New York

Al Held

Robert Miller Gallery

Al Held has never been given his full due, yet as this exhibition of Expressionist abstractions from 1953-55 makes evident, his stature continues to grow. Held is a painter of tremendous force, and, equally important, of subtlety. In these early gestural canvases he restrains and structures his energy, keeping his painterly athletics from degenerating into unadulterated razzle-dazzle. What is special about these works is not their activity but their architecture; not their crudity, but their lyricism. Anticipating his migration from gesture to geometry, these paintings tend toward stability, even in their assertive, at times brute, painterliness. Indeed, the piling up of paint—it is fairly troweled on in places, becoming relieflike, even quasi sculptural—seems an act of monumentalization.

Painted after Held’s return from Paris, these works seem self-consciously American: direct and declarative to the point of bluntness. It is hard to read any “literary” meaning into their relentless physicality—hard to find an ulterior motive behind the immediacy and strength of their material presence. Nonetheless, their aggressiveness is tempered. There are two basic kinds of works here: those in which the rapidly changing directional strokes seem almost random, and those in which they seem relatively structured. Many of the works—particularly several of the small pieces—seem to verge on the visionary. Their painterliness is less important for itself than for the sublime space it constructs. In one untitled work from 1955 broad vertical stripes of pink, red, and white fall away from a high, black horizon, above which a thin layer of white streaks. Two small works from 1954 show a similar sense of stratification.

Held makes works not only of power, but of willpower, in which form is as much an issue as energy. His shift from undirected to directed paint constitutes an important rebellion in the context of gesturalism and represents a response to the growing feeling that painterly spontaneity, if not yet wholly stereotyped, seemed by the mid ’50s decidedly less daring. In the very act of pursuing pure process, Held came to realize that this goal is impossible, and that rawness can ring hollow even as it makes an impact. A balance must be struck between vigor and control and it is this equilibrium that Held pursued in these paintings. His works became less a matter of painting as irrationally and urgently as possible than one of pursuing a reasoned painting, however primitive the reasoning involved might be. The primitiveness indicates that expression is still important, but it also implies research into the fundamentals of form. It is the ambiguity of Held’s intention that animates these early paintings.

Donald Kuspit