Al Held

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Example of Al Held Artwork (1987)

Acrylic on canvas 84 x 60 inches


Al Held (1928 – 2005)

In the summer of 1959 the Museum of Modern Art mounted New York’s first big survey of postwar American painting. Titled The New American Painting, it emphasized the work of the leading Abstract Expressionist artists and enthralled a young Brooklyn-born painter named Al Held. A veteran of World War II, Al Held had briefly studied at Art Students League and then went to Paris for three years before returning to New York permanently. While he was highly influenced by that show, he developed his own style which departed significantly for everything exhibited at that time.

“Al Held was one of the last and best of the big impact Abstract painters to emerge from the post-War era.” (Ken Johnson-N.Y. Times Art Critic). The artist is known for his “special conundrums,” with each canvas the product of enormous drawn out labor and planning. Sometimes the artist would repaint pieces several times until he reached the perfect balance of perfection and the bending of perspective for which he was looking. His paintings illustrate geometric magic with his manipulation of the various shapes incorporated into his canvases. There are edges that you would not see in 3-D; but his paintings bend rectangles and squares into trapezoidal mind play inviting the observer to look and look again as perspectives change. Like moving a lens over shapes, Held’s painting compositions reach out to the viewer with whimsical, stimulating oddities. This mechanism separates Al Held’s artwork from the other geometricians and hard edge painters from his generation. Al Held’s paintings could never be seen as static and predictable. There is always something new to see.

Al Held began his art career in 1947, after he finished his service with the Navy. Upon his return to New York, he enrolled in the Art Students League, where he harbored an idea of becoming a muralist. In 1949, funded by a G.I. Bill stipend, Al Held went to Paris for three years and studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. After deciding to abandon social realism, Al Held paintings adopted an Abstract Expressionist-inspired style characterized by geometric shapes rendered in dark colors and very thick impasto. Al Held art sought to marry the objectivity of Piet Mondrian and the subjectivity of Jackson Pollock.

Throughout the 1950s, Al Held’s artist palette grew progressively lighter. The geometric shapes disappeared, replaced by an intricate network of gestural, multidirectional strokes applied thickly with a palette knife. By the end of the decade, he had become frustrated with both his style and his medium. He wanted to make the structure underpinning his paintings visible. Within six months beginning in 1959, Al Held transformed his work by switching from oil to Liquitex, a quick-drying water-based acrylic medium. The advantage to Liquitex, as the artist described, was that “the acrylic couldn’t be built up and you couldn’t work wet into wet with acrylic, and so the imagery remained clean and clear.” Among Held’s paintings, points of departure for his new work were his admiration for Matisse’s Jazz-themed cutouts. In 1966, Al Held received a Guggenheim Fellowship. The following year, the artist abandoned color and the flat shapes began to explore perspective, space, and complex interlocking geometric forms in black and white.

Al Held paintings were now in one-man exhibitions in the critically important André Emmerich Gallery in New York (1968, 1970, 1972, and 1974) and many more collectors and critics began to recognize the importance and the uniqueness of his paintings. In 1974, a twenty-five year retrospective of Al Held art was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This massive collection substantiated Al Held’s importance as an alternative to the abstract painting that followed Abstract Expressionism. Other than Frank Stella, Al Held paintings stood alone in style, being neither color field nor minimalist. Al Held artwork would experiment with the placement of the main shapes, sometimes moving them entirely and painting over them. Once he was certain about the placement, he would work to define the edge between one color form and another; creating a tension between two edges. In this regard, his style was essentially self-taught. In that interview Al Held said “I had to literally educate myself” because this was a complete departure from his previous style and training. None of his paintings have edges that are perfectly straight; instead, they are intentionally modulated, convex in some areas and concave in others, to heighten the tension between the forms.

Irving Sandler, the curator and biographer of the N.Y. School of painters (Triumph of American Painting) called Al Held painting style concrete abstraction. He went on to curate a show of his artwork along with a number of his fellow contemporaries: Knox Martin; and sculptors Ronald Bladen, George Sugarman, and David Weinrib in an exhibition called Concrete Expressionism curated by Sandler himself at New York University in 1965. This appellation separated the artists from anything that was emerging from the Ab/Ex movement of any region of the country (cf. Irving Sandler, Al Held; New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1984, p. 13; Concrete Expressionism; op. cit. Chapter 3.)

Held was a member of the Yale University Faculty of Art from 1962 to 1980. After resigning from Yale in late 1980 Al Held was given a six-month residency At the American Academy in Rome. From that point onward, his paintings resumed in color while continuing his exploration of geometry and perspective. A seminal Al Held painting called M’s Passage, demonstrates a new direction. For the first time the viewer sees large horizontal planes of color, with a giant curved grid of graduating blues sweeping behind the structure; with corkscrew shapes. It amounted to a new and final direction for an already demanding style.

During his career as an artist, Held had one-man shows at the Stedelijik Museum in Amsterdam (1966), the San Francisco Museum of Art (1968), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1974). Al Held artist, died at his home in Italy in July 2005.