New York

Al Held

André Emmerich

Viewed together, Al Held’s watercolors constitute an amazing tour de force, both by virtue of his use of the medium and their geometric pyrotechnics. In these works, Held uses simple geometrical forms, three-dimensionally rendered and brightly colored, to more irrational effect than ever. He tumbles and crowds the elements until the dense configurations that result all but block out the space horror vacui carried to a disorderly extreme. And yet, despite the generally claustrophobic effect of these works, the luminosity of the forms creates a certain openness the forms look lighter than their bulk suggests they are. Lyrical by nature, watercolor is typically used to render transient, capricious sensations, and in this respect Held’s use of the medium to present sturdy geometrical forms is daring. To the point of his intention, the medium’s “lightness” helps keep the forms free-floating. His three mural-size paintings, exhibited in a temporary space, have the same sense of crowded geometry but without the lightness of spirit. Indeed, the geometry becomes explicitly ominous and threatening by reason of the Piranesi-like contrast of light and shadow.

For some years now Held has been studying the massive architecture, both ancient and Christian, of Rome, and the forms in his watercolors constitute a reduction of its anatomy to an elegant geometrical disequilibrium the product of a kind of baroque visionary sensibility. His imagery has what might be called a Pantheon complex; like that grand structure to all the gods, with the circular opening at the top of its dome, Held’s geometrical building blocks are “exposed to the elements.” In other words, they are immersed in space, however much they seem to fill it out. Just as the Pantheon’s openings let in the larger space of the sky—indeed, of the very cosmos the building symbolically embodies—Held’s structures are cosmically situated. One might even say that the hole in the Pantheon’s dome is a kind of umbilical cord connecting inner and outer space—microcosm and macrocosm. In a sense, this means the structure is incomplete and can never be finished; like Held’s structures it remains “open.” What Held shows is a perpetual, perplexing process of construction, with no end. Can one say that this cosmic openness is what Held’s watercolors are really about? It seems that Held wants to articulate a cosmic order that appears to our eyes a fabulous disorder. Indeed, he gives us geometrical galaxies floating chaotically in infinite space.

In Held’s watercolors the grandeur that was Rome and the grandeur that geometry continues to imply merge to heady effect. That is, Held gives geometry new phenomenological immediacy by making it colorful and luminous. His geometry is perhaps the most emotionally charged and ingeniously conceived since that of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. “Geometry,” Plato wrote, “is knowledge of the eternally existent.” The paradox, with respect to Held’s configurations is that, in making eternal order transparent, he seems to reveal the eternal disorder within us.

Donald Kuspit