Conversation with Il Lee

February 9, 2011
Art Projects International

434 Greenwich St.
New York, NY

A dialogue about the work and experiences of artist Il Lee with AAA Chair Jane DeBevoise, Director of Art Projects International Jung Lee Sanders and AAA-A Project Coordinator Ali Van on the occasion of  the exhibition Representation/Abstraction in Korean Art in the Korea Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Nov. 23, 2010 – Mar. 20, 2011].

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Congratulations on the exhibition of your work at the Metropolitan Museum and thank you for meeting with us. I thought we could start by talking a little about your education in Korea. I understand that you went to university and attained an undergraduate degree in art, but the preparations necessary for entrance into a university in Korea were extremely rigorous, so you had six years of junior high school at which time you also worked with a famous Korean artist. Can you talk about your training prior to college?

Il Lee (IL): Entering college in Korea is different from entering college here in the United States. We studied history, English and Korean, and we also had to build our drawing skills. It was very competitive – the preparation time was formal – I also had to make several drawings and watercolors or oil paintings for the examination, during which time we drew from a plaster bust.

JD: To show realistic drawing skills?

IL: Yes and I remember being very nervous. There were 30-40 applicants in each testing room. I had two choices: charcoal and pencil. I chose pencil.

JD: And you had an oil painting exam as well?

IL: Yes. We had to paint a still life.

JD: Did you have a mentor at this time, encouraging you and helping you?

IL LEE at Hong-Ik University, Seoul, Korea, 1974. Courtesy of the artist and Art Projects International, New York

IL: During this time, Korea was under the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee — everything revolved around dictatorships; we even had an art dictator. One of my professors at the time was also president of the Korean Artists Association and held all decision-making power in my school and the Korean art community. In 1991, I went to visit Mexico City – there was a segment of a documentary by Diego Rivera in his museum that included a filmed speech being given to a crowd of 1000-some people, mostly artists and art teachers. In Korea, I didn’t know about the existence of Kahlo and Rivera, who were enthusiastic sympathizers of communism and helped Trotsky during his exile. Then, Korea’s national policy was absolute anti-communistic. When I saw that work, it felt so familiar – just like how things were run in Korea in the 1970s. Anyway, a lot of students were influenced by Park Seo-Bo. He was my advisor during my junior and senior years in college.

JD: And it sounds like he was very strict as to what he wanted.

IL: Yes.

JD: And what did he want? Could you come up with two or three things?

IL: There were two influential Korean professors – Nam Kwan, who had been in Paris for more than ten years and advised me not to return to Korea, and Park Seo-Bo, who also stayed in Paris for two years. They loved talking about Paris – in 1970, not New York. New York came much later, maybe in the mid-1970s and 80s. The Korean art of that time was minimalist and monochrome. Those Korea-days are still roaming about in one corner of my brain. We were young, in our early-20s, sensitive and easily influenced.

JD: Why was monochrome so important? Was it about merging modern western abstraction or minimalism with Korean tradition? Was he [Park Seo-Bo] talking like that?

IL: Park Seo-Bo was the leader of contemporary Korean art at that time. He was very energetic and had a special relationship with the government. No one challenged his viewpoint. Regardless of what we were doing in school, there were ways to find out more about what was being made elsewhere. There were even the bright colors of Asian historical temples (including Korean temples) – which were all over the place, but never talked about. The political circumstances were a crucial component to society, infiltrating all creative fields. The Korean CIA-equivalent would always be watching over us.

JD: I remember that there were a lot of student demonstrations at the time, and [president] Park Chung-hee was ultimately assassinated. At the time and as a student, were you talking about political issues amongst your friends? How did this impact your art?

IL: There was a lot more [political] discussion in other colleges, less in the art school. In the four years I was in school, I never finished a full year of school because at some point each year, the government would shut down [the academic] institutions for governmental orders. That meant we had a lot of free time – but almost everyday [during the shutdown] we would just drink and drink and drink! (Laughter) Those periods were unfortunate for the students because the demonstrations would make it impossible for us to access our studios. The streets were always barricaded. That’s why we spent all our time drinking outside.

JD: So when school was in session, what was your favorite course? What exhibitions or books excited you during that time?

IL: Sadly, in the 1970s, we didn’t have a chance to read many modern art books. I remember one book – Lee Ufan’s philosophical manifesto concerning contemporary art. It was a sensation in the art communities in Korea and Japan during the early 70s. He commented on a way to access art and aesthetics with an Asian approach as opposed to a Western style. I never saw a copy of Art in America until much later. Today, in Korea, there are some really good art magazines available to students, but we didn’t have much then. We were however able to hear about some of the trends coming from the West, mostly from Europe.

