Lee Ufan, the master of zen-like minimalism who bridges East and West
2 min read · 23 Jun 2023
Lee Ufan, From Line (1977) Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
Lee Ufan, the veteran Korean-Japanese abstract artist, is on the HENI News radar as his minimalist paintings and sculptures are in demand among collectors and institutions internationally.
Lee Ufan’s HENI Score—a unique artist sentiment—has increased by an impressive 61%, boosted by consistent sales at auction and a major museum show in Japan, where he first made his name as an avant-garde artist. An artist’s HENI score amalgamates data such as auction sales, NFT sales, news and social media mentions, gallery shows and museum exhibitions.
Over the past two years, Lee’s works have totaled a remarkable $54.13m at auction, underscoring the demand for his work far beyond Asia. The artist's highest sale within the last three years was for a large painting, East Winds (1984), which sold for $2.66m at Seoul Auctions in 2021. Other notable auction results include Lee’s painting Dialogue (2020), which sold for $1.44m at Christie’s, on estimate, in May 2023.
Multiples by Lee, including woodcuts and lithographs, have sold for $600 to $2,000 over the past two years.
Lee’s works have been shown at leading art fairs, including editions of Art Basel, Frieze and Tefaf.
In May 2023, at Art Basel in Basel, Gallery Hyundai of Seoul and New York presented a solo booth of Lee’s paintings and ceramics, a talking point at the art fair.
Recently, Lee held his first solo exhibition in South Korea in 12 years. "Lee Ufan," opened at Kukje Gallery in Seoul in May 2023.
The National Art Center, Tokyo, opened a major Lee Ufan retrospective in 2022, which has now traveled to Kobe.
Lee's friend, the architect Tadao Ando, has designed a Lee Ufan exhibition center in Arles, the south of France, which opened in 2022, joining the Lee Ufan Museum on an art-island in Japan. There is also a Space Lee Ufan at the Busan Museum of Art, South Korea.
In 2019-20, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC organised “Lee Ufan: Open Dimension”, which featured the artist’s outdoor sculptures as well as his paintings.
It took until a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2011 for Lee’s reputation to become firmly established in North America, however.
Installation view of Lee Ufan’s terracotta works at Gallery Hyundai’s booth, Art Basel 2023. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai
Born in 1936 in Korea, Lee first made his mark in Tokyo in the late 1960s. He was a co-founder of the celebrated Mona-ha (object school), a Japanese-Korean movement in which artists used minimalist means to maximum, zen-like effect.
Lee’s sculptures are made of raw, natural, and industrial materials with little manipulation. His canvases are typified by deceptively simple linear brushstrokes or dots, as are his ceramics.
The artist has spent much of his life between Japan and France, but he has also lived in New York. In 1971, a MoMA show of works by the Abstract Expressionist artist Barnett Newman was a turning point in the young Asian artist’s development as an abstract painter, he has acknowledged.
An artist and philosopher, Lee wrote an essay reflecting on the Covid pandemic. He asked: “Humanity turned its back on nature and walked its own path. That path is filled with human glory and tragedy. Now that humankind has finally reached the end of the road, it is forced to face up to nature on the way home. Is this not reminiscent of the return of the Prodigal Son?”
To get a deeper understanding of Lee Ufan’s career visit his HENI Dashboard; a unique graphical data tool illustrating an artist’s auction sales, shows, profiles, mentions and their HENI Score. You can search for any one of the 100,000 Artist Dashboards to quickly appreciate their trajectory as well as sharing via email, text and WhatsApp.