Al Held in Paris: 1952-53
On ViewNathalie Karg
May 2 – June 15, 2018
Al Held moved to Paris in the early 1950s where he was part of a loose-knit expatriate community of American painters that included Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis. Mitchell, Francis and Held all had in common a determination to pit their personal stylistic development against the then coalescing dominance of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School. Held had his first showing of paintings, in Paris, in 1952, at Gallery Huit. These were relatively smaller and painterly works compared with the massive scale and graphic linearity his later and mature paintings would take. What they do impart are inklings of the stylistic tendencies of an artist very much determined to go his own way.
The overall palette of these works is quite dark, seeming almost in reference to the oily darkness of a certain European tradition of painting, in Rembrandt or in Goya for instance. Or perhaps it was Held’s chromatic segue from the Social Realist painting (which typically shared a somewhat somber palette also) he had grappled with at The Art Students League in New York. Prior to his embarkation to France he was involved with a political group among his artist colleagues there. The stylistic link between figurative, social realist work and his left-leaning political activities was something Held took with him to Europe. But, after a brief experiment upon arriving in Paris, with large drawings loosely inspired by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), he seemed to have an epiphany about the open-ended promise of his Parisian sojourn and how that might allow his full-on exploration of abstraction.
“…what happened was I realized very quickly that Paris was an easy place to paint everything else because I had all the New York experience, all the New York painting that I had seen, but being in Paris alone with new friends, I didn't have to explain myself to my old friends, all betrayals, of leaving them and their aesthetic, you know, in the sense—Do you follow me?—that I was able to hop, skip and jump because I was a free man.”1
Of course “painting everything else” was quite a worldly ambition for an artist from the less privileged quarters of Brooklyn and the Bronx, who basically had just then begun to find his footing in abstraction, yet it is this hyperbolic attitude that gave Held the capacity to invent an array of unique painterly languages with which to address that world of everything else. Some of his ink sketches from this period indicate an awareness and perhaps influence of the gestural, asemic writing of Ab-Ex precedents such as the script/strokes of Adolf Gottlieb, Mark Tobey, Franz Kline and Richard Pousette-Dart. Yet these drawings are much more tentative and spindly than those other artists: Held hadn’t yet determined his version of automatic writing as a style proper, a notion he would later abandon in his career. These ink studies2 feel almost anatomical: abstract expressions of skeletal structure, perhaps a still-lurking figurative bent. Moving from these sketches to the paintings, however, gives an indication of exactly what the artist may have been up to. In this transition the ephemeral, calligraphic ink slashes morph into painterly entwinements made of thickly impastoed cross-hatchings. Emerging from very dark grounds, these concentrated thickets in contrapuntal black and white predict Held’s later, reductive use of basic black and white paint to delineate some of his mural-sized, drawing/paintings of the 1960s. The interspersing of this binary structural element with saturated color (somewhat similar to the artist’s breakthrough “Taxi” series of the late 1950s) also makes a murky seminal debut in one very small (18 ¼ x 24 ¼ ”) canvas, Untitled (1952 – 53), in which red, green, and ocher accent the primarily monochromatic composition. One might also speculate if the influence of the Canadian ex-pat painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, then firmly established in Paris, (and who would later become partner to Joan Mitchell) might have temporarily inspired the younger Held, since a similar, weaving impasto gesture was then being developed by Riopelle into his own painterly trademark. The painting that dates the latest in this grouping, Untitled (1953) also seems to be one that Held felt most confident in exploring more complex compositional arrangements and a more chromatically- expanded palette than in earlier works. It’s a vibrant, and densely calligraphic composition of reds, greens, and ochers yet completely free of the black and white grounding of the other works in the show.Here is where we witness the artist coming into his own in his early adoption of a primarily cubist compositional structure that, rather than deeply rutting the pictorial space, spreads across the plane of the canvas and thus sutures the shallow sculptural dimensions of classic cubism to the all-over space of painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Prior to his move to Paris, Held became familiar with and admired these two artist’s works in New York City. In effect, what this very early painting reveals is the artist excavating a European modernist tradition that the older Ab-Ex painters had already (and with great difficulty) subsumed. Perhaps it was Held’s lack of substantive academic training that allowed him to freely go back and forth between modernist stylistic tropes and a loose experimentation with such tropes as “found” structures. Basically, he was taking the morphology of modernist painting’s history seriously by not really taking Modernism, as a historically cohesive whole, too seriously. In a very telling and characteristically plain spoken quote, Held reveals his own young self in the context of his long experience with art students (he taught at Yale from 1962 – 1980):
“…they may work their way back into old masters. But I’m talking about very bright kids. They really bounce very quickly, they just bounce like over hundreds of years; you know, just in a matter of weeks or months they just go through that stuff like. . . Not that they understand it or feel it but they really can go through it until they come to what they want to relate to… the brighter and faster ones go through that kind of thing very quickly depending on what’s hip at the moment at the time, whether it’s magazines or anything else. And I guess I was the same way. I mean going to Pollock was being hip. I didn't think of it in those terms. I skipped over a lot of things to get to Pollock.”3
What this show of early paintings gives us is a glimpse into what “bounces” off and beyond post-war abstraction ultimately brought Held to a mature style, a style (complex,expansive canvases of intersecting linear geometry and lucid color) that became it’s own world of “everything else”: one that graphically illuminated the artist’s particular acceleration of wit and vision.
- Al Held, from an interview in Smithsonian Archives of American Art: an oral history interview with Al Held (with Paul Cummings), 1975 Nov. 19- 1976 Jan. 8
- Two of these ink studies, both circa 1953, were on display at the concurrent show of Held’s work at Cheim & Read (Al Held: Paris to New York 1952-1959). A portfolio of very similar works were available to view at Karg, but were of a later date, 1956, when Held had already returned to New York.