JD: So you didn’t have access to up-to-date art information, but you did have access to international work, like work by the Italian futurists, work dealing with issues of movement, speed and concepts of modernity. Where did you see futurist artworks and what did they mean to you?

IL: I saw most of this work later [after I left Korea] in books, at the Pratt Library. For my senior year [at Pratt], I had to prepare a thesis statement of less than ten pages so I spent some time doing research in the library. The futurists appealed to me and felt in line with some of the ideas I was exploring. But to be honest, I didn’t really understand how my work fit into other trends of art during that time.

JD: Let’s talk about your early work – perhaps you could talk about this piece? Was this made before or after Pratt?

IL: It was a labor-intensive work I made in Korea while in college.

JD: This work from your Korea days seems static, angular and solid; your later work feels more fluid and less material.

IL: My process has changed, especially the speed at which I work. The different brushes used have changed my gesture and movement across a work. My junior high school teacher [Seong-Jio Lee] was an influential modernist painter whom I assisted for more than five years.

JD: And he made work in an industrial style?

Jung Lee Sanders (JLS): He was Korea’s first geometric abstract artist and made incredibly unorthodox work.

IL: He passed away in 1990, but is still highly regarded for his work and ethic.

JD: So this was an early work you made. When you came to the United States, were you still working in this style?

IL: Yes. It was made in 1980. My father left Korea three years before my siblings and I came to the U.S. My father was a chef in L.A., where we joined him later – he studied architecture and engineering in Korea but it was right around the time of the Korean War, so he was never able to practice. The war destroyed so many lives. In Busan, the second largest city in Korea, the Korean military police arrested my father. They suspected my father was an enemy sympathizer and he was almost executed. After serving several months in prison, he was released. My father was 28 years old at that time and the police were always keeping an eye on the youth. One day, after being released from prison, my father saw a sign saying ‘Help Wanted In Kitchen’ at a United States GI compound – so he went over and from that point onwards, he worked in the kitchen. The thing about the GI compound was that no one could touch my father; so it was a safety zone. Still, it’s a sad story.

JD: How many are there in your family?

IL: I have two sisters and three brothers, so a big family, certainly big for that time.

JD: You came to Los Angeles, and then you decided to make your way to New York on your own. That sounds very exciting. Did you have friends here? Can you talk a little about your journey?

IL: It was exciting. I actually returned to Korea to finish my degree (as we had already moved to L.A. at this point) and then wanted to attend graduate school in America. I came alone to New York with one piece of luggage and two thousand dollars and stayed at the YMCA near the Central Post Office. The day I arrived, and after having dropped my luggage off at the YMCA, I fulfilled my first desire — to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York at that time was like the Wild West. My father was worried for me, but I was excited.

This was the second time I experienced Impressionism, firsthand. The first was at the County Museum in L.A. We always talked about it in Korea and I saw images of works but never the real thing. It was a big shock for me. Several days later, I visited MoMA – what a treasure! I don’t remember particulars, but the size of the paintings made an impression. I was in ‘real and big New York.’

JD: Did you know anyone here?

JLS: He only knew of one Korean artist, and only by name. He looked him up and went to visit him – and it was he who helped Il look into Pratt, for graduate school. At the time, he [Tchah-Sup Kim] had already represented Korea at various international biennials, and had moved to New York to attend Pratt on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He was helpful and receptive to Il.

IL: I thought there was only one art school in New York at that time because all I was exposed to was Pratt.

JD: We were just looking at your earlier work – when did it change so dramatically? Why did it change?

IL: I think, primarily, because I was in New York! I wanted to wash away the processes of the past. This is a work drawn with a sharp nail. I wanted to do things my own way. I was trying different styles and mediums during that time.

JD: Interesting. So, when you left Korea your work changed quite a bit. How did that first happen?

IL: I took printmaking as my minor – which at the time was mainly etching. There were so many different tools to work with, but my favorite was a sharp needle. The sharpness of line in print fascinated me and I wanted to explore the same kind of line through painting. I wanted to work on my line quality.

JLS: Il Lee’s professors always remarked that his line had ‘a delectable quality’ – and I think this must have stayed in his mind.

IL: In 1981, when I was in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum [Korean Drawing Now, June 27 – Sept. 7, 1981], I showed my paper works for the first time.

