Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity | Guggenheim Museum

Scan of the Guggenheim's exhibition brochure

Within the Guggenheim’s text about this exhibition, Lee Ufan is described as an artist, a poet, & a philosopher. These can seem like lofty terms, but I was convinced that Ufan shows the qualities of each within his work. Marking Infinity was Ufan’s first retrospective in a North American museum, & was the first time I was introduced to his work. The exhibition was organized by theme & series, giving insight to Ufan’s practice.

Ufan’s sculptures rely on the relationship between space & objects. Space related to physical features, such as the walls of the Guggenheim, but it also meant the space that occurred between the materials in Ufan’s work. Many of his sculptures pair natural & man-made materials together. The piece, Relatum—silence b is composed of a stone placed before a sheet of metal that leans against the gallery wall. It felt as if the stone was confronting the metal, or standing before it in order to understand it. Ufan did not set out to evoke certain emotions from his viewers—instead he let the objects appear as they are. In this setting, the objects interact with the elements in the gallery: light, air, & shadows. 

Relatum—silence b, 2008. Via The Guggenheim
I instantly thought of the word dialogue, relating to how the objects appear to be having a conversation. I use this in the abstract sense, but the term also lends itself to a series of paintings by Ufan. Even while working through different mediums, Ufan has been able to carry over certain themes, gestures & vocabulary. 

From Point, 1975. Via The Guggenheim
The first set of paintings came from Ufan’s From Point series, which focused on painting as action & process. Known for working within a repetitive nature, in this series Ufan made continuous points on a canvas until there was no ink left on his brush. These points mark the passing of time—another record of the physical nature of painting. The painting represents the action & process of painting--it is the direct result. The brush-marks are a record of the action—they show the direction, force, & flow of the paint. On a personal level, the painting From Point, 1975 reminded me of my Erasure Series (Up North it Begins to Snow) from my Senior Thesis.

A similar technique was applied in the From Line series. These paintings begin with the idea explored in From Point, but move away from the process of making art toward a focus on the finished painting—toward the outcome & the lines' ability to move. Ufan became concerned with the space of the canvas & how brush-marks occupied that space. In these paintings, Ufan began making his lines disfigured & applied all over the surface of the painting. The paintings in From Winds show his final transition.

From Line, 1980. Via The Guggenheim

Further up the ramp we are introduced to newer works in the Relatum series. Again Ufan interweaves natural & man-made materials—this time making work that played with the properties of the materials. In one sculpture, pieces of metal have been embedded in a block of wool. Both wool & metal have distinct textures, but when placed together, the object takes on qualities of both. The metal appears weightless within the wool, & the wool appears dense & thick. These were shown in front of paintings from his Correspondence series—the importance between occupied & blank space became repeating grey marks that took up space but also created it & avoided it. These are the predecessors to the Dialogue series.

Via The Guggeneheim

The Dialogue paintings—created with large flat brushes & grey paint—were my favorite series within the retrospective. The wall text introducing these paintings touched on Ufan’s usage of the color grey: the color represents “a vague, ephemeral & uncertain world.” The paintings are large, bearing minimal marks from Ufan. They show past influence from his From Point & From Line series: individual marks that use the entire amount of paint on the brush which have been placed on the canvas according to how they interact with the available space. The brush-marks become the subject of the work, its entire composition, & represent everything Ufan has worked towards in his craft. Again we think of process & the passing of time, but in a larger context. The scale of the paintings & their placement within the final gallery create a reflective mood. The marks almost feel fabricated, as if silk-screened & bear no trace of Ufan’s hand. Three Dialogue paintings were created on the walls of the museum--a triptych of grey marks that created a space which interacted with the properties available on-site & that left the experience to the viewer to interpret. 

Dialogue, 2007. Via The Guggenheim

Dialogue--space, 2009/11. Via The Guggenheim