Lee, one of the leaders of the Mono-ha movement, which emerged in 1960s Tokyo, described the collective as “a group of artists who set out to make things be as they are.” In From Line, this credo is demonstrated in the natural exhaustion of paint pulled down the canvas over successive brushstrokes. The artist’s interest in minimizing skill and expertise, along with the repeated bodily movement necessary to accomplish the sequence of brushstrokes, let the relationship between the artistic process, the material, and the viewer unfold.
Gallery label from 2020
Twenty-nine lines move from fullness to invisibility in this painting. To create each dynamic trace, Lee paired Japanese powdered mineral pigments with Western canvas, dipping a brush in cobalt-blue paint and then pulling it across the support laid on the floor, in one continuous stroke. The gradually disappearing color also charts a physical transformation: the rich marks are densely saturated, nearly tactile, at the top but fade over the course of their run as the material thins.
Lee was born in Korea and trained in traditional Chinese ink painting. At age twenty he moved to Japan, where in the late 1960s he became a leader of a groundbreaking group of artists known as Mono-ha (School of Things), which pioneered site-specific sculpture and natural processes—powerfully engaging the physicality of the land in the face of postwar industrialization, authoritarianism, and globalization. Lee returned to painting in 1973, producing monochrome works (such as From Line) that relate the act of painting to that of making sculpture: shaping—and giving in to—matter, chemistry, gravity, and light. Indeed, due to the instability of the mediums Lee has used, many of these works no longer exist; From Line is a rare exception. To look at the painting is to slowly become aware of the separation between pigment particles, viscous oil, and woven canvas, as if the work were evaporating before your eyes.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)