“There are people who call me 'the pipe painter.' It is not a label I welcome nor dislike. The name is simply a reference to the illusory objecthood deriving from a repetitive act of seeing, where the premise of figurative object as a motif is denied. Of course, its appearance was never meant to indicate any symbolic body for contemporary civilization.”
– Interview with Lee Seung Jio (Lee Yil, About Lee Seung Jo's recent works - On the occasion of his sixth solo exhibition, 1987)
Flat paintings are always precarious. When only trying to show the flatness of two dimensions the center and the periphery are unintentionally divided, and a sense of depth appears. A three-dimensional effect is created by the inadvertently drawn brush strokes, and a sense of space is felt from the color field that is not painted evenly. Many people remember Lee Seung Jio (1941-1990) as an artist who composed three-dimensional cylindrical shapes in various ways. As the cylindrical shape reminds of one of a pipe, he is often called ‘the pipe painter’. However, he did not draw pipes, nor did he intentionally try to achieve three-dimensionality with a cylinder. He is not particularly interested in three-dimensionality. Even more so, it was not intended to symbolically represent industrialization and mechanization through the form of metal pipes. It seems that he was more interested in the flatness of the two-dimension. Lee Seung Jio focused on the performance of repeatedly drawing geometric shapes and the optical illusions that would appear through this. Therefore, the artist is evaluated as ‘a pioneering artist in the Op Art’ as well as ‘a pioneer of Geometric Abstraction’. He also developed the formativeness in a spiritual dimension through his performative attitude in the process of his work.
A New Avant-Garde Art that approaches the Origin of Art
Year 1968 cannot be overlooked in regards to Lee Seung Jio’s work. It was when his element of cylindrical form became the most archetypal motif and the characteristic of his own abstract style. Leading to many achievements, the artist won the Grand Prize at the inaugural “Dong-A International Fine Art Exhibition” with Nucleus 77 in 1968 and the Nucleus 90 brought him the Minister of Culture and Information Prize at the 17th “National Art Exhibition (Gukjeon)”. He was the first abstract artist to be awarded the highest honor in the Western Painting category. The press, at the time, praised that Nucleus 90 was “a visually explicit work with sensitive color and structural form", “presenting a new sense to the National Art Exhibition”, and “some judging panel would highly recommended it for the President Award.” In the September issue of magazine Space, Park Seo-bo commented, “Geometric abstraction, which was a break from tradition, began this year, with the activities of the artist Lee Seung Jio.”
Lee Seung Jio's Nucleus series appeared amid the heightened expectations and interest of the art world and the public. However, it seems that people did not fully understand the meaning of his works, and only found 'metal pipe’ motifs, earning him a reputation as the ‘pipe painter'. As mentioned, this is not what the artist intended, but maybe the times and era have framed such a view. It is closely related to the times that people recognized the silver-gray gradation band as a metal pipe and gave it meaning. Around 1968, when Lee Seung Jio established cylindrical formative elements as his characteristic motif, Korea was in the middle of the modernization path. The nation was all focused on industrialization and people were immediately reminded of industrial metal pipes from the silver-gray gradation and linked to a symbol of the times of Korean society. Some said that the mechanistic thinking of the time was projected into his work. To some extent, the times may have led to his recognition as a 'pipe painter'.
However, looking into the artist’s trajectory till the Nucleus series would lead to a completely different interpretation. Such a link is groundless and shallow. Lee Seung Jio was rather experimenting with the intellectual formative order while exploring the origins of art at the forefront of the contemporary art scene. In 1962, he organized Origin coterie with his eight fellow artists including Suh Seung-Won, Choi Myung Young, Kwon Young-woo, Lee Sang-rak, after he entered the Department of Western Painting at Hongik University in 1960. The Origin group fought against the Informel trend, the conventional stream of the art scene at the time, to overcome the lethargic established art and to present a new avant-garde art. Informel in Korea was a meaningful artistic language as an appeal to human existence after the war until the end of the 1950s. However, in the 1960s, as society rapidly changed due to post-war restoration projects, industrialization, and economic development policies, the justification for Informel became weaker as the society entered a period of stability. At such a time, the Korean art scene had a thirst for a new transfusion to sever from the Informel tendency, which was then immersed in meaningless repetition and mannerism. Simultaneously a new art movement was actively developing in foreign countries. In particular, pop art, op art, hard edge, nouveau realism, neo-Dadaism, and assemblage were creating new waves in Europe and the United States. These new movements were introduced in Korea through newspaper articles and magazines. At that time, the development of new art movements in foreign countries and introduction to Korea became a major foundation for young artists in setting the direction of their work to find a new breakthrough. Young artists in the 20s and early 30s especially, aware of the new art movement in foreign countries, started a new art movement by organizing various coteries to break from the old state of the established art scene of mannerism. Origin coterie was formed for a new art movement at that time, of which Lee Seung Jio was a founding member. He was in the midst of a new art movement that wanted to go beyond the convention. The reason why his contemporary art critics understood the Nucleus series of 1968 in connection with op art - the latest art trend - was because Lee Seung Jio was at the forefront of the art scene at the time.
