PRINT March 1968

The Paintings of Al Held

THOUGH AL HELD’S PAINTINGS are literally big, they have been painted with a monumentality which makes them seem even larger. They look like details cropped from an immensely larger whole which continues beyond the canvas. A bulky simplified facade will have been truncated with enough left to suggest what the absent end would have looked like. His circles are not only cropped to suggest a bigness beyond the space of the canvas, but they bulge and expand making them larger than a geometric circle could be.

He likes to tell people he is a “realist” not only for the irony, which he undoubtedly relishes too, but with this element of accuracy: since the circle bulges it is not a disc even though it has been painted fairly flat. Its shape suggests volume; it may be as thick from front to back as its silhouette reveals it to be from side to side. There is little question of this mass, despite the lack of modeling or shading. The drawing of the contour edge is persuasive about the nature of the shape, but with the utmost economy of means. Because of that economy the shape is bolder, has more impact, is free of any nullifying greys and gradual tonalities, allowing the sharp contrast which one usually associates with more accurately geometric painting.

Held also likes to refer to himself as an “unreconstructed Analytic Cubist.” After reflecting about certain reservations to that description one is forced to acknowledge considerable accuracy in that remark, too. For example, in traveling the full 56 foot length of his Greek Garden it is possible to accept the beginning circular form as a top or floor plan, the central cubic frame as the front or facade, and the right hand incline as aside, all unfolded and laid out flat, with a large triangle assuring you of the direction in which the action is going. The yellow triangle vibrates in its field like a traffic arrow, giving urgency to the movement in time. Time has become the 20th-century imperative, and the Cubists wanted to incorporate this element into art, so they showed the sides of things, and even the back, all projected out diagrammatically on a flat plane. Instead of limning several circumscribed views of a still life, Held’s Cubist view is a panorama of a trip all the way around a center of power, past things too big to be seen in their entirety. Not an open panorama of endless space, but the close and divided space experienced by modern city dwellers.

In other paintings from a more recent phase, such as Mao and The Dowager Empress the view is completely frontal. The overlapping planes infer a projection in depth, thus instantaneity in time. In Mao a huge form is shown in the process of becoming a circle; behind it, but almost obscured, is a red square with only the corners still revealing the form from which the circularity is emerging. At top and bottom a form which was circular is being crushed back into a square format. The literary reference suggested by the title is only a small though surprisingly acute ironical innuendo; the painting must certainly have grown out of the mechanics of abstraction, and the title should be accepted as an afterthought. The traditional painter parsing his modular grid would say that within each square is a circle, and that midway between each corner of the square the circle would touch the edge. If a squared block is tumbled by the sea it will gradually be rounded. Most modern artists are merely non-modular; some who do subscribe to modular sequences use them to show a regimented sameness. Held is anti-modular; he hates modules; he becomes quarrelsome when the subject is raised. The Mao painting expresses his anti-modular contempt by showing a circle with a square disappearing behind. The Dowager Empress expresses much the same consideration, but the squared object behind is longer than it. is high and thus demonstrates an obliquely downward, but still frontal, movement of the circle; another rectangle rides on the circle’s apex, giving weight to the downward thrust.

In the middle fifties Held had a reproduction of a Vermeer in his studio. He had few pictures there besides the ones he was painting, and he conceded at one time that his thinking about the abstract implications of Vermeer’s work was a vital influence on his own progress. The steep metronomic lean of Vermeer’s verticalities, and the gradual incline of his horizontals, were impossible to ascribe to the limits of the edges or the corners of the pictures. Only the centers were founded on the frame, but those invisible lines, seen only by a succession of points, radiated straight past the corners, perhaps to the corners of the room pictured, or perhaps to nowhere, as Held insists. Whatever Vermeer’s method, the result was a picture of monumental expansiveness. Vermeer’s tiny pictures projected their size immensely, and the phenomenon still leads many viewers to assume when studying reproductions that the actual paintings are of greater scale than they are. Vermeer’s accomplishment was a revolutionary departure from the confinements of modular grid virtuosity, but it was still lined up with a rigorous certainty by another kind of grid. Held wanted more. Windows are no longer small apertures, as in the Dutch interiors; whole walls have become transparent; pictures should follow and become walls. And Held wanted to expand outward, as the photo image distorts the part which is too close to the lens. And of course he wanted literal scale as well as monumentality.

Held had become a close friend of Sam Francis during student days in Paris, and Francis was convinced that large canvases were necessary to find and represent the modern image. Not merely the hand, but the arm must be brought into play. Held and Francis had met again in New York and Francis gave Held a large canvas which he proceeded to stretch as a single piece. The dimensions were about ten by twenty feet—it covered practically all of one end of Held’s loft studio. Held worked on that painting for several months, using ground pigment which he procured in bags the size of cement sacks, mixing in the oil as he painted, and stacking on the paint in great incrustations, like tree bark. He was a dedicated action painter. Held was to outdo most of them on the score of size, but not just to find space for action. Whatever the original motivations were, giving a new expansion to the delineation of time was the result of his experiment with grand scale.

