Acquisition: Lee Ufan’s “Dialogue”
Lee Ufan (born Haman, Korea, 1936) is an internationally celebrated painter, sculptor, and theorist who is best known as a founder of Mono-ha (School of Things), one of the most important movements to emerge from postwar Japan. The group rejected Western notions of representation and emphasized making, perception, and the interrelationships between space and matter, creating works from raw, natural, and industrial materials with little manipulation. The National Gallery of Art has acquired the painting Dialogue (2011), a classic example of one of the artist’s most important series (Dialogue, 2006–present). Acquired using funds from the Patrons’ Permanent Fund and a generous gift from Milly and Arne Glimcher, this is the first work by the artist to enter the collection.
Lee is recognized for his unconventional artistic processes—which underscore relationships between viewer, artwork, and the spaces they inhabit—and for philosophical writings that explore these dynamics. A large vertical painting, Dialogue consists of three oblong “brushstrokes”: two horizontal and one vertical, each blended gray to white and placed near the edges of a cream-colored ground. Lee held his breath as he made each “stroke” with multiple passes of a wide hake (goat’s hair) brush. This act of concentration is not only part of the painting’s production, but also our response to it.
Raised in a traditional household in a Korea torn by two consecutive wars, Lee practiced the Confucian arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy as a child before moving to Japan in 1958, where he studied philosophy and learned English, French, and German. In 1968, his experience of seeing a dramatic earthwork by Sekine Nobuo (1942–2019) in Kobe, Japan, influenced his interest in sculpture and he became a leader of the Mono-ha, a group of artists who combined unmanipulated rocks and earth with manufactured materials like steel plates, rubber, and glass sheets. Since 1973, when he was appointed professor at Tama Art University in Tokyo, Lee has embarked on numerous extended series of paintings. His honors include the Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize awarded annually by the Japan Art Association, for painting (2001); a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum (2011); and commissions for installations at the Palace of Versailles (2014) and at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (2019–2020). In 2010 the Lee Ufan Museum, designed by Tadao Ando, opened at Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan. Lee lives and works in Japan and Paris.
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