Correspondence 1993 is a very wide rectangular oil painting by the South Korean artist Lee Ufan that features six large monochrome brushstrokes placed at intervals on a white background. Three of the brushstrokes have been painted horizontally and three vertically, and they are scattered around the painting in a seemingly unordered manner, although they are mostly positioned towards and parallel to the composition’s edge. All six brushstrokes are approximately the same width and length (185 mm wide by 265 mm long) and the paint varies in thickness within each stroke, from very thin at one end to very thick at the other. The marks have been created through repetitive, decisive gestures and a sense of movement has been created by the heavily directional appearance of the brushstrokes, which give the marks the impression that they are travelling towards and around one another across the pictorial space.
Correspondence was made in 1993 when Lee was working between studios in Tokyo and Paris. The work’s monochrome marks – some dark grey and others black – are made from powdered mineral pigment dissolved in glue, and the rich mineralisation of the pigment gives a matt appearance to the marks. To apply them, Lee held the primed canvas horizontally rather than upright and loaded a broad, flat brush with pigment, which he then pulled across or down the canvas, gradually depositing the paint onto its surface.
This painting has been constructed in a disciplined, almost ritualistic way that is characteristic of Lee’s practice. The restricted and careful movement of the brush visible in the grey marks, which pale to immateriality in parts, is carefully controlled by the artist, who regulates his breathing when he works (see von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.7). Correspondence is part of a series of the same name, begun in 1991, that shows Lee’s increased interest at the time in exploiting areas of blank background to explore the theme of infinity. He has described the development of his mark-making in the Correspondence series as follows:
Until the early 1980s I always composed repetitious figures as a pictorial enactment of the idea of infinity. Then, somehow I realised that the ground of a picture reveals itself and itself expressed infinity. It seems to me that each delimited brushstroke, each figure gradually became liberated from me, fully exhaling and inhaling space, and achieved more liveness [sic] than before.
(Quoted in an unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, July 1997, Tate Artist Catalogue File, Lee Ufan, A21074.)
The brushstrokes loaded with pigment in Correspondence are not dragged to their spent, pictorial end, as is seen in Lee’s From Line 1978 (Tate T07301). Rather, a sense of emptiness is created by the dialogue between the grey marks and the white canvas. The art historian Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe has described how the Correspondence paintings ‘reveal an open reciprocal relationship between what is done and what is not done, between fullness and emptiness’ (von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.9). In this work the dark grey brushstrokes seem constructed and ‘full’ against the untouched ‘empty’ canvas. Von Berswordt-Wallrabe has located the wider Correspondence series within an East Asian philosophical context that considers fullness and emptiness not as polar opposites (as in the Western tradition of dualistic thought) but as ‘contraries’ that ‘can merge into each other, as in progressions from warm to cold’ (von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.9). Viewed in this way, von Berswordt-Wallrabe argues, the brushstrokes in Correspondence show a liquid transition from dark grey to almost white that merges with the white of the canvas, rather than opposes it (von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.9).
This painting shows a departure from the sweeping lines of earlier paintings by Lee such as From Line 1978 (Tate T07301) and the looser brushwork of From Winds 1982 (Tate T07302). Correspondence belongs to a transitional point in Lee’s work in the early 1990s, when according to von Berswordt-Wallrabe his ‘process of painting becomes calmer and clearer’ relying on ‘only a few horizontally or vertically oriented brushstrokes … placed in relationship to each other as well as to the otherwise untouched canvas surface’ (von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.9). This is also evident in the similarly titled Dialogue series, started in 2006 and ongoing, which features even more economical compositions of coloured marks, constructed with either a single, fluid brushstroke or built up from multiple, repetitive marks against a white background.
Since the early 1970s Lee has lived in both France and Japan and Correspondence can be considered to reflect an interface between Eastern and Western visual and philosophical influences. Although his work has been connected to broader minimalist and postminimalist movements, it has a visual connection with traditional Japanese ink brush painting, in which Lee was trained, and he was one of the leading proponents of the mono-ha (‘School of Things’) artistic movement that emerged in Japan in the mid-1960s, which advocated the rejection of traditional notions of representation in favour of exploring materials, their properties and relationships.
Jean Fisher (ed.), Selected Writings by Lee Ufan 1970–96, Lisson Gallery, London 1996, reproduced.
Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe, Lee Ufan, exhibition catalogue, Pace Gallery, New York 2008.
Alexandra Munroe, Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2011, reproduced on the exhibition website, http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/leeufan/series/correspondance-and-later-relatum, accessed 14 August 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.