New York

Al Held

Kasmin | 293 Tenth Avenue

Except for a fleeting moment during the heyday of New York abstract painting, Al Held never quite fit in. A contrarian by nature, Held was a Bronx hoodlum and perpetual truant who wound up in the Navy at age sixteen because, as he speculated in a 1975 interview, his father was “terribly desperate” to get rid of him. He later embraced leftist politics and took classes at the Art Students League, toiling for years before achieving some repute in the early ’50s. His eureka moment came later that decade, when in painter Sam Francis’s studio he discovered acrylic, better suited than oil to his attaining the graphic precision he would pursue for the remainder of his career. In the ’80s, amid a whirl of rhetoric on the medium’s irrelevance, the acerbic Held made paintings as big and bombastic as ever—paintings that barely fit on gallery walls and had to be stored in his upstate New York studio: a large barn.

It’s unfortunate that Held, who died in 2005, slipped through the cracks of the ’80s, when the reputation enjoyed by painters critiquing a culture of spectacle (Jack Goldstein, most obviously) could have extended to his monumental landscapes from that time. Made between 1979 and 1985, Held’s canvases recently exhibited at Paul Kasmin are overpowering (The First Circle, 1985, exceeds sixteen feet horizontally): proto-flat-screen projections of a fraught future. The artist once quipped that he would have been an architect if he could start over, and these geometric matrices strongly resemble architectural cad drawings, which didn’t yet exist when he was generating his paintings by hand. Held’s late work is a diabolical brand of Euclidian torture, a universe shimmering with gloss and mass but barren of life’s evidence. Constellations of dense beams soar skyward while fiendishly weightless planes nonsensically fl oat about: a glimpse into the bowels of technocratic modernity’s chaotic “space of flows.” In Trajan’s Edge II, 1982, blue beams crisscross two hypnotic canary-yellow planes but are ultimately planks to nowhere, ending abruptly in space like a mocking dead end in a video-game landscape.

Mocking feels like the right word for Held’s ’80s paintings. They’re a burden to take in. Held relegates his audience to a position of powerlessness (often from dangerously high vantage points) within illegible terrain where the heavy and the light are indistinguishable; the viewer isn’t a casual spectator, but an unfortunate participant. The apotheosis here is Roberta’s Trip, 1985, a frightful maze of multicolored beams receding into a horizon blanketed by a dusky yellow sky. This work—like Held’s later paintings from the end of the ’80s and the early ’90s, shown concurrently at Waddington Galleries in London—feels completely digitized; even the two forms that seem to be stand-ins for clouds appear as rigid rectangles. In their depth, these landscapes foreshadow cyber space: They extend right to the painting’s edge, implying interminable reach in all directions and dimensions.

Held was one of the few American artists who sustained a career long enough to bear witness to events as far apart as World War II and the rise of Microsoft. Perhaps this is why these pictures feel like a mournful type of futurism, or—in a word—paranoid. They occupy the same psychic space as a traumatic acid flashback (Held is in fact on record as saying drugs fueled much of his work in the ’60s). Whether flashbacks or prophesies, Held’s inarguably epic late paintings are scared visions of a world—potentially the digital one—that has eaten all life, leaving behind only uselessly gleaming shafts and trusses.

Nick Stillman