Korean minimalist painter and sculptor Lee Ufan has been in the news a lot lately, and under rather peculiar circumstances.
In June, after a year-long investigation, an art dealer in Korea was accused of circulating forgeries of Lee’s paintings, when the case took a surprising turn: The artist himself stepped forward to declare the works—all 13 of them—authentic.
Then in November, Seoul police officials announced they had arrested a painter and two more art dealers on suspicion of forging no fewer than 40 of Lee’s paintings and selling them to the tune of $2.4 million to unsuspecting clients. While the full fallout of these investigations is still unknown, the scandal has prompted new regulatory laws to prevent fakes coming up for sale in the future.
Perhaps what makes Lee’s work both appealing to forgers and confounding to investigators is its minimalist nature. His approach to painting often involves methodically working his brush across a canvas, repeating the same gesture until the paint runs out, like so many dots or lines. He liberally employs the use of yohaku, a defining element of classical Chinese, Japanese and Korean painting wherein an unpainted area is given the same “weight” and significance as painted areas. Lee applies the concept to his sculptures as well, which can appear to be no more than a large rock juxtaposed with a sheet of industrial metal leaning against a wall or sitting on a cracked piece of glass. As with many explorations involving restraint, the surface of Lee’s work does not immediately reflect the complexity that lies beneath, behind and all around it.
Lee Ufan was born in 1936 in a mountain village in southeast Korea while it was a colony of Japan, and received a strict Confucian education, eventually studying calligraphy, poetry and painting. In 1956, his parents sent him to Japan to smuggle medicine to a sick uncle, who, in turn, convinced the budding philosopher to stay and study there. Lee obtained his degree from the University of Yokohama in 1961, while at the same time studying traditional Japanese painting, known for its subtlety.
Lee became increasingly interested in abstract expressionism and, by 1969, had written a series of essays that became the foundation for the so-called Mono-ha movement—literally “School of Things” or “School of Objects.” The glib term was created by critics to describe this movement which was based on mostly raw, “honest” materials, their inter-relationships and our perception, rather than an expressive, formalist approach. As de facto godfather of this loosely affiliated group of artists, Lee was launched onto the international stage. He quickly developed into a key figure of the Korean monochrome painting movement known as dansaekhwa, which engages with the idea of physically marking the passage of time through repeated actions. But he has since moved from works such as his dense From Point and From Line series (produced from 1972 and 1973, respectively, until 1984) to the roomier gestures behind his later work, such as From Winds (1982–1986), and the elegant near-void experience of his Correspondence (1991– ) and Dialogue (2006– ) series, where his brush may touch the surface no more than one, two or three times.
Throughout his career, Lee’s work has remained fundamentally uncomplicated, if extremely multifaceted. As the world has caught on, Lee has been lauded with shows at the Yokohama Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and at the Palace of Versailles. In 2010, he even got his own museum, the Lee Ufan Museum, designed by Tadao Ando, on the Japanese island of Naoshima. But at the heart of his oeuvre is the unruffled notion that everything is connected, that nothing can be brought into this world and nothing can be taken out of it, it can only be “nudged” from one place to another, opening up new ways of seeing.
Police investigations versus artist reports on forgeries notwithstanding, 53 paintings furthering this dialogue—and introducing an exceptional artist to a wider audience—can’t be all bad.