Al Held (1928-2005)by Chris Martin, Rackstraw Downes, William Conlon, and Judy Pfaff
I first met Al Held as an undergraduate at Yale. I remember seeing him with a group of graduate students playing cards in the Art and Architecture building. I remember Nabil Nahas, Judy Pfaff, David Row, and others… Everyone seemed very grown up—like “real” artists—smoking cigars in paint spattered clothes…
When I saw Held’s 1974 retrospective at the Whitney Museum I was knocked out. I was awestruck at the two great black-and-white paintings “Solar Wind V” and “Black Nile VII.” I was also very moved by the great early minimal paintings like “Mao,” “Ivan The Terrible,” and “The Big X.” The shock of his retrospective, coupled with the romantic desire to just “be a painter” led me in 1975 to drop out of college and come directly to New York City. The next few years I talked continuously about Al Held (to anyone who would listen). I did literally thousands of terrible Al Held drawings, most of which I threw off the roof of my apartment building. Gradually I began to find my own way. I have to confess that by the late 1980s, I lost my connection with Held’s work. I always respected Al as a master, but his increasingly mannerist illusionism and impeccably smooth surfaces seemed very distant from the hands on humanism of much 1980s painting.
It wasn’t until the last several years that we became friends and I began visiting him at his studio in Boiceville. I often came with a ritual gift of a pie from Bread Alone Bakery. It was inspiring to encounter his new gigantic paintings. We had long conversations—although Al’s way of having a conversation was to have an argument. He was constantly probing and challenging and fighting for his ideas. He was tremendously intelligent with the willpower of a Brooklyn truck driver. I can remember, after a particularly exhausting argument about Alfred Jensen, finally hearing him say, “OK—so we can agree that we disagree…”
Once, standing in his studio in front of the huge painting “Requiem II” (1996). I felt transported to the sublime desert landscape of northern Arizona. When I mentioned to Al that some new paintings reminded me of Thomas Cole, Fredric Church, and the nineteenth century landscape painters, he was a little exasperated and said “Well people see a lot of things in them…” It’s true that Held’s work has been linked to a bewildering variety of sources including string theory, Flemish and High Renaissance painting, outer space, psychedelics, video games, and computer art. (His omission from the current Whitney Museum show Remote Viewing was a missed opportunity.) What is often misunderstood by fans and critics alike, due to the sanded smooth almost inhuman acrylic finish of the paintings, was that Al never used computers, did no exact designing, nor even any real preliminary drawing. Held always worked the image out directly on the canvas—starting with an intuitive series of marks and making changes large and small during the process of painting. I remember him saying with a smile “I have to actually do it, in order to do it wrong…” and “What I’m happy about is I keep moving, I’m not settled down into a logo.”
We were supposed to tape an interview together for the Brooklyn Rail last spring, but postponed it until this fall. I will miss him.
When I was struggling to make geometric paintings in art school, Alex Katz tipped me off to the work of Al Held. I must have first seen it at Poindexter Gallery in 1962. I was completely overwhelmed.
I had come to the U.S to study with Albers. Geometry to me meant things like “purity” and “logic” but also, less admirably, elegance and class-tinged good taste. What I saw in Held’s work was strapping, robust energies, swelling outward. Geometry here was not imported, math-based ordering devices; it was the natural, absolutely demarcated limit to internal forces, which had been developed to their maximum presence via endless rethinkings. These forces took muscular, torqued, tyrannical forms, which elbowed everything else out to the edge, leaving only just enough foreign material to define them with. Titles: “Ivan The Terrible,” “Mao”—great forces at work; “Genesis”—the impending collision of incompatible forms; and the letterform series with the all-American word “Big” inserted: “The Big N,” “The Big A.”
I adopted the whole thing, and my studio gristled with baby Helds.He came to the school as visiting critic, entered my space, was silent for a minute, then said “I assume you know my work?” Soon he was at the school on a regular basis; he would speak tersely, with conviction and weight. Often, his dicta lit up his work: every form is a personality, the roundest shape is not necessarily a circle, if you cut up a painting, the pieces will have a scale you would never get deliberately. To go with Al through the stages of making one of your paintings (they were mostly his anyway) was a profound kind of training. His vision blocked off all other vistas for me. This went on for some eighteen months or more until, reacting to a number of things, I started all over again, and adopted an agenda parts of which deliberately opposed his in order to get it behind me.
From then on and as it were from a distance, I watched the acrylic “drawn line” paintings emerge, black on white, then white on black. In the latter—the Black Nile, Flemish and Volta series—the black field separates from the white walls of art spaces, and counters the convention of line drawing on white paper. These paintings are tempered, they don’t burst; incompatibility is reduced to straights versus circles, or arcs thereof. The white lines look coolly incised; they come in a range of thicknesses, some very delicate, and are sometimes paired so as to work like shaded typefaces. A plane implied by lines may be at one moment transparent and penetrable, at another opaque and solid. These oscillations make the black exceedingly complex, but are not dizzying. The dynamism is no longer in the hand, but in the great variety of the constructions. These works are for me an apogee in the painting of what Gorky called “pure geometrical organizations.” Held then went on to the huge, full-color, deep space, tour-de-force paintings for which he is now well known, but not yet properly valued.