JD: It is true that Il’s work has to do with line, but it also has an architectural quality.

JLS: It’s interesting that you say that because a prominent architect named Kim Swoo-Geun was visiting New York at that time and went to see the Korean Drawing show at the Brooklyn Museum. He is known as the ‘Father of Korean Modern Architecture.’ Kim Swoo-Geun purchased one of Il’s works and invited Il to show at his gallery in Korea. Kim is an important seminal cultural figure in Korea, and founded Space Group, which is primarily an architecture firm but also published Space, the first art journal in Korea.

IL: In 1982, I had my first one-person show through Kim Swoo-Geun’s gallery called Space Gallery. I was in my twenties at the time, with a lot of dark hair – now all of it is white! (Laughter)

JLS: It was referred to as a gallery, but it was really the first non-profit space in Korea, and one that provided a platform for many emerging artists in Korea. I remember going as a young girl; rice cakes were offered at openings … it was a friendly, interesting and unusual environment. When I went back to visit in the 90s, many people who were present for Il’s 1982 show still remembered and told me how shocked and delighted they were by the works. I think he had a sold-out show too – not that it was a commercial show, but we haven’t been able to locate many of the works since. When Il had his first solo exhibition at Art Projects International in 1997, Space featured Il’s work on the cover.

JD: Interesting. In Korea, at that time, was there a Korean audience for this work, or did the audience consist mainly of the ex-patriot community?

JLS: Oh yes, definitely there was a Korean audience. Works by a small number of artists of the previous generation were purchased by foreigners during the economically tough period immediately after the Korean War, but at that time, the Korean artists enjoyed small but strong domestic support of the arts and many people appreciated new work. Some of Il’s friends who had also studied at Pratt and had returned to Korea were at the show’s reception and also brought their friends, which was nice.

IL: The building has recently been designated as a national landmark. It is well located right in the center of the city and next to the Palace. Kim Swoo-Geun also designed the building next door.

JLS: Kim Swoo-Geun has now passed, but I remember visiting Space Group since his passing – friends and colleagues of his have kept the space running.

IL: The associated magazine is wonderful too – it is called Space [founded in 1966] and has been published monthly for over 40 years.

JLS: The Brooklyn exhibition included the leading Korean artists of the time, so it was amazing [for Il] to show with them. Unlike Chinese artists at this time, who often employed figuration in their work, these artists all brought a modernist vision to the table.

IL: The peak of the Cold War meant we couldn’t draw sunflowers, the Soviet national flower, and even the policemen had to remove anything with red paint. As art students, we didn’t know that people like Malevich or Rivera existed. Our views were limited. We were starved for information.

JD: The figuration one sees in Chinese art in the 1980s comes out of a socialist-realist training. Were you aware of socialist-realist propaganda work being made in China in the 1970s, or earlier, when you were living in Korea?

IL: No, not at all, nothing about work from Communist countries. In the 1980s, some aggressive young artists and critics created what we call Minjung Art [People’s Art].

JD: Some of Minjung Art looks very socialist-realist to me. Was it a reaction against the elitism of the modernist movement, because it was forbidden? What was the attraction?

IL: We had just elected a new president, Roh Tae-woo. Everyone, including union leaders and even young people from the art world came together and demonstrated under a newly born democratic society. Minjung was part of that trend culturally but Minjung didn’t last long, because they only talked about idealism and nothing but Minjung Art. Ironically, the leaders of Minjung are slowly becoming mainstream. Right now, they are professors and authors…the younger members are all gone or have become more activist than artist.

JD: When was the Minjung show at the Queens Museum?

JLS: The show as held in the 1990s, and Jane Farver was the curator.

JD: Let’s talk a little bit more about Pratt – you said they [your teachers and classmates] expected something different and new from you. What was it that they were expecting?

IL: During my first class at Pratt, everyone spoke with such sophistication about his or her work. I was never trained on how to speak about art, to use the terms of logic and analysis. ‘Intuition’ – became one of my favorite words and the first time I heard it was when I was at Pratt. Everyone was very serious. I told myself, if I want to be a successful artist here, I must learn to talk like them. I’m not sure I’ve mastered that. (Laughter)

I wanted to change my process, which is why I started making experimental works. I think I was afraid that if I showed signs of conventional painting, I would give Korea the wrong image. I was often asked what art was like in Korea, and people wanted to know our [Korean] unique taste and perspective, so I felt this internal desire to show them what I had to show them, as an artist, an individual and as a Korean.

