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‘Lee Ufan: Open Dimension’ transforms the Hirshhorn’s outdoor plaza, subtly

“Lee Ufan: Open Dimension” is an installation of 10 minimalist sculptures on the outdoor plaza of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (Cathy Carver/Lee Ufan and Pace Gallery)
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It’s easy to see what Lee Ufan’s minimalist sculptural installations are made of. To see what they are is more complicated.

Positioned in the outdoor plaza around the Hirshhorn Museum, the 10 pieces that constitute the artist’s “Open Dimension” employ found stones and manufactured steel, as well as gravel and water. But those are just the elements that the Korean-born artist brought to the exhibition, the first single-artist takeover of the entire plaza in the museum’s 44-year existence. To Lee, the preexisting context is essential.

The grass, the pavement and the museum’s structures are as integral as the rock and metal. Several of the pieces fit into notches in the building. One claims the central fountain, which Lee has turned into a sort of mirror by dying the water black. Other reflective surfaces include the polished steel inside a coiled sculpture that can be entered by museumgoers.

Since 1968, the artist has titled most of his sculptures “Relatum,” distinguishing the individual works with subtitles. His designs contrast natural materials with man-made objects, filled space with empty voids. But Lee wants viewers to see relationships: connection, not opposition.

“The work is about using the space,” Lee said, while leading a tour of “Open Dimension” a few days before it opened last month. “It’s not about the individual parts. I want people to look at the entirety of the installation.”

According to the artist, he spent two years pondering and sketching the installation. “There really isn’t a [part] which comes first,” he explained, using a mix of English and Korean, translated by an interpreter. “It’s relational.”

Lee’s choice of language is intriguing, since he’s lived about three-quarters of his 83 years in Japan. (He divides his time between Kamakura, a historical city near Tokyo, and Paris.) He attended college in Japan, studying art and philosophy, and took permanent refuge in the country after being arrested and, reportedly, tortured by South Korea’s military government in 1964.

Four years later, Lee became associated with an art movement dubbed “Mono-ha.” The phrase is usually translated as “school of things” and, like many such tags, was not much appreciated by the artists it was used to describe. They chose to juxtapose existing objects rather than produce new ones, in part in reaction to postwar consumerism and industrialization.

When asked about Mono-ha, Lee described it as an approach that ended in the 1970s, linked in spirit to student protests in Japan, France, the United States and elsewhere. The goal was to generate art that was “not made,” he said. “Unmade is more important.”

Mono-ha may be ancient history to Lee, but his installations still appear to follow its central precept. His sculptures are assemblages to be experienced, not symbols to be decoded.

The show also includes a third-floor gallery of four large paintings, made between 2016 and 2019 and all titled “Dialogue.” The conversation is between large areas of blank white canvas and lozenge shapes painted with multiple strata of acrylic pigment. One picture employs only shades of gray; the others layer red, white and blue.

The paintings are clearly made, not found, like Lee’s stones, yet they leave substantial amounts of unmade space — their open dimension. As in his sculpture, Lee presents disparity and unity at the same time.

In the West, where Lee’s renown is relatively recent, some observers have described his work as “Zen,” a reference to an austere form of Buddhism. The term was used frequently when the artist had his first large U.S. retrospective in 2011 at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

To call Lee’s approach “Zen” seems plausible. The Hirshhorn installation recalls the design of Japanese gardens, and one “Relatum” piece bears a certain resemblance to the famed rock garden at Ryoanji, a Zen temple in Kyoto.

Lee emphatically denies the linkage: “Ryoanji — no, no, no,” he said. “Different meaning. Ryoanji has many meanings. Many, many Zen meanings. But my art is not meaning, not Zen.”

His concerns are things and places, not ideas, the former philosophy student stressed. When looking at his art, he said, “You don’t have to think too hard about it.”

Lee Ufan: Open Dimension

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. .

Dates: Through Sept. 13.

Admission: Free.