New York

Al Held

Andre Emmerich Gallery

What looked to me at first like a radical departure from his own previous work turned out to be quite in keeping with it, and a development from the thinking which has sustained Al Held’s painting for the past several years. In his show at the Emmerich Gallery, Held’s black and white canvases seemed to me peculiarly stark but emotionally complex, sometimes overly clever, though not tricky, and yet adventurous and tough. They combine elements of the dramatic Abstract Expressionist sensibility which Held still nurtures, with a calculated, stubborn intellect not given to producing easily accessible or digestible statements.

The total lack of color, the new imagery—vast floating complexes of "three-dimensional cubes, wedges, blocks, and rectangular volumes seen in illusions of reversible perspective or as ambivalent orthographic projections piling and pocketing into each other—appeared to be such a rejection of the heroically scaled geometric-biomorphic color abstractions which have characterized his aims so far. But Held is a distinctly evolutionary painter who is always building on his own past work (even within a single painting). These new paintings still aspire to a kind of monumentality and expansiveness and they still retain that sense of bulging space which is so commanding in paintings like Mao or Greek Garden. The recent pictures even relate to Cubism in a very oblique but conscious way, in the manner, for example, in which the forms are made to relate discretely to the edges of the support (although balanced, trued and faired relationships are avoided).

Held does not want the viewer to see his paintings all at once—instantaneity of impact is not his present goal—but the most persistent problem I find is that both viewer and painting are apt to merely get caught up on the mechanical complications of the contradicting multiple perspectives, rather than just in the pleasure or the time it takes to apprehend them. Another disturbing feature is the conflict between a gloppy, almost impastoed surface, which hardly hides a record of the revisions made in the course of the painting, and the evenly focused architectonic rendering of form. Granted, these new complications of form give and allow a certain free play to gesture in terms of the possible arrangements and rearrangements of the drawing, but wobbly edges and a pasty though sealed surface somehow vitiate the clean precision and unwavering assurance of the structural intentions.

Although these paintings may not be the refutation of earlier work I first thought them to be, Held nevertheless stakes out new areas of visual interest which are fascinating and challenging. They are aggressive pictures whose overlapping and clustering blocks, trapezoids, open-ended boxes, and truncated wedges seem to squeeze against each other for breathing room within their pictorial confines. They topple out against the space between viewer and canvas. The black outlining on a white field does not create positive-negative or figure-ground recessions—instead, the broad white areas seem to close off the space behind the multiple layers of space created by the chunky volumes which feed into and opaquely cover one another. The layers then seem to exist either in a curious kind of suspension in front of the picture plane, or they actively push into that frontally located space, while the forms themselves possess an ambivalent density. (None of the large paintings that were exhibited dealt with transparent structures, although one small work at the gallery done in this manner demonstrated a different order of visual tension as crossing black lines created almost coloristic “pings” at their intersections.)

A kind of bulk space works to reinforce the contradictions between volume and the reversible illusions of projecting blocks turning into receding flaps, or truncated slabs metamorphosing suddenly into tilting origami folds. Coagulations and multiplications of forms, as in B/W XI, only add to this feeling of the density of the space before the plane. Another important clue to these works (operative in other ways in previous paintings) is the manner in which the black lines lying along the peripheries of the support lead into the field, mark off its actual boundaries, and simultaneously describe the contours and edges of illusionistically volumetric structures. They define these forms, but also bring them back to the flatness of the support, so that the black lines point to the artificiality of the illusions of depth and volume at the same time that they work to body forth those illusions. Coupled with the structures which never do penetrate very far behind the picture plane, this ambiguous use of line is a key to appreciating and accepting these paintings. The canvas edges often crop the forms, suggesting their lateral extension beyond the pictorial whole, but the almost obsessive intensity of the telescoped constructions charges the space perpendicular to and around the canvas with a ponderously persistent weight which counteracts the feelings of two-dimensional expansion.

Held has taken great risks in these new paintings, and although he does not always meet his own heady challenge, there is a tremendously convincing formal energy and an emotional conviction to them which does not permit them to slide into the easy, the historically decorative, or the dryly conceptual—faults to which many of the second generation Abstract Expressionists had fallen prey in search of a way out of a style that had lost its élan.

Emily Wasserman