In particular, Origin played a decisive role in forming the basis of Lee Seung Jio's art world. As the name indicates, the term Origin reflects the will to search for the ‘beginning’ and ‘root’ of art as well as all the fundamental things. The coterie added the meaning of the ‘O’ in the English term ‘ORIGIN’ as a symbol of the Chinese character 'Won (元, first, beginning)' and Lee Seung Jio shared a similar direction with the group. His work is constructed with perfect symmetry and basic formative elements of points, lines, and planes, which reflects his ambition to restore art into the formative basic order. In other words, it is an abstract aesthetic that pursues the fundamental principles of art. Such a characteristic of Origin speaks for itself that they sought the source of art and advocated the return to essence. It is known that the word 'nucleus', which means 'center' and 'core', which the artist used consistently as the title of a series, was also inspired by Origin. This is the sense in which Lee Seung Jio’s work is resonating with Origin.
Unlike the declarations by the group, Origin did not present avant-garde art from the beginning. In 1963, a year after its formation, the inaugural exhibition was held. Although they clearly expressed their rejection of established art and the pursuit of new avant-garde art, the exhibition was still clouded with the Informel trend. Thus the early years of the group were disrupted to some extent as Lee Seung Jio and the Origin coterie were scattered into a society and military service, which led to a four year hiatus. In the meantime, each of the members kept on their exploration and research, and after the hiatus they presented surprising works that were a far cry from the earlier days of Origin. In the winter of 1967, Origin hosted “Korean Young Artists Association Exhibition” with coterie of ‘None’ and ‘New Exhibition’. Origin featured geometric abstract works in this exhibition, which completely escaped from the Informel trend, with a sense of intelligent distance, neat and clear arrangement of geometric elements, and bright primary colors. Art critic Lee Yil complimented these works as being “noble” as they sought abstinence and purity.
“Korean Young Artists Association Exhibition” is an important turning point in Lee Seung Jio’s work. His geometric abstract paintings evolved into the Nucleus series, following the currents of his contemporaries, coterie of Origin. He presented the Nucleus series for the first time in this exhibition which he has continued to work on for the rest of his artistic career. Although the cylindrical shapes – his archetypal motif- did not exist in the four pieces of the Nucleus series on exhibit, it is still significant that the Nucleus series began here. (The cylindrical shape first appeared in the tenth painting of the Nucleus series, four months later.) The following year, 1968, became a monumental year for the artist since he presented his work that accumulated the cylindrical shapes.
Encountering with the Spiritual Dimension.
Lee Seung Jio’s archetypal motif become relatively consistent in his work, as the Nucleus series were featured exclusively in his six solo shows and 130 international group exhibitions. That is not to say the works lacked variety however, so it is important to catch the subtle nuances in the expressions. His early works show a more subtle optical illusion through carefully arranged cylindrical forms laid vertically or horizontally as well as through the contrast of wide color fields. These early works look like ‘color field painting’. Since then, the cylindrical forms have been carefully constructed and, therefore adding the regularity to the surface. Accumulated cylindrical forms have established themselves as the leading factor to determine the composition of the surface. For instance, Nucleus 10 and Nucleus 77, of 1968, the color contrast is more noticeable than the cylindrical form. However, in Nucleus 90 and Nucleus G-99 that were produced in the same year, the entire surface is covered in silver-gray, and only a small part of the surface is expressed with a strong primary color. This shows the changes that a range and function of the color contrast were reduced and instead, the cylindrical forms became principal to the composition of the painting. Most of such works are symmetrical and a sense of rhythm is garnered through variation in the length of accumulated cylindrical forms. In contrast, Nucleus PM-76 of 1969, Nucleus F90-G7 and Nucleus G-70 of 1970 show a dynamic rhythm and speed by folding, stacking and overlapping the cylindrical forms, which eventually creates a layered structure of space.