He found it possible to change to simplified forms and a flattened surface at about the same time that he moved into a larger studio; he also changed over to plastic paint at about that time, too. He had already accepted the challenge of working experimentally with new material when he began the hand mixing of dry pigment, and that had produced exciting results, and had re- suited in a personal style which produced his first show uptown at the Poindexter Gallery in 1959. But the technical aspects continued to present problems. The paint formed a tough skin, leaving a soft mass underneath which would have taken an incredibly long time to dry. He couldn’t wait that long, and in taking the pictures down from the wall where they had been painted, they sometimes hit the floor too hard and made areas sag. It was with disappointment and relief that he went over to acrylic paint. The nature of the materials with which an artist works has a great deal to do with the forms that emerge, and acrylic lends itself to large flat fields and more intense colors. These features of the new work may have seemed to some observers a radical departure, but in both cases the resolutions of style had flowed naturally from an acceptance of the nature of the material.

Other associations with artists besides Francis should be recognized as important to Held’’s development, too. He was a member of a cooperative gallery, The Brata, which in turn was part of the Tenth Street group of galleries that burgeoned in the fifties close to a large number of studio lofts. From The Brata group alone, which never had more than twenty members at a time (and probably no more than forty, including this writer, in its first five years), have come at least five artists who have achieved international recognition: Held, Ronald Bladen, Nicholas Krushenick, George Sugarman, and Peter Forakis.

Perhaps Held’s closest association among the Brata group was with Ronald Bladen. It may well have been Held who persuaded Bladen to leave San Francisco, where he had worked for fifteen years almost without exhibiting. They not only exhibited together at The Brata, but they worked for a small furniture outfit in the days before their profession offered them any support. Bladen also explored the bags of-dry pigment mixed with oil experiment. Mention is Made of the furniture job because it seems crucial in the development of the forms which both Held and Bladen finally came to. The inexpensive hi fi cabinet may very well have been the prototype of the primary structure. Both Held and Bladen were to work on, finish, and carry about those great blocky things. It was a big part of their burden in the real world beyond the artist’s studio. Within his studio the artist feels called upon to produce a symbolic essence of what he feels and knows. Bladen, in his furniture workshop, was heard to remark that he felt like a sculptor in his studio and that the boxes were his sculpture. (This when he was still a painter who had produced nothing closer to sculpture than the bas relief of a heavy impasto.) Held said recently, when setting up his exhibition in San Francisco, “The four by eight that plywood comes in is the only module that we understand in America.”

Though Held’s surfaces were to flatten under the pressure of several factors, those surfaces were never to be subjected to any compulsive urgency to perfect the finish. The paintings in the semi-geometric style grew thick with layers of discarded paintings underneath. The bottom picture was often very different, though related, to the top layer which eventually satisfied the artist. A good exposition of this technique was outlined by Irving Sandler with photographs taken by Rudolph Burckhardt between coats of paint. (“Al Held Paints a Picture,” Art News, Vol. 63, May, 1964.) The picture explored was Genesis, which is not in the present large showing. Genesis has gone to Europe, but in the present group I Beam contains much the same elements. In both paintings Held was trying to resolve the architectural and the organic into a single composition. The ghosts of brushwork from the undercoats are often expansions or contractions of the forms finally realized in the finished version, which leads some viewers to presume that the pictures have grown in a reductive and serial way. Actually, in some cases the ghosts have grown into an unwieldy impasto and the artist has ground down his surface with a rotary sander. The ghosts that are still apparent do indeed seem serial, but they are the remnants of only the last three paintings or so, of perhaps twenty that have disappeared underneath. Obliterating each version with a totally new surface may again reflect the nature of the material: acrylic dries fast and lends itself to reworking as a ground which need not intrude into a future layer by virtue of its physical nature; it need only persist for its idea validity. Certain exceptions to the complete covering in each phase are probable; for example, in I Beam the red rectangle which occupies the lower right hand portion leaves a small blue line which probably represents the former coat for the entire area; it almost disappears when seen from across the room, but by its vibrant influence makes the whole rectangle shimmer with luminosity.

The architectural form which first appeared in Genesis was seminal to the forms embodied in several later paintings. It could be described as a square with a squared notch indenting each side midway between the corners. One corner of the form was reused as a variation. Several paintings have some element from it. But we are assured that these were not thought out in serial sequence,but came up again at widely-spaced intervals. Nor has there been an obsessive concern with a certain size of canvas or any sequential variation of size. The artist is quite adamant in his insistence that he works from intuition and refuses all voguish systems. Moreover he resists the idea of multiples or farming out his studio work to shops or assistants as so many of his contemporaries have elected to do. “Nothing has been generalized; everything is specific and each form is unique,” was Held’s remark. He said it over and over for fear he might be misunderstood. He wants to be recognized as a conservative whose work grows under the hand and is founded on tradition. When his work is minimal he wants it to be known that the final image was formed out of complication, and is not a parody of science or determinism.

Flemish painting is a new interest of the artist. He has observed that forms in the distance were painted with the same firmness and substance as things close at hand. The distances were never allowed to disappear into hazy dimness. Held’s reading of traditions is usually novel: he explains that each age understands traditions according to its own interests. Thus, the faking of a Vermeer in another period is obvious to a modern artist; our interest in Vermeer is his structure, and a 19th-century copyist would have paid attention only to his light.

Al Held’s paintings have many of the salient characteristics of the modern age. They are growing, building, expanding; even brash, but certainly boldness is a necessary ingredient. Sensitivity is covered and defended. If our age is either memorable or remembered these images would serve us honestly. When asked how he felt about his recent recognition, he replied, “It has been good, but I’m not satisfied. I want more!”

Knute Stiles