Exercise1.4 Contextual Focus

Read the text by Lee Ufan, ‘Robots and Painters’ from
ed. Myers, Terry (2011) Painting: Documents Of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, p. 63-65. The extract is available to read on the OCA student site via the following link, or is listed as a course resource also available on the student site.

(PT5SP_P27_Painting: Documents Of Contemporary Art_Robots and Painters_P63.pdf)


Reflect on the text in relation to your own experience and understanding of the following:

  • What you feel painting is and what you feel it isn’t.
  • The purpose of painting: what is painting for?
  • Starting and finishing a work: where does an artwork begin and end?
  • Knowing what you are doing: is it unhelpful to know what you’re doing and is it possible to know what you’ve done?
Lee Ufan, Dialogue, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 89-1/2″ × 71-1/2″ (227.3 cm × 181.6 cm) © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lee Ufan was born in 1936 in Korea and is a minimalist painter and sculptor, who is known for his unconventional artistic processes which critiqued aesthetics, cultural production, and national identity. He  was an original founder and major proponent of Mono-ha (‘School of Things’), Japan’s first internationally recognized contemporary art movement. Mono-ha rejected Western notions of representation, instead, emphasizing materials, perception and interrelationships of space and matter. Defined by action and process, works from the school were characterized by repetitive minimalist gestures denoting an association between the body and temporality. This essay was written in 1987, so the author is writing from that context. I later learnt that he spent most of his adult life in Japan, settled there in 1956. His paintings consist of one, two, or three marks made with a large brush. Lee Ufan’s brush marks are not exactly strokes in that they are performed very slowly without breathing over the duration of several minutes.

In the first paragraphs, he refers to procedure or strategy when making art and challenging the myth of the artist as a special and divine person. He refers to conditions that must be set before the ‘artist’s hand assembles the program that is referred to as a painting (p63) and here he refers to Deleuze seeing a machine of operations of desire which he called art-making. Lee sees this interpretation very much in line with the operation of a robot. Robots is a construction with the goal of perfection. Thinking this way about an artist producing art in a modern capitalist way sounds very much like a robot as well as a person/the artist who is egocentric, narcissistic, and excessive. Is the artist predetermining the thing to be expressed and then reproduces it- I wonder if this is what is referred to as ‘meaning’ later in this article.

Is Lee critiquing the work of Deleuze and reproduction?

In his last three paragraphs the following ideas come to the front about artists

  • when data get into the hands of today’s painters, despite which programs were meant to be used, the artist will break it down into something prior to data
  • from that moment on and returned to the state of a unique living thing that is difficult to name
  • Are they creators with nothing to express
  • the work of the artist slips away more and more from the system of knowledge
  • Painters realize that each moment is a precious part of life and
  • that the world exists in the interval between the brush, the canvas, the paint, and the hand
  • these are elements that attract or repel each other

that which happens to you and around you and knowledge that is constructed from information

I think he challenges a mostly Western idea namely that we have to understand art, that we find it difficult not to judge, to take it as it is and look for the relation between the materials and the things.

What you feel painting is and what you feel it isn’t.

I feel painting is expression on many levels of being and trying to communicate about and around it. A good painting will touch viewers, but does not necessary have to be about beauty or reality of the viewer. I do not think painting has to provide answers to the many questions about reality and life or to solve in this process, but it brings a common sharing experience about our shared humanity and connectedness. I think painting should not be formalistic, it should be open to interpretation. I believe painting should evolve with culture and experience – most painters work also change over time – not just the context/content, but the style or materiality, the work become mature.

The purpose of painting is to explore ways of seeing and understanding, being aware and open-minded. Painting is in this way also a critique of life and can be poetic and philosophical. During this part of the course and my making, I considered how Abstract Expressionism in America as part of Modernism influenced the artist and culture. Were they protagonists in this changing movement around aesthetics and visual culture? Painting was directed at expressions of being a human and how we understand reality was critiqued. Questions were around reality, of the unnamable subject.

A work starts with intent of using materials and giving expression to a vision. It can develop into more.

Knowing takes time and is about self-awareness and experience over time. We will always search and learn more and hopefully understand more, if open to learning. I would like to give consideration to how Tim Imgold describes knowing as interlaced in bodies, minds, topographies, landscapes, and perceptions through a conversation/correspondence of lines. He reminds us of knowledge or things our bodies know, skills, intuition, which are things we do not always act upon. (The Life of Lines, Kindle book) When one thinks about an ‘encounter’, first viewing of an artwork, one can try and explain that experience (interpretation/understanding) without previous knowledge about the artist or the work.

In a way, gesture and oversized art can be seen as aggressive or angry, but I see it as part of the inner expression towards the outer world. I am reminded of the works of Robert Motherwell on the Spanish Civil War that was reacting to ‘the world’, and he was also writing, another form of expression.(see video below) It would seem that the colours and scale in this work can also refer to the violence – the work is also political.


Imgold, Tim, 2015 The Life of Lines, Kindle book

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