The most interesting period is the 1970s. From this period on, the Nucleus series, like Nucleus 74-07 (1974) and Nucleus 75-10 (1975), no longer explicitly entailed the complex screen composition and strong cylindrical forms of previous oeuvres, instead the surface is covered with a repetition of diagonally laid cylindrical forms, with a precise calculation. All dynamic elements, such as the three-dimensional cylindrical shape that is folded, stacked and constructed in multiple layers, are removed. Such changes create a new order while the surface is equally covered, losing the notion of center and periphery. This new order blurs the distinction between the cylindrical form and the background, making the two inseparable. From the late 1970s, as monochromatic dark tones became dominant, the color of the cylindrical form and the background is indistinguishable. As seen in Nucleus 78-20 (1978) and Nucleus 78-21 (1978), it became difficult to tell which one is the highlight and which is the outline of the cylindrical form. Like the effect of light and shade, the juxtaposition of yin and yang types of cylindrical form creates undistinguishable unities.
This reminds us once again that Lee Seung Jio’s paintings focused on two-dimensional flatness rather than three-dimensionality or spatiality. As the performativity of the artist became as a major factor, Lee Seung Jio’s painting reaches into the spiritual world. In order to express the shape of a cylinder penetrating both sides of the canvas, brush strokes must be accumulated through countless repetitions of performance rather than depiction. This performative attitude performed during the production process turns the surface into a field of spiritual thinking.
Such extension to the spiritual dimension can be understood in relation to the monochrome painting movement (Dansaekhwa). In the 1970s, Lee Seung Jio was a major figure in the exhibitions such as “Korean Avant-Garde Association (AG)”, “Ecole de Seoul”, “Independant”, and “Seoul Contemporary Art Festival” which led the birth and spread of the monochrome painting movement. Therefore, it can be said that Lee Seung Jio’s Nucleus series shared the aesthetics in the realm of monochrome paintings. The phenomenon of the monochrome painting had the characteristic of returning to nature by elevating materiality into the spiritual world. In particular, it seems that the performativity in the flat painting is the main point that agreed by the artist. Lee Seung Jio’s paintings in the 1970s elevate us to a spiritual level through the tendency of flatness, which is a characteristic of Dansaekhwa. By experiencing the neutralized dimension, formed by the moving subject and background, we realize that what is present in the surface is no longer the cylindrical form, its construction, nor the sense of material, but the dimension of inner, essence, and spirit beyond visible.
Lee Seung Jio’s Nucleus series in the 1980s unfolds a complex layer of comprehensive formativeness that encompasses the previous periods. The time period shows the mixture of the sharp and solid cylindrical forms, characteristic of his oeuvres before the 1970s, and the structure of entire fields, which appeared after the 1970s.
Lee Seung Jio presented a new abstract painting that penetrates the visible subject and invisible concept. His experiments with intelligent formative order established his own world of painting that crosses the boundaries between avant-garde and academia art, figure and abstract, fine art and applied art, and geometric abstract and monochrome painting. He is a true avant-garde artist who broadened the horizon of contemporary abstract art in Korea by suggesting a new type of geometric abstract painting. The legacy of his abstract painting, which was not rooted in tradition, but an exercise toward 'the origin of art' and 'reduction to the essence', will remain. His Nucleus series even reaches to the core of spirituality.
Lev AAN studied printmaking and Korean literature at Hongik University and IT culture policy at Seoul National University of Science and Technology. He began his career in art criticism in 2015 by winning the Prize in Art Criticism at the Annual Spring Literary Contest of the Chosun Ilbo, and currently serves as the chair of the art policy subcommittee of the Korean Art Critics Association. He is author of many books including Burning Utopia (2020), Korean Contemporary Prints 1981-1996 (2019), and Conditions of Criticism (Co-author, 2019).