Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity

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Lee Ufan, Long Island, New York, 2011.Photo: Sandhini Poddar

Lee Ufan, Long Island, New York, 2011. Photo: Sandhini Poddar

Lee Ufan is born June 24 in a rural mountain village in the southeastern province of Gyeongsangnam-do, Korea, under Japanese colonial rule. Lee’s father is a liberal newspaper journalist who travels often to Manchuria and Tokyo, and his mother is a homemaker versed in classical Korean literature. His extended family makes their living producing and selling Chinese herbal medicine. Lee’s early years include a strict Confucian upbringing under the wing of his paternal grandfather.

Japan expands its military campaign across China and formalizes what becomes the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy.


The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor leads to America’s entry into World War II.


Following the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, Japan surrenders.

Korea is liberated from Japanese rule but subsequently occupied by the Soviet Union and the United States, who divide the country at the 38th parallel into respective northern and southern zones of control.

Demonstrators protesting theU.S.-Japan Security Treaty (ANPO) at theJapaneseparliament building,Tokyo,June 18, 1960

Demonstrators protesting the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (ANPO) at the Japanese parliament building, Tokyo, June 18, 1960. Photo © Asahi Shimbun Photoarchives

U.S.-backed Rhee Syngman becomes the first president of the newly established First Republic of South Korea, formally taking power from the U.S. military. The democratically founded country swiftly becomes an autocracy under Rhee.

The Soviet-backed North establishes the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with Kim Il-Sung as prime minister. He establishes a Communist dictatorship within a year.

Despite reunification efforts, escalating cross-border skirmishes culminate in North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, the first significant armed conflict of the Cold War.

After two years of stalemate, North and South Korea sign an armistice, which restores the border at the 38th parallel.

Lee moves to Seoul, the South Korean capital, to study at the prestigious Seoul National University Senior High School. Swept up in underground Leftist fervor, his outlook becomes increasingly political.


Lee enters the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University.

At his father’s request, Lee smuggles Chinese medicine to an ailing uncle in Yokohama, Japan. Once there, his uncle persuades him to stay in Japan to pursue his education.

Lee Ufan,Untitled, 1958–59 (lost). Ink on paper, 145 x 112 cm

Lee Ufan, Untitled, 1958–59 (lost). Ink on paper, 145 x 112 cm. Collection of the artist, Kamakura, Japan. Photo courtesy the artist

Lee attends Nihon University, Tokyo, and studies modern Continental philosophy, focusing on phenomenology and structuralism.

Active in Korean pro-reunification politics, Lee develops sympathies for Japan’s radical New Left movement, which opposes the postwar U.S.- Japan Security Treaty and the entrenched authoritarianism in the Japanese state and its universities. This context nurtures Lee’s early work as an artist and writer.


With deepening resolve to become an artist and a growing knowledge of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel, Lee embarks on his first abstract paintings. They build on a foundation of studies in classical East Asian ink brushwork while experimenting with repetitive marking, piercing, and chiseling to investigate the textural qualities of materials.

Japan’s Olympic team during the openingceremonies of the 1964 TokyoOlympics, October 10, 1964

Japan’s Olympic team during the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, October 10, 1964. Photo courtesy Kyodo News

Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games, the first to be held in Asia. The government hopes that the Olympics, telecast internationally by satellite, will inaugurate Japan’s peaceful reemergence on the international stage.

International travel restrictions are eased in Japan.

Lee marries Kim Sungsoon, a Korean national living in Japan. Within a few years, they have three daughters, Mina, Soona, and Bona.

Takamatsu Jirō, Chairs and Table in Perspective (from PerspectiveSeries, 1966–71), 1967

Takamatsu Jirō, Chairs and Table in Perspective (from Perspective Series, 1966–71), 1967. Lacquer on wood, 210 x 120 x 110 cm. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Photo courtesy The Estate of Takamatsu Jirō/Yumiko Chiba Associates © Yasuko Takamatsu

Lee helps found Gallery Shinjuku, an exhibition space in the Korean Scholarship Association building in Tokyo that becomes an active venue for contemporary art.