As a man, Held could be very generous, intervening for a person in difficulty. When issues of right and wrong conduct seemed to him to be involved, he could take a firm stand.
Al called me on Sunday the 24th of July from Italy just to chat. We talked about the weather and how he was enjoying swimming in his new pool. As usual with Al the next question was how was the work going. I told him that it was slow and that I was trying out some new ideas. For next half hour we talked about painting issues.
On Tuesday the 26th he was dead, a massive coronary heart attack.
Al’s life was Painting. It was the engine that drove him to produce some of the most important paintings of the twenty-first century.
In order to fully appreciate Al’s achievements, especially the more recent paintings, one must go back to his early work such as the hard edge paintings of the sixties like the Alphabet series: “The Greek Garden,” “The Big N,” and “Mao.” It was his move away from abstract expressionism and the beginning of his use of geometry.
For the next fifty years the circle, the triangle, and the square became his starting point.
In 1968, Al moved from a flat geometric space to a more complex Euclidean geometric space. The circles, triangles, and squares became spheres, pyramids, and cubes. He left out color to concentrate on this new ambiguous space. For ten years he worked on this black and white series. They stood as the under pinnings of all of the paintings to follow.
In 1978, Al slowly introduced color. At first color was used as identity; one could liken it to Mondrian’s usage of color. During the 1980s his color began to change, in part because of his time in Rome. I remember Al at the time saying that he found contemporary painting not that interesting. He was more excited in the color complexity of Renaissance frescoes. From that point until today Al slowly built a new painting space. In the early nineties he introduce light sources and most recently, modeling. He brought back tools of the trade that were considered off limits to abstract painters.
I would like to change a misconception about Al—he was not a “maverick utopian painter of galactic science fiction abstract fantasies.” On the contrary, Held, like Cézanne and Mondrian, developed his paintings incrementally, one at a time over fifty years. It was as if each new painting was transparently painted over the last. As a result, if one is looking at a recent painting of Al’s and does not know its history, it is almost impossible to grasp what is going on. The complexity of his compositions is mind-boggling. In the late paintings, Al did something quite extraordinary. He combined Euclidean geometry with fractal geometry. The fractals, or small triangular pixels, enabled him to model shapes and forms in tantalizingly real ways, but inherently still abstract. He was constantly refining the fractals with subtle tonal modulations. This enabled him to render ribbon like shapes and give it the feel of fabric or turning spheres into giant colored kaleidoscopic balls floating in space.
Standing in front of one of the recent large paintings the viewer has a sense that one is in the picture, like the way Velazquez in his masterpiece “Las Meninas” put the viewer next to the subject being painted. You are suddenly transported into to a web of interconnected structures, a parallel universe. The experience is like seeing a diagram of the social interaction of millions of people communicating with each other on the Internet. What Al has done with these remarkable paintings is to visualize cyberspace. Like cubist space, Al’s cyberspace—or better, his “cyberscape”—is a visual metaphor for our time.
Al Held’s paintings will be his legacy that will provide inspiration for future generations of painters.
Great Diamond Island, Maine
August 15, 2005
Al Held was my teacher. We met in 1971 and began a conversation that was as intense and heated the last time we spoke in July as the first time we spoke so long ago. As a teacher he insisted that I talk about my ideas, specifically why I chose one structure over another to address those ideas. Accurately visualized ideas took precedent over style, or talent. He returned weekly and found new questions. Up until that time I had never had anyone take my work so seriously, never talked to someone who addressed the developments in contemporary art as a constant renewable dialogue. He brought this level of inquiry to all the students, to the figurative painters and the abstract painters. He was tough and inexhaustible.
When I moved to Soho in 1973 I had my first show at Artists Space, nominated by Al Held. We became great friends. Al’s whole life was in the studio. Since the fifties as a young, Brooklyn born, ex -Navy man on the G.I. Bill in Paris, he worked out his ideas in paint, in painting. This was accomplished with enormous curiosity and a pragmatic approach to the possibilities of painting’s ability to create new space, and his ability to make lots of work. He introduced muscle into the school of Paris with the pigment paintings, outward pressure in the minimalist looking alphabet series in the sixties, illusionist space in the ever so flat seventies, and incomprehensible visual complexity, in the new work, without the aid of the computer.
Space for Al was the only frontier; it offered infinite possibilities and wonder. He was there first, and to my mind without the degree of credit and acknowledgement deserved. His are difficult paintings, demanding, protean and incredibly beautiful. I think in the last few years his paintings became optimistic, gathering in both the expanding language of painting and science. The last few years he was spending more time in Italy, in his home in Camarata. There he was free, alone in the studio, surrounded by art history and warm light, and the world of ideas. Al Held is a great artist. I miss him. I am still his student.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.Rackstraw Downes
British-born painter RACKSTRAW DOWNES depicts his surroundings from observation right at the site. He has worked intensively in the New York metro area, Maine, and both southeast and west Texas. A book of his essays and reviews, Nature and Art Are Physical, was published in 2014.William Conlon