New York

Al Held

Emmerich Gallery, Uptown

Al Held’s new paintings at the Emmerich Galleries are in the gargantuan geometric mode he has been exploring for several years. Held seems to be bringing an unnecessarily heavy arsenal of effects to bear upon what is apparently the task of reintroducing space into painting. Each picture—most are black on white—is filled with precisely drawn geometric figures, cubes, slabs, rings, wedges, and such. Some of the figures are drawn so as to appear transparent, like classic optical illusions; others read as opaque; and some read as both opaque and transparent, at differing parts of the picture. Most of the figures fall completely within the frame, but some in each painting are cropped. Figure/ground relationships are deliberately confused by the introduction of ambiguities into the overlap of figures. And to increase the tension of such ambiguities, Held has taken to defining the most “forward” figures with finer lines than those that appear “behind.”

The impact of the pictures is strong; they have an effect of spatial encroachment that feels more architectural than pictorial. But this effect palls quickly and begins to seem like overkill; it’s like watching a Cinerama newsreel, the reason for the huge scale gets overwhelmed by the fact of it.

The most interesting thing about the pictures may be the fact that they are organized in such a way as constantly to call attention to the common existence of the picture plane and the literal surface. What one realizes after awhile is that the transparency of the “open” figures is the transparency of the picture plane. And in these paintings that transparency always connects with an ambiguity which affirms the opacity of the literal surface as the ultimate condition which makes every pictorial incident possible. With this in mind, perhaps the most successful painting in both shows is Esopus II, a black on white painting with only three figures in it: an open triangle, a ring, and a solid rectangular box. Everything about this picture seems perfectly adjusted, the size of the canvas to the size of the shapes and their lack of busyness, the placement of the shapes in relation to the corners and edges, the relative centering of the illusion of transparency; there is a sense of good fit about this painting that the others lack.

Kenneth Baker