Gallery Shinjuku presents ( ) Exhibition According to Group “Genshoku,” which explores distorted perspectives through the use of trompe l’oeil devices, a visual approach spearheaded by artist Takamatsu Jirō. Lee gravitates to the ways these tricks work on the eye and body, which resonate with his skepticism toward social reality.

Lee Ufan, Landscape I, II, III, 1968(lost)

Lee Ufan, Landscape I, II, III, 1968 (lost). Spray paint on canvas, three sheets, 220 x 290 cm each. Installation view: Contemporary Korean Painting, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, July 19–September 1, 1968. Photo courtesy the artist

Despite intense rioting throughout the country, the Japanese parliament renews the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The agreement allows U.S. military bases on Japanese soil, making Japan part of the Pacific front in the Cold War, including the expanding Vietnam conflict.

Lee is included in Contemporary Korean Painting at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, at the time the largest exhibition of contemporary Korean art ever held outside Korea. He presents one of his first experiments with optical effects, Landscape I, II, III, which comprises three large sheets of unstretched canvas spray-painted fluorescent pink, red, and orange to create halation effects.

Artist Sekine Nobuo gains instant national recognition with his site-specific work Phase—Mother Earth, a 2.6-meter-deep cylindrical hole adjacent to a dirt structure of identical volume and inverse shape. After the event, the hole is refilled and the land restored.

Lee begins a series of sculptural works using rocks in precise arrangements with steel plates, glass panes, rubber, electric lights, cushions, and stretched canvases.

Left: Lee Ufan at Gallery Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1969. Photo courtesy theartist.Right: Lee Ufan, Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception A),1969.Chalkon rubber and stones, dimensions vary with installation.Performanceview:Shinjuku Station Plaza, Tokyo, 1969. Photo courtesy theartist

Left: Lee Ufan at Gallery Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1969. Photo courtesy the artist. Right: Lee Ufan, Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception A), 1969. Chalk on rubber and stones, dimensions vary with installation. Performance view: Shinjuku Station Plaza, Tokyo, 1969. Photo courtesy the artist

Lee’s essay “From Object to Being,” based on Sekine’s work, wins honorable mention in the annual criticism competition sponsored by the publishers of the influential art magazineBijutsu techō. In the following year, Lee embarks on a prolific period of writing, publishing more than a dozen essays in various art and culture journals. These writings become the intellectual foundation for Mono-ha, an antiformalist, materials-based art movement developing in Tokyo.

Lee gains further recognition when his essay on contemporary Japanese art appears in Space, Korea’s leading journal for architecture and art.

Trends in Contemporary Art at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, includes two key works by Lee, Phenomena and Perception A and B, which show his evolving exploration of the tactile relationships between stones juxtaposed with other materials.

Installation view ofAugust 1970:Aspects of New Japanese Art,The NationalMuseum of ModernArt, Tokyo,August 4–30, 1970

Installation view of August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, August 4–30, 1970. Foreground: Lee Ufan, Relatum III (A place within a certain situation); center left:Relatum I (both 1970). Photo by ANZAï © 1970 ANZAï, courtesy ANZAï Photo Archive, National Art Center, Tokyo

The World’s Fair, Expo 70, is held in Osaka, the first to be held in Japan. With the theme “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” the exposition aims to showcase Japan as a global leader in technology.

The Tokyo Biennale is held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art. Titled Between Man and Matter and organized by Japanese critic and curator Nakahara Yūsuke, it takes up process as a major theme and features forty artists from Europe, the United States, and Japan, including Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, and Mono-ha artists Koshimizu Susumu and Enokura Koji.

Mono-ha reaches its domestic zenith with August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art, presented at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Lee shows three new large-scale works, Relatum I, II, and III (A place within a certain situation), which involve standing steel plates, leaning wooden beams along the wall and floor, and beams lashed by rope to a structural column in the gallery.

