Lee Ufan

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Lee Ufan
Revised RomanizationYi Uhwan
McCune–ReischauerI Uhwan
Ufan setting up one of his sculptures at the Guggenheim.

Lee Ufan (Korean: 이우환, Hanja: 李禹煥, Korean pronunciation: [iːuhwan] born 1936 in Haman County, in South Kyongsang province in Korea) is a Korean[1] minimalist painter and sculptor[2] artist and academic, honored by the government of Japan for having "contributed to the development of contemporary art in Japan."[3] The art of this artist, who has long been based in Japan, is rooted in an Eastern appreciation of the nature of materials and also in modern European phenomenology. The origin of Mono-ha may be found in Lee's article "Sonzai to mu wo koete Sekine Nobuo ron (Beyond Being and Nothingness – A Thesis on Sekine Nobuo."[4] Once this initial impetus given, Mono-ha congealed with the participation of the students of the sculptor Yoshishige Saitō, who was teaching at Tama University of Art at the time. One evidence may be found in the book [ba, so, toki] (場 相 時, place phase time) (Spring, 1970).[5] Lee, the main theorist of the Mono-ha ("School of Things") tendency in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was trained as a philosopher.[6] As a painter, Lee contributed to 'Korean Monotone Art' (Dansaekjo Yesul, 單色調 藝術),[7] the first artistic movement in 20th century Korea to be promoted in Japan. He advocates a methodology of de-westernization and demodernization in both theory and practice as an antidote to the Eurocentric thought of 1960s postwar Japanese society. Lee divides his time between Kamakura, Japan and Paris, France.


Born in Haman-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do in 1936, Lee Ufan was raised by his parents and Confucian grandfather. Lee studied painting at the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University for just two months and moved to Yokohama, Japan in 1956, where he earned a degree in philosophy in 1961.[8] Whilst studying philosophy Ufan painted in a restrained, traditional Japanese style, eschewing the expressive abstraction of the contemporary Japanese Gutai movement.[9] After graduating from the university in Japan, 1961, he threw himself against the South–North unification movement and the military regime. In 1964, Lee was arrested and tortured by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).[10]

Lee spent his early working years pursuing careers as an art critic, philosopher, and artist.[11][12] In Japan he became an active participant in the countercultural upheavals surrounding the Anpo Movement of the 1960s.[13] He came to prominence in the late 1960s as one of the founders and theoretical leaders of the avant garde Mono-ha (School of Thing) group.[14] Mono-Ha was related in Arte Povera movement of the 1960s and Japan's first contemporary art movement to gain international recognition. The Mono-Ha school of thought rejected Western notions of representation, choosing to focus on the relationships of materials and perceptions rather than on expression or intervention. The movement's goal was to embrace the world at large and encourage the fluid coexistence of numerous beings, concepts, and experiences. Lee U-fan's position in the philosophy department at Nihon University in Tokyo earned him a distinguished role as the movement's spokesman. In 1973, he was appointed Professor of Tama Art University in Tokyo and he stayed there until 2007.[15] Yoshio Itagaki was one of his students in 1989–1991. He is Professor emeritus at Tama Art University.

In the mid-1970s Lee introduced Korean five artists whom called later Dansaekzo Whehwa (Monotone Painting) school to Japan,[16] which offered a fresh approach to abstraction by presenting repetitive gestural marks as bodily records of time's perpetual passage.[8] In his early painting series, From Point and From Line (1972–84), Lee combines ground mineral pigment with animal-skin glue, characteristic of nihonga painting in which he was trained. Each brushstroke is applied slowly and is composed of several layers. Where the brush first makes contact with the canvas, the paint is thick, forming a 'ridge' that gradually becomes lighter. Rarely does his brush touch the surface more than three times.[17] The artist refers to this as yohaku or the art of emptiness.[18] In the From Point works he adopted a similar method in order to produce a fading series of small, discrete, rectangular brushstrokes.[9] In 1991 Lee began his series of Correspondance paintings, which consist of just one or two grey-blue brushstrokes, made of a mixture of oil and crushed stone pigment, applied onto a large white surface. On average it takes Lee about a month to finish a painting, on canvases that typically measure about 60 by 90 inches, although they can vary in size from a few inches to 10 feet per side. He completes no more than 25 works a year.[11]