IL: In this work, I tried to work with different types of line; I treated the board with white acrylic gesso, and then I covered it with masking tape and with a medium-sized magic pen, I then carved into it with a knife.

JD: The surface is thick and fleshy.

IL: Yes. I then put the work on the floor and flicked the work with gesso again. I used blue acrylic and mixed it with the white base. It was an experimental work for me.

JD: And this drawing, how was this surface made?

IL: I treated the canvas with gesso several times. I melted the oil stick down on the surface. It hardens easily, so I made this one with my hand. I had to cover up the marks quickly, as the stick melted. Then I took a regular nail attached to a stick and used it like a pen.

JD: And again, it carved away the underlining paint.

JLS: Looking back, I think the idea of using a ballpoint pen was developing simultaneously. But then it took over because the nail paintings stopped in 1982.

JD: What you see in this work here and in the work exhibited at the Met is this kind of luminescence that seems to emerge from the center of the work. Perhaps we can talk a little about your ballpoint pen works? There has been a lot of writing about them.

IL: I used ballpoint on litho to create these forms. And litho-crayon too.

JLS: For the early ballpoint works, the line was very different from what Il’s line is today. This is a work from the early 1990s.

JD: One of the issues with your work is that it is hard to have a sense of the subtlety and intensity without seeing the original. Could you talk about your work method? How do you start?

IL: Firstly, I think about the edges. Then, when I’ve decided how my edges will be, I start drawing. I’m always watching the surface closely.

JD: I know you work through some of your ideas by creating sketches. Your finished work looks very mature – each composition feels thorough and complete – and they don’t look like your sketches; they look like they are wholly conceived. Can you talk about this?

IL: I have begun to keep the accidents within the process. I’ve also begun making bigger and bigger works. The small works are limiting sometimes. The big ones make me happy – the gestures feel like they are my own, unlimited. For the Met exhibition, I made three big new works, and they were enjoyable to make.

JLS: I think people get confused because the lines aren’t pre-meditated in any way. The gestures are decisive at the moment of making.

JD: Yes, and they seem very committed. Il uses the words ‘accidental’ and ‘relaxed’ – one obviously needs a relaxed hand to do the gestural work -but his work is not off-hand. It’s very focused.

JLS: Il buried himself in his studio for two years, and made these works, each measuring 60×80 inches.

IL: The widest purchasable paper is 60 inches, so I worked with the largest paper I could get my hands on. Anything bigger, and I would make a switch to canvas. Three were shown at the San Jose Museum exhibition.

JD: I was recently reading an interview with Agnes Martin – this is in reference to the term ‘intuition’, which Il really liked learning at Pratt – she referred to it [intuition] as inspiration – that she had to put her back to the world and empty her mind so that she could hear the inspiration. Obviously, she’s a different person with a different set of issues – how do you feel about what she is saying?

IL: A monk would always say, ‘Forget about yourself, empty your mind,’ a basic teaching in Korean Buddhism. I sometimes try to follow that method, but really, only master monks can do that. (Laughter) When I make my work, I concentrate on the ink and paper and on my hand. That’s what I focus on – and then my brain disappears.

JD: It seems you do not particularly like to talk about your work, yet you are open to hearing what others have to say about it.

IL: I admire writers and critics who write exhibition reviews – I’m always fascinated with what they say about the work – oftentimes their perspectives are new to me. I find out a lot after a one-person show; the responses help me through to the next step. (Laughter)

JD: I asked about your demons earlier – things that bother you. What would you say they are?

IL: Society’s unwillingness to accept new ideas and new ways of seeing things has always been a challenge.

JD: You were trained in Korea and in the U.S.; in a sense you have worked between two worlds, which is a very contemporary situation.

IL: Critics often ask me about my cultural background, but I’ve never been overtly conscious about my cultural background and Korean legacy…it’s always going to be a part of me. It is therefore an inevitable element in my work. My cultural background always unconsciously follows me.

Ali Van (AV): I think, with things hermetic, wondering how they are built, from where they are built, is a fair curiosity. I don’t think audiences should be censured for asking those questions, as the questions aren’t usually intended to pigeonhole the artist, even if it may seem that way. You talked about your first mentor – your first demon! – and how he has always been in the back of your mind, telling you what to make, how to engage your line – and I found that interesting. I think the historical references you have carried with you are important; these include your stories from Korea because they make up your first rigorous encounters with art and practice.

JD: When you arrived in New York, did you feel alone?

