Years ago, Al Held invited me to his place in Boiceville, New York, to see two large paintings that he had all but completed. They were immense, brightly colored works in which geometric forms floated, weightless.
In one of them, two dark planes — one starting at the top edge and the other at the bottom — receded sharply into a narrow band of glowing yellow light. Was this — the light in the distance — the artist’s view of heaven? Before I could ask, Held told me that he had made the painting for his friend Sam Francis, who had recently died.
Held’s view of a graspable sanctuary from the hopeless abyss of infinite space is in keeping with his statement: “One of the profound powers of the artist is that he can will or choose to become anything he wills or chooses. It doesn’t come from his soul, or from his genes, it comes from his choices. And those choices are infinite and hopeful.” Held was nothing if not square.
His answer to his generation’s quandary over whether there can be art after the Holocaust was to invest in a belief in the artist as an omniscient creator, a god who presides over his domain. And, as a god, his desire to create an alternate world — Charles Baudelaire’s “Anywhere! Just so it is out the world” — lead to the romantic excesses of his late paintings.
The poet Charles Olson wrote: “people/don’t change. They only stand more/revealed.”
Held started revealing himself as someone who equated the artist with an all-knowing creator in 1967, when he began, as Robert Storr has written, “to muscle painting back into three dimensions without betraying its character as painting or his own long-standing commitment to the primacy of gesture.” By then he had already scaled up his paintings to the extent that “Ivan the Terrible” (1961) was 12 feet high and “Circle and Triangle” (1964) at 24 feet wide, required four canvases, rivaling Frank Stella’s shaped copper paintings.
(Before we declare Held a hero for addressing the implications of space and illusion in contemporary painting, we should remember that Sylvia Plimack-Mangold started doing her “floor paintings” around 1967. It seems to me that we are too ready to give men all the credit. Perhaps we should rethink our assumptions.)
That Held got sick of flatness and the 1960’s prevailing reductionist orthodoxy, as represented by Frank Stella and championed by the heirs of Clement Greenberg’s theorizing, is not surprising. That he seemed to find Formalism’s definition of modernism a constraint that he could no longer abide is also not surprising. The problem is in the nature of his response.
Held worked on a heroic scale, striving to achieve immaculate surfaces by submerging any evidence of the hand. The multi-directional alignments of his interpenetrating, geometric forms denied gravity, and his spatial conundrums insisted on a reading based in pure opticality. In other words, nearly everything he did was in tune with Formalism’s proscriptions. The one exception was the most obvious, flatness. He wanted to complicate Stella’s “what you see is what you see,” but not so much that he brought metaphor or other possibilities back in. That came much later.
From trompe l’oeil to deep space, Held reintroduced Renaissance perspective back into painting, as if it had never been absent. His array of schematic cubes, cylinders, cones and other linear geometric structures deployed in a variety of impossible configurations define an illusionistic world in which reality exerts no pressure. If one of art’s goals is to bring us closer to life or, at least, reveal something about its inevitabilities, Held elected to go in the opposite direction, and move art away from life.
It is illuminating to compare Held’s paintings from the late 1960s to early ’70s to those done by Nicholas Krushenick during the same period. It was Krushenick who got Held interested in art when the latter was nineteen and just out of the navy. Although they started off as friends, and Krushenick showed Held’s work at the Brata Gallery, which he and his brother John ran, they did not stay friendly.
Ken Johnson had this to say about Krushenick’s work in his October 13, 2011, New York Times review:
Many pictures seem to channel the social strife of the 1960s. In “Fire Fade” (1971), zigzagging stripes around the edges of a vertical canvas form a maw filled with sharp white teeth. The picture distills the rage that for a time engulfed our national psyche.
Nothing of the sort can be found in a Held painting. They are resolutely unemotional. He wanted to create a visually dazzling world, one that denied gravity and the passing of time, where surface and depth were flawless and indistinguishable. Perhaps this is why one of his large, handsome, porcelain-like paintings fits in so perfectly with the fancy L.A. décor of the Paul Schrader film American Gigolo (1980). Krushenick’s “Fire Fade” would have thrown a monkey wrench into the cool surface smoothness of Schrader’s film.
I moved to New York in 1975, the year after Held’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I remember going to the three shows Robert Miller mounted in the 1980s. The first one documented the work he did after returning to New York from Paris (1953–55); the second one featured his output between 1954 and 1959; and the third presented his work from 1959. I also visited his exhibitions at Andre Emmerich, where he showed his current paintings. The gap in my knowledge was Held’s “Alphabet Paintings,” which he did between 1961 and ‘67. I saw a few here and there, usually when I was on my way to see something else. They always caught my eye, got me to stop and look.
