The first Al Held painting I ever saw was called Flemish VII—a black canvas covered with a jungle of overlapping geometric shapes outlined in white. The first thing that jumped into my mind when seeing it was that its imagery reminded me of the video game Asteroids. Flemish VII was painted in 1973. Asteroids debuted in 1979. I have often wondered whether the game designers who created Asteroids were inspired by Held. It would make sense to me if they were. Held was a pioneer in the realm of virtual space. After years spent exploring Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, and many more years spent exploring flat, Hard Edge Abstraction in the 1960s, Held departed from the trends of his generation and re-introduced perspective into his art. For the most part by then, classical perspective, ala the illusionistic sense of space for which the Old Master painters were beloved, had been crushed by Modernism. Held wanted to bring it back, in an abstract way, but not in an Op Art kind of way. He wanted perspective to be its own formal and conceptual element. Flemish VII was an early effort in this realm. It is a sparse and simple painting—almost a study. As time went on, Held expanded on its basic pretense, constructing more and more complex, illusionistic worlds full of colorful, luminous, geometric objects floating in space. An upcoming exhibition at David Klein Gallery in Detroit titled Al Held, Luminous Constructs: Paintings and Watercolors from the 1990s, highlights a brief, pivotal moment in the evolution of this body of work. Featuring five large scale paintings and eight watercolors created shortly after Held returned from a stay in Italy, this exhibition shows how Held combined geometric abstraction with the architectonic structure and illusionistic perspective of Renaissance art.
The most famous quote by Al Held concerns choices. It says, “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.” Held chose to re-invent himself many times over the course of his life. After being expelled from school at age 16, he chose to join the U.S. Navy. After World War II, he chose to study art. His first classes were at the Art Students League in New York. Politically minded, he then chose to leave New York and use his G.I. Bill benefits to travel to Mexico to study with the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was known for his dramatic, figurative, politically charged works. After realizing his benefits were not applicable to that school, Held chose instead to study in Paris. In Paris, Held chose to completely abandon realistic painting in favor of abstraction.
Al Held - Coldbrook 3, 1991, © Al Held, Courtesy David Klein Gallery
Returning to New York in the early 1950s, Held chose to embrace the fervor that existed at that time for Abstract Expressionism. His paintings from then feature gestural brush marks and impasto layers of oil paint. They remain, however, overtly structured. In time, Held honed in on their structure. He began making paintings that seem like detailed examinations of individual marks and shapes, enlarged as though he was analyzing their particular characteristics. Soon he started smoothing out the edges of those marks and shapes, creating flat, hard edged compositions. This evolution let to what became his most notable early body of work—the letter series—large scale, flat, hard edge paintings referencing letters of the alphabet. Each painting seems to be cropped, as though the viewer is zooming in on the letter, or as if the canvas cannot contain the image. These pictures suggest there is more to them than meets the eye. They were the start of Held re-embracing illusionistic space. They were also seen as a direct challenge to the outlook of the painter Frank Stella, who said, “only what can be seen there is there.”
Al Held - Orion 5, 1991, © Al Held, Courtesy David Klein Gallery
Many critics have expressed the opinion that those letter paintings were the best paintings Held ever did, even knocking him for moving beyond that body of work. But just as Held believed there is more to every painting than what can be seen with the eye, he also believed there was more to his career than what he had already accomplished. While most other painters in his professional circle were seeking to make their paintings more flat, Held sought to go beyond the flat surface of the canvas. He first sought depth in the black and white paintings, like Flemish VII. Then he added color to the forms, which helped to establish volume. Next, he combined Cubist-inspired fractured space and De Stijl-inspired grids to the works, as if searching for when exactly perspective fell from grace. Then he added shading, fully bringing perspective to bear. The final element he added, which is evident in his early 1990s watercolors, is the horizon line, often enhanced by a checkerboard ground. This gave his compositions the presence of fragmented, uncanny landscapes disappearing towards the distance.
Al Held - Scand III, 1990, © Al Held, Courtesy David Klein Gallery
These images are thrilling to look at. They are an achievement of the imagination, regardless of whether critics and historians appreciated them in their time. One thing is certain—the public appreciated their splendor, evidenced by the multitude of public works Held was invited to make between 1970 and his death in 2005. His illusionistic, voluminous, geometric worlds are the subject of major public murals in Dallas, Texas, Akron, Ohio, Jacksonville, Florida, and many other locales. They even grace Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and the Lexington Avenue, 53rd Street Subway Station in New York City. These often massive works are a testament to the importance of what Held accomplished in the latter decades of his career. If you would like an up close look at a key moment in their development, visit Al Held, Luminous Constructs: Paintings and Watercolors from the 1990s, from 17 March through 28 April 2018, at David Klein Gallery, 1520 Washington Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan.
Al Held - Victoria 9, 1991, © Al Held, Courtesy David Klein Gallery
Featured image: Al Held - Geocentric IV, 1990, © Al Held, Courtesy David Klein Gallery
By Phillip Barcio