Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

An Introduction to Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan, From Line, 1978. Tate, London, UK.

Artists' Stories

An Introduction to Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan is a Korean born international artist, whose work is key to the Mono-ha movement. If you have ever been lucky enough to encounter a Lee Ufan in real life you will appreciate its power to bring calm and refresh your view of an object.

Image of the artist from Space Lee Ufan press release, 2014.

The Mono-ha Movement in Japan

Mono-ha means School of Things in Japanese and was originally a derogatory description by a journalist. Now it is the official name of the avante-garde art movement in Tokyo that happened between 1968 and 1975. Instead of traditional representational art, Mono-ha is much more abstract and focuses on materials. The movement was, in part, a response to rapid industrialisation in Japan.

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1968/1994, 100 flat stainless steel bands each 2 metres long, Tate Modern, London.

Artist Nobuo Sekine and his friends, such as Susumu Koshimizu and Katsuro Yoshida, created a piece for the Sumu Rikyu Park Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition (Kobe 1968). The work, called Phase – Mother Earth, which consists of a 2.7m dug hole in the ground, was the start of Mono-ha’s hey-day. Den-en Chofu Seseragi Park’s 2008 exhibition saw the piece recreated.

Nobuo Sekine, Phase – Mother Earth, 1968/2008, Den-en Chofu Seseragi Park.

Mono-ha explores questions of physicality, the limits of creativity and how to rethink the values of Western Modernism.

Lee Ufan
Lee Ufan, Relatum – A Rest, 2005, stone and iron pole, Kamel Mennour, Paris, France.

The artists present natural and industrial materials either on their own or in combinations. Most of the artworks are sculptures or installations and they reduce objects to a primary form. Because it was experimental and often site-specific pieces were usually destroyed since the artists couldn’t (or wouldn’t) preserve them.

Lee Ufan, Dialogue, 2009, oil and stone pigment on canvas, Kamel Mennour, Paris, France.

Mono-ha is a contributor to the idea of Conceptual art . It also has things in commons with Arte Povera in Italy and Minimalism in the United States.

Lee Ufan and the School of Things

Lee Ufan was a very significant part of the Mono-ha movement. Nobuo Sekine introduced him to the other artists in his circle and their collaborations shaped the Mono-ha aesthetic.


“The highest level of expression is not to create something from nothing, but rather to nudge something that already exists so that the world shows up more vividly.”

Lee Ufan
Lee Ufan, Correspondance Place, 2010, Lee Ufan Museum in Naoshima, Japan.

Lee Ufan theorised and popularised Mono-ha. His writing and artworks suggest that space and location are crucial to the meaning of an object, and vice-versa.

“What You See Is What You Don’t See”


As a painter, sculptor, poet and philosopher, all of Ufan’s work draws our attention to emptiness. Blank spaces on a canvas, for example, or untouched areas between two parts of a sculpture. These (non) parts have a huge impact on how we experience a work of art.

Lee Ufan, Relatum – Silence, 2014, Kamel Mennour, Paris, France.

The formula “What you see is what you don’t see” challenges Frank Stella‘s famous Minimalist slogan “what you see is what you see.”

Life and Work


Ufan was born in South Korea, began his artistic career in Japan, and now works at his studio in Paris. There is a Lee Ufan museum at Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan (opened 2010) and also the Space Lee Ufan at the Busan Museum of Art, Korea (opened 2014). His art has been the subject of major shows across the world; currently (February 27 – September 09, 2019) the Centre Pompidou Metz is presenting a retrospective of his career.

Lee Ufan
Lee Ufan, Relatum – Stage, 2018, installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London, image by Mike Din.

One of Lee Ufan’s most well known works is his Relatum series, which he has been creating since the 1960s. The installations comprise stones in relation with other objects, for example iron plates. The term “relatum” is a radical idea that suggests that art is not an object but a network of relationships.

Lee Ufan, From Line, 1978. Tate, London, UK.

Lee Ufan’s artworks, although seemingly simple, are constructed in a disciplined and ritualistic way. When painting he will position the canvas horizontally. Then he loads a round-tipped brush and fluidly deposits paint in one careful stroke. He achieves this level of control is through meditative breathing. This painting technique is reminiscent of calligraphy. It weaves into the philosophy of Mono-ha with its simplicity and emphasis on a raw mineral colour.

Lee Ufan
Lee Ufan, Correspondance, 2005, watercolor, private collection.

Isla graduated with a first class BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her specialisms were Art, Archaeology and the Roman poet Ovid. After graduation she spent a year in Japan, where she interned as a curatorial assistant at the Fukuoka Asian Arts Museum. Currently, Isla is studying for a History of Art MA at Birkbeck, London (part-time). Professionally (full-time) Isla  is the Director of the Kent Academies Network University Access Programme and also a teacher at a school in Kent.

Comments

More in Artists' Stories

  • 20th century

    Jeff Koons and His Balloon Dogs

    By

    What do Jeff Koons, Jay Z, Christie’s, and clowns have in common? Balloon dogs! Read how an artwork looking like a huge toy hit USD 58.4m at a Christie’s auction becoming one of the most expensive artworks by a living artist ever sold at auction. Jeff...

  • 20th century

    Chiharu Shiota’s Installation Art: Drawing in the Air

    By

    Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota creates monumental artworks that immerse the visitor in a tangled web of their own imagination. Delicate yarn installations, filling a gallery space, move you from creation to death, and almost impossibly, beyond.

  • 21st century

    Home and Migration in the Artworks of Zarina Hashmi

    By

    Zarina Hashmi (16 July 1937 – 25 April 2020), was an Indian-American artist and printmaker based in New York City. She was known by her professional name, Zarina. Her works include drawings, prints, and sculptures. She used abstract and geometric forms that associated her with the...

  • 21st century

    Pride in the Pandemic: Remembering Keith Haring, Our Rainbow Angel

    By

    If life is a moving picture, then the current pandemic would be one of the darkest chapters. We are witnessing death, experiencing claustrophobia or alienation, and losing track of time. Today, living in such a dark time, we are still celebrating Pride and the LGBTQ community...

  • 21st century

    Pink Unicorns, Cowboys and Candy Clouds: Welcome to Will Cotton’s Own Wild West

    By

    As unicorns stand as a strong emblem for the LGBTQ community, Will Cotton’s latest works are the perfect way to get your arty fix in Pride Month. Visit The Taming of the Cowboy at Galerie Templon, Brussels. New York-based artist Will Cotton is widely known for...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy