PRINT January 1975

Al Held: Two Views

Joseph Masheck’s comments are in Roman type and Robert Pincus-Witten’s in italics.

BY THE END OF THE 1950s, the main interest of American art was the peaking of Abstract Expressionism, resulting as much from the accomplishment of the older generation of artists as from the doubts of individual younger painters as to what to do next. What is so remarkable about the time is that so much of the newer transitional material proves, in turn, so fecund for painting to the present. Basically, two pots were cooking: a new type of New York painting and a new involvement with Paris. The importance of painting that seemed more idiosyncratic, such as the work of Kelly, did not become obvious until recently.

Al Held (born in 1928) is in this sense an important transitional figure, although not a mere connecting link. Where Gottlieb registered stylistic change without altering the basic format of his 1950s paintings by tightening his forms, Held was more thoroughly at home in the new decade. While the ironic relation, in Held’s work of about 1960, between geometric motif and an animate facture, may recall Motherwell (Homely Protestant, 1948) and the neat rectangles embedded in messy paint in Hofmann, for Held the irony of cool form and hot facture became more pointed and more thoroughly articulated, as it did for Stella in and around 1959 (The Marriage of Reason and Squalor).

To a certain extent, the revival of geometry, even when it took place in a vital way, may be seen as a consequence of the final burn-out of biomorphic Surrealist form into pure abstraction which characterized the apex of Abstract Expressionism. In the history of abstraction, this discovery of “intrinsically abstract” imagery, subsequently standardized or objectified, and then in turn abnegated for its “spoiled” conventional, motiflike quality, recurs again and again.

In paintings of 1960 and 1961 Held did use definitively geometric motifs, but rendered in a materialized way, with a palpably heavy brushstroke and a builtup impasto of paint. Instead of emerging as ideals, these motifs arrived as painterly embodiments. Even the arrangements are heavily expressive and intuitive, and the forms themselves reverberate with controlled gesture. Over a whole canvas, however, gesture tends to become sublimated (not repressed) by Held’s multi-layered overpaintings, so that the deformalized evidence of underlying strokes works in counterpoint to the final configuration on the surface—largely independent of it and seemingly only accidentally involved with it. This sublimation feature appears to be quite against the grain of main-line Expressionism: it implies reflection and a reworking that cools off intuition, in which culture becomes a product of consciousness. In other words, Held’s expressive painterliness in the early ’60s has an ’impressively dialectical character: it is an involvement in opposition, subverting the Expressionist rationale of painterliness. As such it ranks with the most serious art of the turn of the decade.

It seems to me that your paradox can be seen differently. A failing of historians of modern American art is that they tend to see modern art only in American terms. What I mean is that here we have a young American painter, and an activist socialist to boot, who painted his way through the de rigeur socialist illustrations of the ’40s. He transfers his radical social values into radical formal incarnations, then leaves the United States for Paris in the early ’50s. His modernism is not that of Pollock and Newman—although in some ultimate sense it is—but that of the art around him when his pores first opened. And Held’s coming of age in modernism took place in Paris. Rejecting the pseudo-primitivism of Dubuffet, Held’s real models were Riopelle and Borduas, Manessier, Le Moal, and above all Tapiès and Fautrier. The dank, allover earthen incrustations of the many untitled works of this period, and their scratched, picked-at surfaces, display this elegant European version of Abstract Expressionism that Held was assimilating at the time. It is difficult now to imagine the immense prestige that these European paintings once had—especially for young expatriates in the ’50s—when they have been so fully superseded in recent history by the triumph of American painting. There is only one American painter from the period who could have supplied Held with an American model, but Clyfford Still’s dry surface would have seemed almost frivolous compared to the earthen associations implicit in the kind of surface Held was drawn to at this time. Of course, I’m going back further than you, Joe, to the ’50s. But even granting the issue of European models for what he was doing in Paris—when Ellsworth Kelly, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, George Sugarman, and Milton Resnick were there among so many others—the real issue is not historical but formal, and the paradoxes not geographic but esthetic.

Some of Held’s most impressive paintings of the earlier 1960s are those divided horizontally into two unequal registers each filled out with a design (e.g., Ivan the Terrible, 1961). The lower form is black, crisp, symmetrical, and locked flush with the canvas edges. The upper form is strident, asymmetrical, askew. It ambiguously oversteps the canvas edges and is itself undercut by figure/ground ambiguity. The abutment of the parts is collagelike, since two contradictory patterns are forced to coexist in some logically inferred neutral plane peculiar to painting. This situation qualifies and controls the spatiality of either component. An ambiguous pattern and an unambiguous pattern could probably only coexist with ambiguity, but here ambiguity is forcefully nailed down by a .pictorial seam or weld. These and related pictures also deal inventively with the notion of the single image, producing what is in effect a single image-and-a-half, still within the conventional rectangle. In both cases—the weld and the pneumatically expanded single image—Held stretches convention without breaking it (Delacroix considered himself a radical rather than a revolutionary painter).

Part of the historical fuzziness around 1960 is that, although Held and other painters complicated the situation by their activity in Paris, American art at home was showing some stylistic affinities with features of earlier modern Continental art. Once New York was on the map, it seems to have been easier for its artists to look to Paris than before. Held’s Siegfried (1966), in which a white band double-bends across a red ground, points this up. It calls to mind New York Minimalist art. Yet Minimalism itself has acquired the stylistic capability to evoke Constructivist paintings like Hertaux’s Composition of 1935/62, in the course of its absorption into the history of style. In no way does noticing this reflect on Stella, Tony Smith, or Morris, but it does tend to qualify the stylistic originality of what once seemed a radical inventiveness in the New York works (now including Held’s). This fits in with what you were saying about Paris—only now at a distance.