Cheim and Read has put together an impressive show of seven paintings and two works on paper from this period. The accompanying catalog includes an essay by Robert Storr, and reproductions of paintings owned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
In 1961, Held’s work underwent a fundamental change. Having started working in acrylic in the late 1950s, he now moved away from the geometric to the typographic. He also began to depart from a brushy, gestural style and to work on a grander scale than he ever had before. Instead of filling in a field with small units, he scaled up the typographic so that it extended beyond the painting’s physical edges, creating various tensions that animated the paintings.
The inspiration to use the typographic — a ready-made form — may have come from Nicholas Krushenick’s graphic abstractions inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs, Japanese woodcuts and comics; Jasper Johns’ “alphabets” and “numerals,” which were shown in his groundbreaking debut solo show at Leo Castelli in 1958; and Willem de Kooning’s black-and-white paintings “Orestes” and “Zurich” (both 1947). Whatever the source, Held used the typographic to break free from the clogged surfaces of his Abstract Expressionist work while making it something that was all his own.
Held treated the “letters” as physical things rather than pictorial images. In the masterful two-paneled painting, “The Yellow X” (1965), four triangular notches jut inward near the midpoint of the canvas’s four edges. Each notch is a different size and comprised of two different colors, one triangular and one a band-like extension. The largest triangle, on the left, is a blue-and-white, sharply pointed isosceles triangle; the next in size, a scalene triangle in orange and blue, sticks down from the top edge; poking in from the right side is a small blue isosceles triangle with a large red margin; the one rising up from the bottom edge is a small, squat, wine-red isosceles triangle with a large green margin.
The triangles torque the “Yellow X” so that its plane appears to be both bent and flat. Extending off the painting’s physical edges, the X is simultaneously skewed and stable, conveying a space that hints at a realm beyond and behind the picture plane. The tension between what’s inside and what’s outside the painting’s physical boundaries — what is seen and unseen — animates the painting and our experience of it.
Working on the “Alphabet Paintings” during the first half of 1960s, which saw the rise of Pop Art, Minimalism and Color field painting, Held is one of the few artists to develop an alternative to all three. The paintings are tough and formal without being Formalist. While establishing a layered space, he never evoked a depthlessness over which he had no control — a pictorial abyss. Always wanting to stay on terra firma, he never went so far as to confuse the figure and ground in ways that may undermine the painting’s stability. The loss of such control can be terrifying.
The other abstract artist who was working independently of Pop Art, Minimalism and Color Field painting during this period was, of course, Nicholas Krushenick. The difference is that Krushenick was more inventive than Held — he was able to draw on a wider and deeper pool of sources; sustain, develop and expand the graphic elements of his vocabulary; and employ humor and pastiche in his work.
By cropping his expansive typographic forms, Held directly challenges Stella’s dictum, “what you see is what you see,” by bringing what you can’t see into play. At the same time, he suggests that the painting’s physical dimensions — no matter how tall and wide — aren’t big enough to contain him. Held was nothing if not macho. And this is the point I want to make. Held believed he could — to use his own term — “will” his work into greatness.
In the late 1960s, when — to paraphrase Storr’s characterization — he moved away from the typographic and began muscling space back into painting – that is to say, when he began deploying interpenetrating, black-and-white, linear volumetric forms in a weightless abstract space, often with a disorienting effect — he was attempting to combine Jackson Pollock’s denial of gravity with aspects of Renaissance perspective. That is to say, he was acting as if time and weight exerted no pressure upon the painting itself. In doing so, Held had in effect chosen to become a choreographer of theatrical gestures and to identify painting as a visual spectacle.
By the time Held reintroduced color into his paintings in the late 1970s, he was convinced that consistent virtuosity was the key to greatness, and in his case virtuosity meant an idealized landscape space occupied by intertwined, intersecting and overlaid forms. This is what I find troubling — Held’s distant, light-filled vistas are his sign for heaven. With their nods to trompe l’oeil and visual conundrums, which call to mind the faux surrealism of Salvador Dali, Held’s geometric forms floating in the deep, illusionistic space of his large, late paintings deny the body’s passage in time toward mortality. I don’t think this is the greatness Held had in mind when — having completed the best paintings of his career (1959–1967) — he decided to become a connoisseur.
Al Held: Alphabet Paintings is on view at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 20.