Il Lee | Painter

L: Artist Il Lee M.F.A. ’82; R Top: Il Lee, Untitled 182, 1982, ballpoint pen on paper, 29 x 42 inches; R Bottom: Il Lee, BL-060, 2005, ballpoint pen on canvas, 84 x 144 inches.

In 2010, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its newly installed Arts of Korea Gallery, which showcased two works by Il Lee (Pratt Institute, M.F.A. ’82), a Korean-born, New York-based artist best known for creating innovative works both on paper and canvas using ballpoint pens.

The exhibit brought the artist’s move from Korea to New York full circle, explains Jung Lee Sanders, whose gallery Art Projects International has been representing Lee since 1996.

“The first place Il Lee went when he landed in New York was the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” notes Sanders. “For him to have two of his works installed there is magnificent.”

Il Lee first came to New York from Korea in 1977 to attend Pratt.  As one of the first Korean students to attend the Institute (today, more than half of Pratt’s international students come from Korea), he was also a member of the first wave of Korean artists drawn to the New York art scene of the 1970’s.

Lee worked his way through school.  Speaking about that period and the years after he says, “Thinking about it, that was the hardest time in my life.  To survive financially we would work 10 hours a day, then return to our studios to do art work.”

Lee, who earned his B.F.A. in painting at the prestigious Hong-Ik University in Seoul, was already technically proficient when he arrived at Pratt. What he received from the Institute, he says, was a “great environment.”

“What Pratt and New York offered were diverse ideas,” he recalls.

While still at Pratt, Lee was invited to take part in a show titled Korean Drawing Now at the Brooklyn Museum.  It was in preparing for this show that Lee discovered the range of work the everyday ballpoint pen can produce.

Over the years he explored ways to harness the power of the ballpoint pen. He developed various techniques to get the effects he most desired. He also experimented with a wide variety of colors of ballpoint pen inks, switching colors, for instance, when a particular manufacturer altered the composition of its ink.

In 2002, Lee began making his ballpoint pen creations on canvas.  This allowed him to create large-scale works.

“With work on paper, there is always the same thickness.  But on canvas, the line is affected by the texture of the canvas,” he says.  Lee’s work has been shown in dozens of museums and galleries around the world. A mid-career retrospective of Il Lee’s works was presented at the San Jose Museum of Art in California in 2007.

The pieces on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art were Untitled 303, a 2003 ballpoint pen work on paper, and IW-105, a large-scale acrylic and oil work on canvas for which the process is the inverse of his signature pen work; rather than drawing with ink, an inkless ballpoint pen is used to score oil pigment.

The works were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from November 23, 2010 through March 20, 2011.

Art Projects International Director Sanders recalls “Il Lee’s early ballpoint work stood out as being clearly unorthodox, strong, and forward-looking.  Most importantly, he has continued his success in creating work that is uniquely his own while remaining accessible and conceptually rigorous.  Many of the abstract images Il Lee creates are unprecedented, yet each image tends to conjure up something familiar for each of us.”

Photos: Courtesy of the artist and Art Projects International, New York