AL HELD Alphabet Paintings
On ViewCheim & Read
February 28 – April 20, 2013
This exhibition, comprising ten paintings and two works on paper culled from several private collections, affords viewers the rare, if not unique, opportunity to apprise Al Held’s Alphabet paintings, made between 1961 and 1967 andthought by many in this city to be his finest work. Wall-sized and wall-like—and yet, it would appear, exactly the size they need to be—paintings from this series come as a shock to the contemporary viewer accustomed to so much size-indifferent abstraction. Today’s familiar abstract works mostly match in scale the available (and only just affordable) studio spaces. Held’s paintings, by contrast, wouldn’t even fit easily through a large door. Despite a single painting often consisting of several panels, there is nothing particularly convenient or portable about them, and they are not meant to be so; you are meant to come to them, perhaps. When the paintings were first shown by André Emmerich in 1965, the critic Phyllis Tuchman recalls, visitors were invited to climb the stairs to Held’s nearby studio to view a painting too large even for Emmerich’s spacious Fuller Building gallery.
Alphabet-based geometry, as employed by Held, is less a distillation than an extraction of shape. Fragmentary forms retain enough of the original to indicate their provenance, and what they lose as text they gain, overall, in texture. Knotty accumulations visible on the surface result from the painting and re-painting of the canvas support. The aggressive application of the brush, detectable under raking light, indicates the energy and movement of Held’s arm. Well submerged under layers of paint—the individuated strata of which remain visible along the sides of the support—the frontal surface ultimately appears solid, like the side of a house. During the 1960s, Held seemed to bring together Minimalism and Color Field, in a rough rather than hard-edged mode. And depending on your disposition, this group of paintings, which occupied Held for the better part of a decade, could be considered on the fence—or in your face, the latter apparently not unlike the man. Intending to “give Abstract Expressionism structure,” Held used his alphabet paintingsas a bridge to his later black-and-white paintings of still larger size, which further stressed the visual and conceptual anomaly that occurs when graphic illusion meets no-nonsense physical surface.
The forms within the alphabet paintings are barely contained by the canvas edges, fitting their frames with little tension. Fragmentary shapes slice or notch into a composition, often utilizing the armature of a recognizable letter to release energy that might otherwise have been diverted to establish balance. In other words, Held uses found forms much as Jasper Johns has done. Not all the paintings here use letters of the alphabet, but they all stay close to the idea of a sign. “The ‘I’” (1965) is a vertical black painting, with two thin white rectangles at either side occupying just over a third of the painting’s height. The rectangles establish, as negative space, the titular letter I. But that’s not all they do. The bottom and top edges of these forms are at a tilt, allowing by turns a visual expansion of the black and a perspectival recession of the white. Another noticeable shift occurs at the painting’s outside edges, where the black forms push away from the contrasting white wall, and the white forms, conversely, invite comparison to the wall in terms of hue and value.
Horizontal in orientation, “The Yellow X” (1965) envelops the viewer. The composition is a yellow field cut into by stabbing triangles, with the lower edges of the top and left triangles slight curved, indicating the arc of Held’s arm. At 90 by 144 inches it is not even the largest painting here—“Circle and Triangle” (1964) is, at 144 by 336 inches—yet standing before it is like gazing at the side of a building. It’s a struggle to think of other comparisons. Renaissance paintings installed to fill entire walls are softly contoured, recessive, and naturalistic; Held’s paintings are constructed according to geometry, that most stubborn of human systems.
The two drawings on view, one in graphite and one in crayon, feature a more direct filling-in of shape. Energy arises from an open method of covering the surface with repetitive marks, which don’t determine formal boundaries, but rather are free within them. Like Brian Jones, Held died in his swimming pool—albeit at a more advanced age —another aggressively determined creative spirit whose work continues to provoke and inspire.