Lee Ufan Relatum with four stones and four irons 1978

Lee's sculptures, presenting dispersed arrangements of stones together with industrial materials like steel plates, rubber sheets, and glass panes, recast the discrete object as a network of relations based on parity between the viewer, materials, and site. In his sculptural series Relatum, each work consists of one or more light-colored round stones and dark, rectangular iron plates.[19]


From his first solo exhibition in Japan in 1967, Lee Ufan was invited by Manfred Schneckenburger to participate in Documenta VI (1977) in Kassel, and in 1969 and 1973 he represented Korea in the Bienal de São Paulo.[20] His work was included in the 1992 Tate Liverpool exhibition, "Working With Nature: Traditional Thought in Contemporary Art from Korea", the first major survey of Korean art shown in Britain.[21] In 1997 he had a solo exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, Paris and in 2001 the Kunstmuseum Bonn held a major retrospective of his work. Major exhibitions of Lee's painting and sculpture were later held at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2005 and the Musée d'art Moderne Saint-Etienne in France in December 2005. The Situation Kunst (für Max Imdahl), a museum associated with Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, opened in 2006 with a gallery devoted to a permanent installation of Lee Ufan's paintings and a garden of his sculpture. However, it was Lee's "Resonance" exhibition at Palazzo Palumbo Fossati during the 2007 Venice Biennale that won him critical acclaim and a wider audience.[11]

In 2011, Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity was exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, organized by curator Alexandra Munroe, with over 90 works, from the 1960s to the present.[22] Art critic Robert C. Morgan writes in The Brooklyn Rail: "What makes Lee Ufan's work exhilarating is the structure—not in the pragmatic sense, but in the virtual/tactile sense; that is, the manner in which the 'weight' comes down to the gravity of seeing: we see and touch the work, less in actuality than conceptually."[23]

In 2014, Lee was the seventh guest artist selected for the contemporary art program of the Palace of Versailles.[24] after Jeff Koons in 2008, Xavier Veilhan in 2009, Takashi Murakami in 2010, Bernar Venet in 2011, Joana Vasconcelos in 2012 and Giuseppe Penone en 2013.

In 2019, Lee became the first single-artist to take over the entire plaza of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the museum's 44-year existence.[25] A site-specific commission, Lee Ufan: Open Dimension features 10 new sculptures that will activate the museum's plaza through September 13, 2020.

In 2020, Lee's work will be displayed at the STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World exhibition in Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan. In the exhibition it will feature one of Lee's earlier works, "Relatum" along with the three-dimensional work, "Relatum - Dissonance" and two large-scale new works, "Dialogue" paintings.[26]


Lee is represented in major museum collections including: MoMA, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Tate Gallery, London; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo Holland; the National Museums of Modern Art in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka; the Yokohama Museum of Art and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. His work is also held in the permanent collection of the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art[27] and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.


In 1997, Lee was invited to serve as visiting professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He received the UNESCO Prize at the Shanghai Biennale in 2000; the Ho-Am Prize of the Samsung Foundation in Korea in 2001; and the 13th Praemium Imperiale for painting in 2001. In 2010, the Lee Ufan Museum, a building designed by Tadao Ando and operated by Benesse, opened on the island of Naoshima, Japan.[28]

Art market[edit]

Lee's paintings regularly fetch six-figure dollar sums at auction. A 1980 canvas with a series of vertical blue lines, for example, went for $410,000 at Sotheby's in New York in 2010.[29] Lee's primary dealers are Pace Gallery, in New York and Seoul; Scai the Bathhouse, in Tokyo; and Lisson Gallery, in London, New York and Shanghai.