IL: Yes, naturally. I didn’t have a chance to live in a Korean community because my job was to become an artist. All Korean community members were struggling to stabilize their economic conditions, everyday, and that’s all they focused on.  When I was asked about my job, I would say ‘I’m an artist’ and they were always wondering – ‘But how do you make money?!’  That would be a familiar reply.  So, it was hard for me to get along with the Korean community.

JD: In the 1980s, when you first came here, and when you weren’t spending time with the Korean community, how did you communicate?

IL: As a working artist, I didn’t have time to take formal English lessons. I spent a lot of time alone in my studio, but I didn’t want to lose my listening comprehension skills so I always had the radio on [in English]. My son is currently looking for a new TV set for the house – if he finds one, it might be bad for me, because I’ll be glued to the Korean soap operas they’ve now begun to air on American TV – I’ll get addicted and will forget all my English! (Laughter)

When I first moved to New York, I sold shirts to pay rent. I was lucky and was able to get clothing from wholesalers in Chinatown to sell in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I did this for about two years. Eventually I had a store, and I ended up working there for about three years, with a target to earn enough to buy a house. The property I purchased is a 100-year old building, and the leaking pipes really needed to be fixed. I did most of the handiwork. It’s a four-storey building, an abandoned grocery store. I did most of the renovations and clean up on my own too. I found so many 1920, 1930 silver coins during the clean up, as well as old screwdrivers, wooden knives…oh, I collected everything!


Back then, there were so many abandoned buildings that artists moved into and were using as spaces for their practice – it was amazing – these old factory buildings becoming a platform for underground artists. I think that was very New York for me. In Korea, to become an artist, you really had to have graduated from one of the two prestigious art colleges – without a degree, being an artist was almost impossible. In the 1970s and 80s, it was hard selling art [in Korea] so in a sense, becoming an artist meant becoming a professor.

Before Jung contacted me [here in New York], there was a middle-aged woman who owned a gallery [in Korea] and who stopped by my studio to see some work. After a short moment, she bluntly said, ‘Oh, you work in black – no one will buy this work in Korea!’

JLS: I couldn’t believe Il was selling clothes on the street. He had a dozen other jobs too, at different times.

IL: I just couldn’t do a regular nine to five job – I wouldn’t have time to make art. I needed to have independent [freelance] jobs, the kind that provided me with time to make work.

A lot of Korean immigrants were crazy about their children’s education and moving to the ‘right’ neighborhood. Many were always curious about my children’s education and I would tell them ‘My wife handles everything.’ The education system here is complicated, and the problem is that Koreans often think about things with a very Korean mindset – they think that if their child goes to a better (and then better) school, everything is going to be okay. But that’s not necessarily true. Now, whenever I meet my Korean classmates from college, they are always curious about my past, about the kinds of jobs I had before making it as an artist. A lot are interested in my suffering, not my artwork.

I once told a journalist [who wanted to know about my history] to write a good story for me. He said ‘Well, people don’t want to hear good stories, they just want to hear about the suffering that lead to your success…’ (Laughter)

JD: When were you able to stop working part-time to focus on your work, full-time?

IL: About eight years ago.

JD: Up until eight years ago, you were working part-time?

IL: I started working four days a week, then three, then two…now I work full-time as an artist.

AV: How much work did you bring with you from Korea?

IL: It’s a sad story – unfortunately, I couldn’t bring any of my artwork. So, I left most of my work at a friend’s studio in Korea, but when I returned to Korea, it was all gone. There is one work left, in Hongik University’s lobby.

JD: Do you remember the first work of art you sold?

IL: Hong-nam Kim, the former director of the National Museum of Korea may have purchased the first work. I think that was in 1980.

AV: Jung, did you and Il first meet in New York?

JLS: I first came to know Il when I opened Art Projects International on Broome Street, in SoHo, in 1993. Because of API’s mission, and because there were so few galleries showing Asian artists at that time, when we held an opening, we attracted many Asian artists in New York. I did a large number of studio visits during that time too. One of the visits was with Il, and that’s really how we met. Having said that, I knew about Il and had seen his work even before I had any idea I was going to start a gallery. A work was hanging at a friend’s home and I remembered it. His early works attracted a lot of interest.

I still remember my first visit because of the buckets of used ballpoint pens in Il’s studio piled in the corner. I remember feeling really strongly about his work, and over the years, it’s been a joy showing his work, watching the transformation…

JD: What is your view on the contemporary art scene in Korea?

