IL LEE: Drawing Nature’s Vital Force

October 26, 2023 – December 16, 2023
Art Projects International

434 Greenwich St.
New York, NY

IL LEE, Untitled 978 K, 1997-98, ballpoint pen on paper, 77 x 60 inches (195.6 x 152.4 cm)

IL LEE, Untitled 978 K, 1997-98, ballpoint pen on paper, 77 x 60 inches (195.6 x 152.4 cm)

In ongoing celebration of the gallery’s 30-year anniversary, Art Projects International is pleased to present a special exhibition Drawing Nature’s Vital Force, a selected survey of Il Lee’s abstract works that evoke nature.

Belonging to the pioneering generation of Korean artists who made their mark in New York, Il Lee (b. 1952, Seoul, Korea) is internationally celebrated for his singular work with ballpoint pen and a storied career spanning nearly five decades.

In Lee’s works on view, simple, minimal forms are unexpectedly suggestiveness of nature. Within this nature, certain elements are given particular reverence: the stars, light, water and mountains. Lee’s work taps into the viewer’s sense of the uncanny – of monolithic being formed from the barely discernible. The building blocks of Lee’s forms are lines of ballpoint pen. The forms can read as representations of the immutable rock of mountains and simultaneously as lighter than air forms.

The exhibition focuses on works created from 1997 to 2022, the most productive years in Lee’s career, and showcases the culmination of the artist’s decades-long experimentation that began even before Lee came to New York from Seoul, Korea in 1977. Featuring a range of Lee’s styles and media over the last 25 years, this special historical overview of Lee’s art includes a selection of important large-scale works on canvas along with Lee’s signature ballpoint works on paper, many of which have never been seen publicly. The exhibition also brings together a selection of exemplary acrylic and oil on canvas works and will include an as yet unexhibited large 2008 painting as well as a new painting created in 2022.

BK-003 (2006), a large ballpoint work on canvas, presents an iconic Lee form—a monolithic presence rising from below. It suggests a mountain landscape, a subject deeply rooted in the Asian arts. Similarly, the never before exhibited ballpoint on paper work MC-002 (2007) presents the solid mass of a mountain-like form suspended above or dissolving into nothingness.

In BW-003 (2008), Lee offers the negative of his well-known ballpoint pen works — here a dark ground of oil and acrylic on canvas is rendered white by scraping lines into the surface with an ink-less pen. The confidently looping lines create light effects suggestive of occurrences just over the horizon. The sense of illumination leads the viewer to anticipate the manifestation of the ephemeral.

RIW-1301 (2013) is an acrylic and oil on canvas work and the largest work in the exhibition at 84 x 110 inches. An array of seductive white starbursts greet the viewer through a pied field of red and indigo, suggesting a magical, celestial landscape.

BL-1201 (2012) is a large ballpoint on paper work that shows Lee departing from his signature powerfully flowing lines. Here the lines that overlap to create form are of a discrete length. And though the floating form is circular if not spherical, each of the short throws of line is straight or only slightly curved.

The title of the exhibition is borrowed from JoAnne Northrup’s 2007 essay Drawing Nature’s Vital Force, published on the occasion of Lee’s ground breaking, mid-career survey Northrup curated at the San Jose Museum, CA in 2007. In the essay, Northrup best captures the emotive power of Lee’s work: “It conveys emotional potency through a striking economy of form. One enormous canvas resembles a sky magically filled with nebulae; his forms radiate with unbridled celestial energy… Still another expresses the quiet power of a dense, ancient forest, seen from ground level, as though one is looking into an impenetrable sea of tree trunks, with the scale of the human body as reference. He is a performer, creating work as the graphic embodiment of a transient state of being; a shaman engaging in rituals, mediation between the worlds of spirit and humanity; an artist capable of expressing the dynamic power of nature.”

In 1997, Art Projects International presented the first in-depth survey of Lee’s ballpoint drawings. The gallery’s longstanding relationship with the artist will be highlighted through a selection of rare archival materials focusing on significant works from the many important gallery exhibitions of Lee’s work presented over the last twenty-seven years including Line and Form, Drawings 1984-1996 (1997), New Work (2006), Small Drawings 2001-2010 (2010), Monoprints, Editions and Paintings (2011), New Paintings/40 Years in New York (2016), The 90s (2018), and Line and Light (2022). Many of the works from these exhibitions have become part of the contemporary art historical record and are in prominent museums and collections around the world.

Today, his work can easily be found online or in books and other publications; however, discovering Il Lee’s works by viewing them in-person is an empowering and rewarding experience that allows the viewer to have an intimate engagement with Lee’s sensibility.

IL LEE (b. 1952 Seoul, Korea. Lives and works in New York) is internationally celebrated for his pioneering work with ballpoint pen and a storied career spanning nearly five decades. The significance of Lee’s artistic contributions, use of unorthodox media, and singular sensibility have received worldwide recognition. Born and raised in Seoul, Lee studied painting in the 1960s and 1970s with seminal figures of South Korean contemporary art including those in the vanguard of the abstract monochrome painting (Dansaekhwa) movement. In 1977, armed with a distinct cultural background and artistic training, Lee moved to New York where he developed his signature process and style using ballpoint pen, a medium important to his practice over the decades. In his recent acrylic and oil works on canvas, Lee offers a counterpoint to his well-known ballpoint pen work and continues his early investigations of materials and process that began decades ago. His large acrylic and oil on canvas work along with his ballpoint ink on paper work were exhibited in Representation/Abstraction in Korean Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010 and his innovative and historically grounded ballpoint pen works were the subject of a ground breaking mid-career retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2007. Work by Il Lee is represented in prominent collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), San Jose Museum of Art, Palm Springs Art Museum, National Museum of Modern Contemporary Art Korea, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art (Seoul), Vilcek Foundation, Société Bic (France), Montefiore Fine Art Collection, and Bank of America among others.