  • 《양의의 표현》, 2022
  • 《멈춰 서서》, 2004
  • 《여백의 예술》, 2002
  • 《시간의 여울》, 1994


  1. ^ 돌·쇠'로 우주 삼라만상 얘기할 수 있더라 (Aug 27, 2009), Hankyoreh.
  2. ^ Felicity Fenner, Art in America, July, 2003,
  3. ^ a b Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "2009 Autumn Conferment of Decorations on Foreign Nationals," p. 9.
  4. ^ Original title is "存在と無を越えて–關根伸夫論" (Art magazine Sansai 三彩, Japan, June 1969), Kim Mi Kyung, "Study on Sekine Nobuo Ron (1969) by Lee Ufan", Journal of Korean Modern Art History, Association for Education of Korean Art History, Seoul; Korea, pp. 234–78, 2005
  5. ^ Kim Mi Kyung, "Rereading Lee Ufan in the contexts of Japanese Mono-ha, and Korean Monotone Painting and Experimental Art", Asian Studies Conference Japan (ASCJ), Sophia University, Ichigaya Campus, Tokyo, June 21, 2003
  6. ^ Gómez, Edward M. (July–August 2011). "Whose Modernism is it Anyway?". The Brooklyn Rail.
  7. ^ Recently the Korean term "Dansaekhwa", a rough translation of 'Monochrome Painting' was used from the loosely defined nomenclature in the exhibition of National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea in 2012. But numerous artists could not be accurately studied so long as they were related to the concept of "Dansaek (monochrome)" or "hwa (painting)". They are rather to be approached from the consideration for the realm of materials, subjectively located in space and time, hence re-reading "The Monotone Art" (not "the monochrome painting"). Lee's concept of Mono-ha has been misidentified with 'monochrome painting' in Korea. See Kim Mi Kyung, Experimental Art and society in the 1960–70s Korea, Doctoral thesis, Ewha Womans University (Seoul; Korea), August, 2000 [1] and Kim Mi Kyung, "Re-reading Korean Contemporary Art", special lecture at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, April 15, 2014.
  8. ^ a b Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, June 24 – September 28, 2011 Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  9. ^ a b Lee Ufan Tate Collection.
  10. ^ www.tagboat.com
  11. ^ a b c Benjamin Genocchio (May 15, 2011), Lee Ufan Blouinartinfo.
  12. ^ "ArtPremium – The Breviloquence of Art". ArtPremium. 2018-04-13. Retrieved 2018-05-03.
  13. ^ Ken Johnson (June 23, 2011), A Fine Line: Style or Philosophy New York Times.
  14. ^ Nancy Kapitanoff (March 31, 1991), Japan Exports Different Perspective with Museum Exhibit Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ Lee Ufan, September 3 – October 2, 2009 Archived 2011-10-01 at the Wayback Machine Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris.
  16. ^ Kim Mi Kyung, "So (素) – Korean Monotone Painting Rereading with Soye (素藝): Critical research on <Korea, Five artists, Five Hinsek, White> exhibition(Tokyo gallery, 1975)", Rereading Korean Modern Art III, vol 2, ICAS; Seoul, Korea, 2003 [2]
  17. ^ Lee Ufan, April 2 – May 10, 2008 Lisson Gallery, London.
  18. ^ [Lee Ufan, From Line, 1978] Christie's Post War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, 14 November 2007, New York.
  19. ^ Lee Ufan Lisson Gallery, London.
  20. ^ Lee Ufan, January 21 – February 28, 2004 Lisson Gallery, London.
  21. ^ "Tate Liverpool exhibition information". Archived from the original on 2012-02-03. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  22. ^ "Alexandra Munroe, Curator, Exhibition Page". Alexandra Munroe website Accessed July 1, 2015.
  23. ^ Morgan, Robert C. (Jul–Aug 2011). "Lee Ufan: The Art of Present Reality". The Brooklyn Rail.
  24. ^ Lee Ufan at Versailles Pace Gallery.
  25. ^ Jenkins, Mark. "'Lee Ufan: Open Dimension' transforms the Hirshhorn's outdoor plaza, subtly". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-10-23.
  26. ^ "STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World". www.mori.art.museum. Retrieved 2020-08-18.
  27. ^ "Hiroshama City Museum of Contemporary Art website". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  28. ^ "Lee Ufan Museum". Archived from the original on 2012-05-13. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  29. ^ Edan Corkill (August 1, 2010), Korean at the forefront of Japan's modern art The Japan Times.
  30. ^ "Cultural Highlights; From the Japanese Press (August 1–October 31, 2001)," Archived September 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine Japan Foundation Newsletter, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, p. 7.


  • Kee Joan, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
  • Alexandra Munroe (2011). Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity. New York: Guggenheim Museum. ISBN 978-0-89207-418-1.
  • Lee Ufan: The Art of Encounter, London 2008.
  • S. von Berswordt-Wallrabe: Lee Ufan. Encounters with the Other, Steidl, Goettingen, 2008.
  • Kim Mi Kyung, Encountering Lee Ufan on the path of Mono-ha, Gonggansa, Seoul: Korea, 18.5x24cm, 440 pages, 2006.[3]

External links[edit]