Encounters Between Seer and Seen: Lee Ufan at the Guggenheim
Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
June 24–September 28, 2011
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York City 212-423-3500
Sensual the boulder upon the floor, sensual the metal plate against the wall. Sensual the water-glossed curves of stones, the muscular thickness of steel. The two components in Lee Ufan’s sculpture Relatum – silence B (2008)—the boulder sloping seductively toward the plate, the plate coyly leaning on the wall—flirt with each other and the viewer, who is drawn haplessly into a coquettish ménage-à-trois in the opening gallery of the artist’s first major exhibition on U.S. soil. Here, as elsewhere, the brute fact of materials– the industrial plate on the one hand and the geologic ready-made on the other– succumbs to a latent, often humorous, anthropomorphism or “encounter,” a term favored by the artist for the interface between seer and seen. To label the sculpture as Minimalist misses the point: it ignores the artist’s five decades of research into the notion of Art as a vehicle of altered consciousness in which the relationship between the audience and the artwork, between subject and object, is presented as a fragile, phenomenological nexus revelatory of Being.
Marking Infinity, Lee Ufan’s Guggenheim retrospective, is heady stuff. Perhaps the philosophical content of the work explains why it’s taken so long for the artist to be presented to America, whereas in the late 1960s, he was catapulted to fame in Asia as a founding member and critical proponent of the Japanese group Mono-ha (“School of Things”), committed to creating artworks from everyday materials—paper, rope, steel. In both his art and in his writing, the Korean-born Lee grew in stature in Asia over the decades, to the point that last year Japan celebrated the opening of the Lee Ufan Museum– a 32,000-square foot monument designed by none other than Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Lee’s delay in recognition from the West is particularly compelling, and perhaps even poignant, when contextualized within the artist’s lifelong commitment to the universality of art over, and against, Orientalism. For an artist whose work exalts the “encounter” (The Art of Encounter is the key collection of Lee’s translated writings) and the “relationship” (nearly all his sculptures are entitled Relatum), the fragmenting tendencies of identity politics and otherness run counter to the inclusive purview of Being.
For Phenomena and Perception B, the artist recreated an iconic Mono-ha sculpture, dropping a boulder on a sheet of glass fitted to a steel plate. Originally Phenomena and Perception B read as a vigorous critique of Modernism’s query of personal identity, but, fifty years later, the work is a shattering indictment of virtuality. The physical world, Lee’s art suggests, reifies invisible forces and energies that exist in a constant negotiation of alliances—self and world, art and self, body and consciousness, ad infinitum. No wonder the sculptures derive their power from a fanatical obsession with equilibrium, in which various components—material, spatial and proportional—toggle between harmony and chaos. From the cosmic collision in Phenomena and Perception B to allusions to particle physics in his series From Point and From Line, discourse on the phenomena that give rise to empirical reality resonates throughout the show. In Relatum, (1978) in which a curved steel plate covers a perky stone in the way a heavy blanket covers a child, humanity seems to peek out from under (or through) existence, as if to playfully say, “here I am!”
The final room in the retrospective features an installation from the recent Dialogue series in which the ontological concerns of the paintings find their latest, and perhaps most powerful, iteration. On three of the gallery walls, Lee has placed a single square brush stroke from a six-inch brush loaded with oil paint and mineral pigment in a spectrum of luminescent grays, slates, and pearls. While for many years his palette favored a nearly Yves Klein blue, the artist now communicates in the elegant ambiguities of gray. The culminating work posits windows on reality that hover on the surface of the walls and simultaneously recede into the ground, so that the eye is drawn through and beyond the energized patches of paint into the “infinity” of the retrospective’s title. But losing oneself in the experience of these works is not an end in itself: viewers should leave the show convinced of their own existential worth.