependence between these different elements and the surrounding space as on the materials themselves. Lee Ufan thus formulated from the end of the 1960s, a new definition of art, far from Western codes. The artist became a matchmaker of shapes. No more modeling, no more technical gestures of engraving, melting and pouring, no more work on, and in, materials. Ufan brings together elements, which quite simply show us that in reality, if we look closely, everything there is to see is already there!

Lee Ufan was also a figure in the Dansaekhwa movement that included artists from Korea and Japan which pushed out the boundaries of painting. Its representatives ground down materials, flooded their canvases, brushed the colours and created deep abstraction in their works. “Dansaekhwa” means literally “monochrome painting” in Korean. Exhibited in Seoul, Tokyo and then in Paris, the movement become the primary face of Contemporary Asian art in the West. It also brought a number of other artists like Young-Woo KWON, Dong-Youb LEE and Seo-Bo PARK to the attention of European art lovers and collectors.

Lee Ufan progression du nombre de lots vendusLee Ufan. Number of lots sold at auction (Copyright Artprice.com)

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An artist in much demand

The immediacy of his art, for which no knowledge or language is required, the experience offered to the viewer and the philosophical dimension of his work have all contributed to Lee Ufan being recognised around the world. In France, where he works for part of the year, his work was exhibited at the Jeu de Paume in 1997, then at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2011, in New York in 2011, at the Palace of Versailles in 2014 and at the La Coste Palace in 2017. His 2019 retrospective at the Metz Pompidou Center was the last opportunity to see his work before the delayed opening (Covid oblige) of his Foundation in Arles, which occupies the superb Vernon hotel (refurbished by Ufan’s architect friend Tadao ANDO. It was Ando who designed the raw concrete box that has housed the masters works since 2010 in the Lee Ufan Museum on the city-island of Naoshima.

“I am hostile to unlimited industrialization, to mass consumerism resulting from unbridled productivism. I am opposed to men wanting to shape the world according to their image of it. Therefore, as contradictory as it may sound, I create for the purpose of not creating. »

(Lee Ufan, Tension Précaire, Cat. Arles, 2013)

Supported by the world’s most prestigious museums, unavoidable at major art fairs, represented by important galleries (Kamel Mennour, Pace, Lisson), Lee Ufan has been recognised the world over. Subject of numerous auction results above the million-dollar line, his works on canvas and paper attract vigorous bidding in auction rooms. Long concentrated in Asia, and in particular in Hong Kong, his market has grown substantially in the United States since 2014 when his superb canvas From Line, No. 760219 doubled Sotheby’s mid-way estimate to reach $2.1 million, flirting with his auction record of $2.2 million hammered in 2012 by Seoul Auction Hong Kong for his From Point, (1977). Although Ufan produces relatively few works, they rarely remain without owners and his unsold rate is only around 16%, which is rare.

EN lee Ufan Geographic distribution

Lee Ufan. Geographic distribution (Copyright Artprice.com)

Such success may seem contradictory to a man opposed to the commercial drift of the world in general and that of art in particular, but it is not. Always in search of authenticity, Lee Ufan’s philosophical works help us to look at time differently with a universal language that seems to appeal to collectors all over the world. From Asia to the United States, bidders have established Lee Ufan as one of the worlds Top 100 most sought-after and successful artists at auction.

Have a look at Ufan LEE’s turnover, number of sold lots, sales geographic distribution and more: https://www.artprice.com/artist/185901/ufan-lee/index