The sculptural artist behind the scenes—The art of Ming Cho Lee

Roxanne Ray October 17, 2017 0

Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design is not just another coffee table book.

Arnold Aronson’s compendium of Lee’s work spans much of the 20th century, and includes early sketches, watercolors, formal set designs, and vibrant photographs of dozens of his built designs, as well as pictures of his family, past and present.

Open the book to any page, and you’ll see images of Lee at work, or a side-by-side comparison of one of his drawings together with its final appearance in three dimensions. Accompanying each image is a brief, readable write-up by Aronson on the project, placed into the larger context of Lee’s career.

Lee cites a wide range of international influences, most notably the German Bertolt Brecht. Also important to Lee’s motivation to become a set designer was Omar Paxson at Occidental College, as well as Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham for decades.

Following graduate study at UCLA, Lee launched his professional design career in the 1950s, and continued to design new shows on an almost annual basis for many years.

In 1966, he began designing for Broadway and Off-Broadway, but found the experience disappointing. Soon, in 1969, he began teaching at Yale, but his part-time role lacked benefits, and it would be years until he received full-time status.

Despite these challenges, Lee continued to practice his art form and explore new arenas, including designing for musical theatre, dance, and other performances. In 2002, after nearly 50 years of artistic creation, Lee received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed by the United States.

Aronson acknowledges in his conclusion that Lee never became a “household name,” but emphasizes the importance of Lee’s contribution to the stage: Lee viewed set design not as a two-dimensional backdrop painted behind the actors, but rather, as a three-dimensional sculpture that intermingled with the performers—and sometimes even the audience. In this way, Lee will continue to influence theatre, dance, and television designers for decades to come.

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