Held does show affinities with Stella, although because of his integral expressionism in the ’60s, he never shared the constriction of Stella’s high phase. However there are some rather close parallels, such as between the centered edge bands on either side of an Untitled painting of 1965 and the side notches of Stella’s Marquis de Portago (1960). Stella too had a French affinity, mainly with Delaunay. On the other hand, Stella’s shaped angular canvases of 1966–67, with wide, incomplete outlining bands along the edges, resemble Held’s Constructivistic “big-band” style. Some works done by Held in the same two years raise an issue of decorativeness that for Stella was more readily mitigated by the arbitrary shaping of the canvas—as if overcoming decorativeness with gaucherie in his approach to the conventional rectangle. Thus the diagonal symmetry of a band mostly fixed to the edges of Held’s Arcropolis, 1966, is as decorative as a repeating floor tile, while Thalocropolis, also painted in 1966, relates to earlier side-slatted and binary organizations and is, with Bastion, 1967, more beautifully resolved.

Jasper Johns was already painting letters in the mid-’50s, but Held’s paintings based on the forms of single letters bursting out of the frame—starting with The Big A; 1962—are more along the lines of Ellsworth Kelly’s New York, N.Y., 1957, with its wide white bands in the form of an N and a Y against a black ground. Even the breaking down of the ground into more of a true field by making the single letter motif so large that only tiny areas of ground appear like displaced internal corners along the edges can recall Kelly: The Big N, 1965, thus resembles Kelly’s Paname of 1957.

Pictures like The Big A, and The Big D of 1964, are no less than 12 feet tall, and Held’s Greek Garden, 1966, which links the geometry of a few years earlier with the blown-up letter forms, is 12 feet high and 56 feet long. (Held’s hugest works are adjustable to the size of a wall in installation.) If in the 1960s Held tended not to question the traditional format of painting, he instead perfected a remarkable radicalism of scale, both in paintings that are surprisingly small (after seeing scale-less reproductions of them), and in huge ones. It seems to me that the best Helds belong to this decade. They have a pressurized strength of scale that overcomes their apparent formal simplicity and evidences a most convincing expansion of Abstract Expressionist sublimity into the early years of the present generation.

I have already expressed disaffection for Held’s later work (in Artforum, December, 1973). I see the perspectival ironies of the recent black-and-white linear designs of the last years as almost as boring as Albers’s blackand-white engravings in a similar vein. But the works through most of the 1960s are commanding in their refusal of easy solutions and consequently in their resolute strength.

I particularly appreciate your understanding of middle-period Held, and concur with you regarding his split between Expressionist methodology and Minimalist imagery. Your picture-and-a-half idea is also revealing. But I cannot understand your blanket rejection of late Held.

Marcia Tucker, in her catalogue essay accompanying Al Held’s recent show at the Whitney Museum, is at pains to point to elaborate mathematical models for the spatial ambiguities of the last few years, ambiguities you are willing to shrug off as little more than recent manifestations of Albers’ black-and-white optical engravings. Apart from issues of scale, to which you are sensitive, I see another reason for these works, a reason that seems valuable to me. Perhaps you will feel more for these pictures if I point to a historical model. The rejection of the “pneumatic style,” the picture-and-a-half, and the painterly expressionism, in Held’s work, in favor of an analytic, spatial style, is paralleled in the evolution of Cubist painting: Georges Braque’s rejection of Neo-impressionism for Analytic Cubism. Here, too, a chromatic style and a painterly mode were supplanted by a monochromatic and analytical style in an altered scale.

But I think in certain ways Cubism is a decline from Post-Impressionism, and anyway, Held is not Braque.

I don’t know whether Cubism is necessarily superior to Post-Impressionism, but Braque’s Cubism is certainly superior to his Neo-Impressionism. Be that as it may, it seems to me that Held’s later work is responding to a central premise of modernist painting, namely, its need for a fused presentation between an allover optical space and an implicit flatness. In this experience, chromatics and facture are orchestrations that confound the demands of the analysis. At the beginning of Held’s last phase, the black-and-white painting posited a system of discontinuous, visual directives from, say, triangle to pyramid to cone to circle to square. Instead, these ambiguous visual commands establish self-canceling systems of visual impulses. The illusionistic image, based in perspectives of various kinds, results not in a sense of volume, but, paradoxically, in an ultimately flat surface as well, the plane of which slices in somewhere between all of the visual activity. The wonder of Held’s recent illusionistic works is not that they posit spatial reading but that they infer, through the illusion of spatial activity, the existence of planarity, surface and frontality. . .

An illusion of an illusion is still an illusion.

. . . As if this were not enough, the most recent Helds are marked by double-scale systems, only hinted at in the work of the ’60s. These double-scale systems come perhaps ultimately from architecture (especially in the Ledoux-Le Corbusier tradition). Held transforms the black-and-white openwork of his illusionistic geometry into airy traceries by playing these scaffoldings against tiny circles, squares, triangles and the like, freely pulsing within the larger illusionistic forms as a contrapuntal system that Tucker rightly associates with dance notation. If, on one hand, the large illusionistic shapes paradoxically induce a sense of surface, then, on the other, these tiny geometric figures extend the paradox by retransforming the illusionistic surface back into optical space. Held’s achievement of the ’70s is that his discrepant visual system is reinforced by a set of double paradoxes—so that, Joe, your last aside confirms instead of questions what seems considerable achievement.