New York

Al Held

Robert Miller Gallery

What is the exact latitude and longitude of Al Held’s historical position? Aesthetic cartographers have placed him all over the map. He seems eternally suspended between generations, schools, movements. Location in art-historical terms depends, of course, on the fixed points from which you take your bearings. If you ignore the coordinates and fix on Held alone, you encounter a figure of such intense conviction that you have to take a step backward.

Ever since Picasso made Cézanne’s anxiety an indispensable form of self-harassment, any serious artist without it seems to be missing an essential piece of equipment. But Held is the Anti-Doubt. What is he so certain about? About what kind of art he can and should make, continuously and without hesitation. This is unique in his generation of painters, those born in the late ’20s and early ’30s, a generation deprived of Abstract Expressionist hegemony, isolated on unsure islands, each saving his soul as best he could (often, it should be said, very successfully). Held’s certainty is antimodernist, antiromantic, as befits an artist who, like the young Stella, is an abstract positivist, giving us just the facts with a hard edge.

Held’s work contains within it an ongoing ongoing muscular argument about matters specific (his own work) and general (modernism). His specific polemic aggressively transgresses modernism’s carefully reconditioned hymen, the picture plane. In late modernism, you had to figure out a way to paint on the “picture plane” without breaking it. The picture-plane fetish has a formidable (and formal) history of scholastic discriminations. Held, in the late ’60s, abruptly slapped flatness in the face by going deep. Going deep meant utilizing perspective—not the single-point variety that orders a notion of reality, but one of multiple flying points and scales. Thus arrived what I believe to be some of the best postwar artworks: Held’s black-and-white paintings, done between 1967 and 1978—misunderstood mansions of Pieroesque obsession that enact Held’s formal attack on the flat picture plane with a cold frenzy of spatial illusions.

The twenty wall works making up “The Last Series” (“last” because they bring up the rear of a long procession), painted in 1964–65, immediately predate the perspectival paintings that have engaged Held to the present. They indicate almost nothing, however, of what was to come when he opened his airborne gymnasium of perspectives. The works in “The Last Series,” by contrast, summarize in compressed, epigrammatic terms the vast hard-edged works that preceded them.

Held’s general polemical attack on modernism—unwritten but argued with anyone who will argue with him—challenges the notion that modernist abstraction is iconographically blank. Held holds that late modernism, lacking a common religious, social, or political matrix within which to situate art-making, turned the form/content convention (the false dichotomy that works) inside out. In this inversion, the horse of content no longer pulls the cart of form, but is sitting in the cart, which gets where it is going by other means. Artists (and some poets) erect their own enabling structure on the slopes of Parnassus and pretend this edifice comprises a serious bit of cultural news. The art issuing from it may, but the theoretical structure may not. Think of how Yeats’s loony theories in “A Vision” (what Auden called his Southern California side) resulted in majestic poems. So iconography, Held insists, is simply an excuse to get some art made.

What’s Held’s excuse? I think of an early painting, The Big N, 1965, defined by two tiny darts at top and bottom. This pair of black-and-orange wedges spin and turn the vast picture, like moving a floating two-ton boat with your finger. The letter-as-text-as-obscured-text-as-painting generated much of Held’s best early work, which could be seen as a kind of prestidigitational alphabetics. De Kooning sometimes scribbled letters on the canvas to get himself started; Johns institutionalized this idea. In both cases, issues of writing/painting, the ambiguous graphology of sign systems, come into play. But not for Held. By exaggeration and eclipse, he made letters lose their memory of themselves and blurt out of the canvas as new forms. The best of the small series are alphabet-derived, in which iconography is summoned only to be briskly dismissed once it has done its job. (The wriggly nonalphabet works, though always interesting, do not have the same formal impact.)

Last Series III, at about 18 by 24 inches, packs a wallop, but it’s not that simple. A huge orange-yellow R, its feet cut off, encloses a black disk (figure or ground?); the vertical shaft of the R is bordered on the inside by purple; the short, oblique foot is underlined in pink; the curve of the R is grounded by blue on the right. Two yellow rectangles (parts of an E?) attach themselves to the belly of the R, immediately reshuffling the scale, urged into a diminishing scale again by two small pink triangles clipping off the ends of the horizontal bars of the E (if it is an E). Like the purple shaft, the yellow rectangles modify the big impact with a spatial sophistication the image pretends not to have. There is a kind of faux aggression that gets your attention, followed by an elegant formal conversation. This is not unlike the discursive spatial strategies of Stuart Davis, to whom I consider Held in part an heir. Serial changes in scale within a painting are a Held signature, as are, in this series, his surfaces, which have some of the slangy objectivity of Davis’s. Barry Schwabsky points out in the show’s accompanying catalogue that reproductions flatten and mute Held’s surfaces. They are thick enough and layered enough to muffle their own history. But they look as if they could still change their minds. By my reckoning, eighteen (out of twenty) of these wonderful pictures burn with a hard, gemlike flame.

Brian O’Doherty is a writer and artist who lives in New York.