From Line 1978 is a large rectangular oil painting on canvas by the South Korean artist Lee Ufan. Twenty-six blue lines are arranged vertically across the composition either singularly or in groups of two, three, four or five. Each stroke extends almost the full height of the canvas, with the paint varying in thickness within each stroke, from very thick at the top end and fading out to very thin at the bottom. The canvas’s surface has been painted in a translucent wash of yellow oil paint that highlights the deep blue of the lines, and the contrast between these colours makes the image appear to vibrate. The lines are made from powdered cobalt blue pigment that has been dissolved in glue, and the rich mineralisation of the pigment gives the upper parts of the lines a matt appearance.
From Line was made in 1978 when Lee was working between studios in Tokyo and Paris. This painting has been constructed in a disciplined, almost ritualistic way that is characteristic of Lee’s practice. Each line has been created using repetitive, fluid movements. To apply the strokes, Lee positioned the canvas horizontally rather than upright and loaded a round-tipped brush with pigment, which he then pulled across the canvas, gradually depositing the paint until it was almost used up. The lines were added to the canvas one by one in direct succession, moving from left to right across the canvas. The gradual unloading of the brush visible in the blue lines, which pale to immateriality at the bottom of the canvas, is carefully controlled by the artist, who regulates his breathing when working (von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.7).
Art historian Joan Kee has linked Lee’s creation of images such as From Line to his interest in munjado – a traditional Korean form of ideograph painting featuring a single Chinese character. Kee claims that munjado ‘insists upon its status as a painting, but one that erases the semantic and referential capacity of even words and characters’ (Kee 2008, p.420). The sweeping, fluid movements in From Line are similarly calligraphic in nature. Additionally, with its emphasis on raw, mineral colour, it reflects the interests of the Japanese avant-garde movement mono-ha (‘School of Things’), which emerged in the mid-1960s and of which Lee was a leading proponent. Mono-ha sought to reject Western notions of representation, partly in reaction to the rapid industrialisation of Japan, and to produce art ‘whose fundamental materials were allowed to be shown without alteration’ (Kee 2008, p.405).
From Line encourages the viewer to meditate on the nature of time through the act of viewing its multiple, repetitive brushstrokes. Lee has emphasised the relationship between time and space in his practice:
Load the brush and draw a line. At the beginning it will appear dark and thick, then it will get gradually thinner and finally disappear … A line must have a beginning and an end. Space appears within the passage of time and when the process of creating space comes to an end, time also vanishes.
(Quoted in display caption, Lee Ufan, From Line 1978, Tate T07301, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lee-from-line-t07301, accessed 26 August 2015.)
From 1957 to 1961 Lee studied philosophy at Nihon University, Tokyo, and From Line could be seen to draw parallels with the theories of the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who understood time as ‘a dimension of our being’ (Merleau-Ponty quoted in von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.8). The art historian Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe has noted that, ‘just as a viewer can consciously experience time in the operation of seeing, for Lee the interactive operation of painting allows him to experience his own being-in-the-world in a concentrated way’ (von Berswordt-Wallrabe 2008, p.8). In From Line Lee seems to act as a mediator between the viewer and the material environment, facilitating their perception of space and time and, by extension, their own ‘being-in-the-world’ as they view this painting.
From Line is part of a series of paintings of the same name that were first exhibited in 1973 and produced up to 1984. These paintings were created alongside Lee’s From Point series (1972–84), which are also characterised by the application of paint in successive movements until it is used up. Lee continued to explore repeated painting gestures and metaphysical concerns in his later work, including From Winds 1982 (Tate T07302) and Correspondence 1993 (Tate T07303). From Line has been exhibited internationally, including in Lee’s solo exhibition at Düsseldorf Kunsthalle in Germany in the year that it was created.
Misook Song, ’98 Korean Contemporary Art: Poetics of Time, exhibition catalogue, Ho-Am Art Museum and Samsung Museum of Modern Art, Seoul 1998, reproduced pp.43–4.
Joan Kee, ‘Points, Lines, Encounters: The World According to Lee Ufan’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.31, no.3, 2008, pp.405–24.
Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe, Lee Ufan, exhibition catalogue, Pace Gallery, New York 2008.
Supported by Christie’s.