IL: I left Korea 36 years ago so my opinion might not be entirely accurate. But I get a rough sense of what is happening from the Internet and people from Korea who visit me in New York.  As the country’s economy becomes more powerful, Korea’s art world develops as well. Artists, critics, galleries and collectors are popping up everywhere. Today, the Korean government has a much larger budget for cultural affairs. I think there is plenty of room for the contemporary art scene to grow and prosper. The Korean government is doing a lot to try and grow ‘culture’ in Korea. I’ve been invited to speak to members of the Korean Parliament visiting New York on programs involving ‘culture and the arts,’ but they always seem to think it is only a matter of funding. I told them, ‘For culture, there is no expressway!’ (Laughter)

JD: And it’s not just Korea – this is happening all over Asia – the government wants a return right away without any trouble or naughty things happening!

IL: Culture, culture, culture. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next ten years.

JD: Well, going back to our previous conversation, let’s talk a little more about your work. You once mentioned that you are not particularly religious or spiritual, however, I do see something in your work that is intensely personal and intensely inspired – I think I am just looking for ways to understand where that comes from. You seem like a very balanced person. You take things as they come, as they are. You say you have demons, but I am not feeling them now.

IL: My family escaped from North Korea into South Korea three years before the Korean War. My family was originally from the deep mountains between North Korea and Manchuria – so I think the nomadic Manchurian tendencies are in my DNA.

JD: So you’re more continental, and less emotional. There is obviously an intensity to your work, but it’s not explosive. There is a power, but, what is the word –

JLS: It’s focused.

AV: Not angry.

JD: Yes, definitely not aggressive. Determined, maybe that’s the word to describe you.

IL: I think Korea is filled with energetic people.

JD: Okay, but I want to know about you, not about the Korean population!  Are you a fighter?

IL: Maybe a little. There was a critic who said something like ‘You know, that Il Lee, he’s a Korean artist in New York – Jackson Pollock was a fighter with paint and a bucket

– and Il fights with his thin ballpoint pen!’ (Laughter)

JD: With Jackson Pollock, there seemed to be something both controlled and reckless about his work, an appearance of spontaneity, even random-ness. I don’t think there is anything random about what you are doing. It seems as though once you have decided what you are going to do, you stick to it; you are determined. And then you finish it too. There is a complete-ness. You inferred that in some of these works, you are freeing yourself, but they don’t seem like experiments per se.

IL: The ‘free-way’ is really hard to come by. There are always barriers restricting us from entering the free-way. I enjoy the dualities between top and bottom, left and right, light and dark – I really enjoy gestural drawing as it gives me permission to be free.

IL: It’s like an optical illusion. This year, I’ve tried to change some of my ways – using more white in my work.

JLS: This is similar to the one Il showed at the Met – there is the sense of trying to free from the work and line you worked with before. He went from using paper [for twenty-five years] to using canvas – so the move to canvas was also a big step, and the blurring between painting and drawing becomes even more blurred. Also, restricting his medium, he has been able to fully explore its possibilities. Asian ink painting is restrictive, but at least the ink itself can be turned into a range of subtle shades of gray. Il didn’t have that, so he learned to modulate everything from tone to composition with his single line and his imagination. The kind of line and range of lines he creates are amazing to see in person.

IL: There is much light in the new work, line and light and white…

JLS: Il’s really excited about the next step – he’s also begun using more color too – when he went from black to blue, it was a huge change for him, and it was almost like learning another language. It was a real surprise for him and for me.

IL: There are some critics who ask whether I’m painting or drawing. Like surprise, confusion is not bad to have.

JD: Well, Il, thank you so much for sharing your stories and work with us. This has been a wonderful engagement and I look forward to seeing where your work takes you. And thank you, Jung, for your continued support as well.

IL LEE (b. 1952, Seoul, Korea) has been the subject of a retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art and has had solo exhibitions at the Queens Museum of Art, the Vilcek Foundation, Art Projects International in New York, and the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, Texas. His work has also been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Art and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea.

Il Lee received his B.F.A. from Hongik University in Seoul, Korea.  Soon after his arrival into New York City in 1977, Il Lee received his M.F.A. in Painting from the Pratt Institute, New York. His abstraction is well documented in books, magazine publications, and other news media. The textbook, ‘Drawing: A Contemporary Approach’, includes Il Lee’s work in the context of 20th Century trends in drawing.  Il Lee lives and works in New York.

Transcribed and revised by Ali Van
All images courtesy of the artist and Art Projects International New York