Al Held began his art career in 1947, after leaving the Navy. He enrolled in the Art Students League in New York, his hometown, and became interested in socialism and activist mural painting. In 1949, funded by a G.I. Bill stipend, he went to Paris for three years and studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. After deciding to abandon social realism, he adopted an Abstract Expressionist-inspired style characterized by geometric shapes rendered in dark colors and very thick impasto. With these works he sought to marry the objectivity of Piet Mondrian and the subjectivity of Jackson Pollock. (1)
Throughout the 1950s, Held’s palette grew progressively lighter in color. 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, Held had become frustrated with his style and especially his medium. He wanted to make the structure underpinning his paintings visible. Within six months beginning in 1959, Held transformed his style by switching from oil to Liquitex, a quick-drying water-based acrylic medium. The advantage to Liquitex, as Held 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.” (2)
The scale of Held’s work increased during this period; he slowly filled canvases that were as large as 12 feet high and 28 feet wide. Even small pieces like this one reveal Held’s preoccupation with scale. An important formal aspect of his work is his tendency to crop forms, to create the impression that they continue to expand and exist outside the picture plane.
In a 1975 interview, Held described his working process. He 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. At first, he said, “the notion of drawing an edge I had no consciousness of. I didn’t know what that meant. Or the tension between two edges. I had
to literally educate myself.” (3) This work is a virtuoso examination of edges, as it is a composition fully made up of edges and intersections that come together into a surreal and unknowable geometry.
Held’s style at this time has been described as “concrete abstraction.” (4) Other artists working in this vein included Knox Martin and the sculptors Ronald Bladen, George Sugarman, and David Weinrib. Held’s work appeared with theirs in the Concrete Expressionism show curated by Irving Sandler at New York University in 1965.
Held was a member of the Yale University Faculty of Art from 1962 to 1980. In 1966, Held received a Guggenheim Fellowship. The following year, he abandoned color and the flat shapes and began exploring perspective, space, and complex interlocking geometric forms in black and white. He eventually resumed work in color in the late 1970s while continuing his exploration of geometry and perspective.
Held also completed many public art projects during his career. One of his last such projects was a large mural for the New York subway system’s E. 53rd Street and Lexington stop. Held died at his villa in Italy in July 2005. During his career he 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).
1. Irving Sandler, Al Held (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1984), p. 13.
2. Al Held interviewed by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art (1975-76), available at http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/al-held-interviews-12773.
4. Sandler, see “Chapter 3: The Concrete Abstractions.”
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