With Wind's, Mineral pigment on canvas, 60.7x72.6cm, 1990
Lee Ufan was raised by his parents and Confucianist grandfather. Lee studied painting at the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University for just two months and, in 1956, moved to Yokohama, Japan, where he earned a degree in philosophy in 1961. Whilst studying philosophy Ufan painted in a restrained, traditional Japanese style, eschewing the expressive abstraction of the contemporary Japanese Gutai movement.
Lee spent his early working years pursuing careers as an art critic, philosopher, and artist. In Japan he became an active participant in the countercultural upheavals surrounding the Anpo Movement of the 1960s. He came to prominence in the late 1960s as one of the founders and theoretical leaders of the avant garde Mono-ha (Object School) group. Mono-Ha was inspired by the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s and Japan's first contemporary art movement to gain international recognition. The Mono-Ha school of thought rejected Western notions of representation, choosing to focus on the relationships of materials and perceptions rather than on expression or intervention. The movement's goal was to embrace the world at large and encourage the fluid coexistence of numerous beings, concepts, and experiences. Lee U-fan's position in the philosophy department at Nihon University in Tokyo earned him a distinguished role as the movement's spokesman. In 1973, he was appointed Professor of Tama Art University in Tokyo and he stayed there until 2007. Yoshio Itagaki was one of his students in 1989-1991. He is Professor emeritus at Tama Art University.
Lee was also a pivotal figure in the Korean tansaekhwa (monochrome painting) school, which offered a fresh approach to minimalist abstraction by presenting repetitive gestural marks as bodily records of time’s perpetual passage. In his early painting series, From Point and From Line (1972–84), Lee combines ground mineral pigment with animal-skin glue, traditional to East Asian painting on silk. Each brushstroke is applied slowly and is composed of several layers. Where the brush first makes contact with the canvas, the paint is thick, forming a 'ridge' that gradually becomes lighter. Rarely does his brush touch the surface more than three times. The artist refers to this as yohaku or the art of emptiness. In the From Point works he adopted a similar method in order to produce a fading series of small, discrete, rectangular brushstokes. In 1991 Lee began his series of Correspondance paintings, which consist of just one or two grey-blue brushstrokes, made of a mixture of oil and crushed stone pigment, applied onto a large white surface. On average it takes Lee about a month to finish a painting, on canvases that typically measure about 60 by 90 inches, although they can vary in size from a few inches to 10 feet per side. He completes no more than 25 works a year.
Lee Ufan Relatum with four stones and four irons 1978 Lee's sculptures, presenting dispersed arrangements of stones together with industrial materials like steel plates, rubber sheets, and glass panes, recast the discrete object as a network of relations based on parity between the viewer, materials, and site. In his sculptural series Relatum, each work consists of one or more light-colored round stones and dark, rectangular iron plates.