New York

Al Held

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Like Diebenkorn’s, Al Held’s paintings seem “abstract”: he too refers them back to the world or to representational art. The mediation is announced in the titles: there are four “Florentines,” three “Venetians,” Bruges I, and Padua I. However, the paintings do not specifically refer to the cities. Though each Florentine is lime and red on mauve, and each Venetian is lime on pink, there is no real reference to the two traditions called “Florentine” or “Venetian.” For that matter, Bruges I has color as “mediterranean” as the others. Only in Padua I is there a piazzalike form that may refer to the city.

The paintings look like girders or beams in the sky, all oddly colored; indeed, one feels that one is somewhere in a crazy high-rise under construction. Nothing is stable: at the interstices the “beams” change color and the “sky” is rarely uniform. Though the first is, strictly speaking, the figure to the second’s ground, the paintings do not abide by such a reading. In terms of color and line, space is deep, but one cannot project into it (the beams bar access) or even gaze (the sky is too unstable). One is just inside, trapped, as if by a diabolical axonometric drawing.

The paintings are spatial conundra, somewhat like those of Howard Buchwald or Ron Davis. In the past, Buchwald and Davis have stressed painting’s objectness in order to indulge its illusionism. Held acknowledges such a solution; on the stretchers’ side are “graphed” the color and width of each beam. But this is a code, perhaps an aid to Held and a key to us—it is not there to stress the painting as object.

There is no need to do so, for here the illusionism counters itself. Extreme, it becomes unstable, even self-contradictory. There is a certain virtuosity here. Take the beams, which resemble real ones; as such, they should structure the paintings, which they do, only in such a way that the paintings seem de-structured, too. Like broken bones held in only by skin, the beams seem retained only by the paintings’ surfaces.

The illusionism is checked in other ways no less supple. The beams are figures, but they are lines, too, that define a space and as such, are neutral as content. The paintings, though full of forms, seem empty. Moreover, “against” the linear space defined by the beams is a tonal space defined by the colors. And finally, so as to correct any reading of space as somehow real, there are volumes (e.g., a cylinder) traced thinly around the beams. Spatial skeletons, these add yet another dimension to the conundrum. And, as emblems of the “abstract,” they seem to say: no, these are not beams, this is not real space, this is not “representational.”

Hal Foster