PRINT October 2005


Al Held

AL HELD THOUGHT BIG and painted accordingly. Never more so than in the last years of his life, which ended this past summer, at the age of seventy-six. Among the scrappiest and most ambitious members of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists, Held was also the first to move decisively beyond AbEx’s attenuating conventions toward a bold, sharply contoured approach that harnessed the muscular gestures of the New York School to space-expanding graphic imagery. A series of works from the early ’60s thus feature massive, enlarged letter forms, of which The Big A, 1962, and The Big N, 1965, show him bearing down on “minimalist” painting as then practiced by Frank Stella and Robert Ryman. With Ryman, Held worked at the Museum of Modern Art in the halcyon days when Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, and others had jobs as guards, installers, and bookshop and membership salespeople. (Studio lore has it that Held managed to leave with pounds of discarded raw pigment, which he and his friend Ronald Bladen used to bulk up the impasto of their “action paintings.”)

At heart, Held was a maximalist and a contrarian. From the late ’60s—when violating Greenbergian “flatness” was still grounds for excommunication—until the late ’70s, he punched holes in the picture plane with boxed-out geometries in heavily applied black-and-white acrylic. As a young man of modest origins and radical convictions—the Brooklyn-born artist dropped out of high school and went into the Navy for want of anything better—Held had been interested in the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and considered going to Mexico to study with him. Ultimately, he opted for Paris, where he joined an expatriate circle including Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell, as well as the underrecognized African-American painter Haywood “Bill” Rivers, and had his first exhibition at Galerie Huit in 1952. But the drive for mural scale stayed with him. First realized in polychrome canvases like Greek Garden, 1966, that impulse was even more power fully present in intricately composed black-and-whites such as Order/Disorder/Ascension/Descension, 1976, which, in retrospect, entered into active dialogue with LeWitt’s wall drawings of the same period.

A 1974 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized by Marcia Tucker, confirmed Held’s standing as a leading if unpredictable figure in mainstream American painting. Nevertheless the ’70s were hard times for Held. Throughout that decade, painting was on the defensive with regard to new media, and by 1980, abstraction was seemingly eclipsed by a resurgence of painterly figuration. However, instead of retreating from competing styles and ideas, Held upped the ante, making ever-more-convoluted, colorful, vast, and hallucinatory pictures. While authors in crisis often “write for the drawer,” Held took to making pictures so large that the only way to store canvases after showing them in the few available spaces big enough—he once borrowed the vacant ground floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper—was to immure them in his upstate New York studio/barn. Ranging in size from fifteen feet by eighteen feet to fifteen feet by thirty feet, these immense works, several of which were shown again in 2002 at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, were executed in thousands of discrete blocks, suggesting computer-generated images on a heroic scale. Everything about them, though, was handmade, and all the thought behind them echoed Held’s devotion to the Grand Manner in Western painting starting with the Renaissance, something manifested during his last years in a brilliant hyper-Baroque Neverland of warping spheres, tumbling cubes, and ribbons of checkerboard hues.

What Held was after in abstraction was what Frank Stella also sought in historical precedent, namely, “working space.” But unlike the Princeton-groomed Stella, Held was not one to hatch theories or provide academic proofs. Befitting a contentious nature and an old Left background, his “discourse” was a take- no-prisoners argument. (According to Irving Sandler, when Held’s rising star led to a teaching job at Yale in 1962, he nervously asked for advice from Alex Katz, who responded in characteristically streetwise fashion: “Hey, Al, you know those kids up at Yale, you know what they are? They’re a bunch of punks. You know what you are? You’re a real gangster.”) That’s how we got to know each other, by amicably but heatedly disagreeing about many things, such as the place of video and installation in the precincts of MoMA. And in the postmodern era Held was nothing if not an unyielding, emphatically visual modernist. The pity of it is that he didn’t have those conversations with the day’s exponents of the “new formalism,” thereby connecting his expansive enterprise to that of younger pictorial abstractionists. Their irony was entirely foreign to him, but had they been willing to meet the aesthetic standards he set, as well as to bear the brunt of his opinionated manner—like many of the Augie Marches about whom his coeval Saul Bellow wrote, in old age Held became politically conservative—the confrontation might have helped to shake contemporary abstraction out of the doldrums. Of course, such a cross-generational exchange is now impossible, and, to my real loss, our regular sparring has come to an end. Henceforth the work will have to do all the talking. But for that to happen, Held needs to have the full retrospective he deserves. Now that museums are as big as midtown Manhattan office towers, the outsized proportions of his last, most daring works are no excuse for not giving him one.

Robert Storr is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.