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1971. Rubber andstones.Sheet, 160 x 140 cm; four stones,approximately 30 cm high each

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1971. Rubber and stones. Sheet, 160 x 140 cm; four stones, approximately 30 cm high each. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift of the artist, 2011. Installation view: 7th Youth Paris Biennale, Paris Biennale, Parc Floral de Paris, Bois de Vicennes, September 24–November 1, 1971. Photo courtesy the artist

Mono-ha and Lee make their European debut in the Paris Youth Biennale. He exhibits as a Korean artist, showing Situation and Phenomena and Perception A and B alongside works by Japanese artists.

Lee travels in Europe for three months, meeting contemporaries such as Daniel Buren and Luciano Fabro in Paris, Italy, and Greece. His trip includes a stopover in New York.

Lee begins working between Paris and Tokyo while serving as a liason for the Paris Youth Biennale, recommending artists from Japan and Korea in 1973, 1975, and 1977.


Lee renames all past and designates all future three-dimensional works with the title Relatum, a philosophical term denoting objects or events between which a relation exists.

Myongdong Gallery presents Lee’s first solo exhibition in Seoul.

Lee begins two painting series, From Point and From Line, which he will continue throughout the decade.

Lee Ufan, Cut-Up, 1973

Lee Ufan, Cut-Up, 1973. Wood, 150 x 126 x 4 cm. Collection of the artist, Kamakura, Japan. Photo courtesy the artist

Lee begins teaching at Tama Art University in Tokyo, a center for contemporary art practice.

Lee debuts From Point and From Line in his first solo showing at the prominent Tokyo Gallery. The exhibition also includes new works from the Cut-Up series along with earlier works such as 1964’s Pushed-Up Ink.

Park Seobo, Ecriture no. 6-74, 1974

Park Seobo, Ecriture no. 6-74, 1974. Graphite and oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Private collection, Daegu, South Korea. Photo by Lee Manhong, courtesy Seobo Art and Cultural Foundation, Seoul

On a trip to Seoul while an anti-Communist crackdown is underway, Lee is arrested on suspicion of having ties with North Korean spies due to his earlier pro-unification and Leftist activities. After his release, he is placed under surveillance by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency for the next four years and does not travel to Korea during this time.

Lee begins to exhibit regularly in Europe, beginning with Japan: Tradition und Gegenwart at Düsseldorf’s Städtische Kunsthalle. The exhibition catches the eye of Alexander von Berswordt-Wallrabe from Galerie m Bochum, which would become Lee’s principal gallery in Germany.

Lee’s work is included in the survey exhibition Japan på Louisiana at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.


Essays from Lee’s book In Search of Encounter (1971) are translated into Korean and garner critical interest within the art community there.

Lee advises Nakahara and Korean critic Lee Yil in organizing Tokyo Gallery’sFive Korean Artists, Five Kinds of White, which introduces the Korean monochrome painting movement tansaekhwa, also known as the Ecole de Seoul.

Lee shows Relatum works at Galerie Eric Fabre in Paris. There he meets gallery artists Joseph Kosuth and Gilberto Zorio.

Lee’s studio, Setagaya, Japan, 1977

Lee’s studio, Setagaya, Japan, 1977. Photo by Minemura Toshiaki, courtesy Minemura Toshiaki Archive

Lee participates in Ecole de Seoul at the National Museum of Modern Art, Seoul, and emerges as an advocate for the tansaekhwa movement as well as one of its practitioners.

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1978

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1978. Steel and stones. Two plates, 1 x 120 x 200 cm each; two stones, approximately 50 cm high each. Musée de la Sculpture en Plein Air, Paris. Installation view: Focus 78: Foire-exposition d’art actuel, Centre Culturel du Marais, Paris, October 21–30, 1978. Photo courtesy the artist

Lee participates in Z.B. Skulptur at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt, where he appears alongside Joseph Beuys and Richard Serra.

As part of the Centre Culturel du Marais exhibition Focus 78 in Paris, Lee presents an outdoor Relatum installation of stones and two steel plates arranged along the Quai de Seine.

The Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf organizes Lee’s first solo European museum exhibition. The catalogue includes writings by critics Joseph Love and Minemura Toshiaki.

Lee is awarded Japan’s Superlative Prize for Excellence in the inaugural Henry Moore Grand Prize Exhibition at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, Kanagawa.

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