Published in The Brooklyn Rail, February 2009
The exhibition of Al Held paintings from 1979 to 1984, recently on view at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, was part of a larger exhibition devoted to this artist’s work held in conjunction with Waddington Galleries, London, which presented paintings dating from 1989 to 1993 (the two shows shared a single catalogue). A third exhibition that focused on Held’s watercolors of 1990 to 2005 closed at the John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, just before the opening of the Kasmin show. While offering wonderful opportunities to see and assess selective aspects of the artist’s work, the trio of shows is also symptomatic of the spotty recognition that has been accorded this major artist.
The single major retrospective of his career remains the survey curated by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1974, which traced his development from his heavily pigmented, gestural Expressionist paintings in the 1950s, to his pioneering of flatly rendered geometric abstraction in the context of post-painterly Abstraction in the 1960s, to his veering off on his own path in his reintroduction of illusionism into abstract painting in the early 1970s, a direction followed some years later by Frank Stella and others. Although Held continued to develop in stunning new directions over the course of the next three decades, consistently challenging and reinventing himself, for the most part his exposure was confined to yearly exhibitions of new work at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, while the Robert Miller Gallery often offered historically-themed shows focusing on snippets of his oeuvre (among them, Al Held 1959-61, Taxicabs 1959 and After Paris 1953-1955) in the manner of the recent triad. A modestly scaled show, which was presented from June 26 to August 10, 2008, at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, made a heroic attempt to span the artist’s career, but this exhibition did not travel and received only local attention.
The six large-scale paintings of 1979 to 1985 presented at the Kasmin Gallery highlighted one of the richest and most pivotal moments in a career marked by transitions. (Irving Sandler’s monograph on Held, published in 1984, ably and eloquently chronicles the inception of this moment.) S-E (1979), the earliest work in the show, was executed one year following Held’s return to color after nearly a decade of devoting himself to black-and-white geometric abstractions. In this work, an assortment of open cubic forms are densely packed and layered within a shallow space in a manner similar to his previous work, but the palette is now dominated by the primaries.
In 1980, Held stopped teaching at Yale, where he had been an instructor since 1962, and in the spring of 1981 he spent six months at the American Academy in Rome. While there, he engaged in a study of masterworks of Early and High Renaissance painting with a particular focus on its use of perspective, resulting in the expansion of Held’s pictorial space and a direct engagement with architectural referents. In “Trajan’s Edge II” (1982), a work with a centralized composition and a varied and glowing palette, yellow disks are seen through a looming structure consisting of mostly orange rings set within a fantastic illusionary space. Intimations of architecture and walls as they might appear in the paintings of Duccio (such as the “Entry into Jerusalem” panel of the “Maestà Altarpiece”) are seen in the purple and green angled structures behind.
Four subsequent paintings offer viewers a journey into futuristic landscapes defined by complexly organized architectural scaffolds. Although a “sci-fi” interpretation of these worlds has long been disputed and may well be excessive (Sandler writing in 1984, “such readings strike me as vulgar”), the artist’s recurrent use of ground planes subdivided in a manner evoking cultivated fields testifies that he conceived of the paintings as depicting imagined, quasi-idealized landscapes. The structural grids, beams, sweeping arcs, and planes that comprise Held’s architectural scaffolds have been given palpable form, each defined by a single plane of color adjoined with a second plane of a similar or contrasting hue that serves as its “lit” or “shaded” side; the artist modeling through color alone. The palette is remarkable for the unpredictable nature of the color pairings and for its range, featuring both saturated and pastel hues in a single work, the latter most often found in the light-filled distant realms. With prolonged viewing, the intricate nature of the each work’s organization successively reveals itself; as soon as one structure or set of structures is recognized and understood, a subset of forms or “events” comes into awareness, followed by yet another.
To experience these works is ultimately to journey into states of consciousness. In the two Vorcex Series paintings from 1984, a series of internal frames bracket the viewer’s field of vision, offering portals of entry. In each, however, thick snake-like forms coil their way across the pictorial space and, seemingly, out into the gallery space as well, blocking the portal, appearing lyrical and decorative here, vulgar and threatening there. At first viewing, the monumental “Roberta’s Trip” (1985) offers a panoramic vista of a wondrous new realty in which everything is neatly ordered, rational and clear. Discrepancies in alignment and placement then begin to reveal themselves: forms float on nothing and go nowhere, perspective is askew, rhythms are broken, the whole indeterminate and in flux. An emotional spectrum encompassing awe, delight, wonder, dismay, anxiety, and doubt are thus encountered within a single work. While speaking a language of precise forms, Held’s paintings of the middle eighties hark back to his Abstract Expressionist works of the 1950s, in which impulsive, painted gestures played a similarly evocative role, simultaneously structuring and subverting the overall composition.
From the vantage point of today, the surfaces of Held’s paintings of the mid-1980s appear, in fact, so pristine and the manipulations of perspective so complex and sophisticated that they suggest computer-generated design and digital imaging. Their angled projections into space call to mind, among other things, the colorful graphics of the Garmin GPS navigational system. Held, however, worked directly on canvas without the aid of technologically advanced media, each work the product of prolonged concentration and effort (some occupying him for over a year), the process one of constant revising, adjusting and over-painting.
The forward-looking nature of this work is enhanced with the recognition that Held’s constructed worlds, suspended as they are between representation and abstraction, quite literally set the stage for aspects of recent art. Held was an unnamed presence standing behind much of the work in the Whitney Museum’s Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing, curated by Elizabeth Sussman in 2005, the year of Held’s death. This show presented work by eight artists, including Franz Ackerman, Matthew Ritchie, Terry Winters, and Julie Mehretu, who create vast panoramas of alternate worlds that are experienced through time and make unapologetic use of illusionistic space. The Kasmin Gallery exhibition demonstrated that a major (even monumental, given the physical scale of his work) retrospective that spans the fifty-plus years of Held’s career is needed to assert the historical significance and contemporary relevance of an artist who grandly and poetically anticipated the way we navigate the twenty-first century world.