Al Held is an artist whose work I stare at for hours every day. A while
back I organized a survey exhibition of watercolors that included the
artist, and (confession of copyright infringement) I couldn't resist
cannibalizing his jpeg as the "background" for my computer.
A suspended (or floating)
open grid structure recedes diagonally into cosmic space. At the heart
of the composition is an orb from which crystalline rays of color emanate.
Infinity is given dense shape by relatively simple means: Regularly
intervalled, overlapping, spiraling arcs create a pattern of distorted
lozenges watercolored in an irregular but close-knit sequence of hues.
Al Held Particular
Paradox 26 1999
watercolor on paper mounted on board, 49½ x 35½ inches
Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York (not in current exhibition)
By Mr. Held's standards,
the composition on my desktop is a model of restraint and centeredness.
His current show at Robert Miller, of large, sharply delineated canvases
in mercilessly bright, flat colors, reveals a nutty, truly obsessive
logic of monumental proportions.
into the top-lit back room of the gallery, is "Genesis II"
(2002). With its endless loops and unreconcilable spatial ambiguities,
this work is the Sistine Ceiling of screensavers. Mr. Held's exhausting
narratives of geometric unraveling are the kind of thing M.C. Escher
would have come up with if seated at a computer and slipped some LSD.
Mr. Held's paintings are
as confounding stylistically as they are geometrically. They pit dumbness
against sophistication, dipping into techno-culture yet coming back
with synthetic treasure. Neat in execution but messy in the beholding,
these hyperactive yet affectless works recall the phrase of Mr. Held's
one-time studio neighbor Alex Katz: "Something hot done in a cool
way." Only in his case the word "cool" must be replaced
It is telling how, with Mr.
Held, this phrase operates as a kind of conceptual palindrome: Inverted-
"something cold done in a hot way" - it means pretty much
the same thing, so wedded in his painting are form and content, means
and motif. Mr. Held enslaves himself and viewer alike to a relentless
precision and manic cheeriness.
His career has paralleled
that of Frank Stella in the arc it has described between simplification
and recomplication. Early on, cool, reductive explorations of shape
took him to the brink of minimal art. He then pulled away from that
movement, which he had anticipated, and seemed to opt instead for complexity.
His radically and remorselessly abstract painting substitutes reduction
for its opposite, informational overload, but in such a way as to deny
equally possibilities for formal satisfaction or narrative closure (it
is this denial which makes him abstract, despite a depictive element).
It turns out that excess can be every bit as soulless as denial.
Nancy Spero The
gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 27-1/4 inches
Courtesy Galerie Lelong ; COVER IMAGE December 11 is Female Bomb
1966, same medium and dimensions as The Bomb, University Art Collection,
New School University, New York
A more forceful contrast
with Mr. Held couldn't be imagined than Nancy Spero's War Series, next
door at Galerie Lelong. To Mr. Held's "Star Wars" backdrops
Ms. Spero offers the "relief" of an all-too-real war, Vietnam
- of which, it emerges, she was the Goya.
The War Series, dating from
1966-70, when the artist was in her early 40s, presents a strange and
harrowing beauty. In scale and immediacy these gouaches are somewhere
between agitprop and Outsider Art. Fiercely drawn and crudely expressive,
they form a bestiary of war, with helicopters transformed into vicious
bugs and birds, and atomic mushrooms rendered as writhing phalluses.
The series seems at once
public and personal, a rallying-call to fellow peace activists and a
retreat into the artist's own psyche. As such, they anticipate Ms. Spero's
later career, when she became a leading light of the women's art movement;
for feminists, neat divisions of public and private do not hold.
In ideology and style alike
these apocalyptic, mythopoeic images are urgent and angry. Brushwork
is fierce, ink and paint artfully run dry before lines end, the skimpy
paper buckles under physical and emotional stress. There's an abundance
of gnashing teeth, gushing blood, and flung body parts. The politics
can be as primitive as the touch: American eagles morph into Nazi swastikas
while "D.O.W. D.E.A.T.H." and "D.O.W. M.U.R.D.E.R.E.R."
are inscribed on the barrel of an exploding phallus/cannon. But when
was the power of protest art ever measured by the subtlety of its political
Despite the agitated handling
and bolshy sloganizing, these images have a weirdly ethereal timelessness
about them. Ms. Spero's language filters classical and medieval elements
through modern expressionism; the results, often enough, recall romantics
of a century or two earlier -Blake, or Redon.
"The Bomb," 1968,
personifies modern destruction as a male figure. (The
work, reproduced in the catalogue, did not appear in the exhibition).
His legs and torso
are rendered with classical finesse. His arms and head transmogrify
into a mushroom cloud, on the crest of which ride gargogyle-like heads
spewing blood or venom. Similar heads surmount a pair of at once weaponized
and anthropomorphized penises that jut at right angles from his crotch.
And yet - no doubt counter
to the pure ethical intentions of their author - these images take the
viewer to a place beyond simplistic moralizing. However stridently anti-military
her iconography tries to be, an element of ambiguity creeps in - like
a good 'ol rape-and-pillage scene in Titian or Rubens. The artist seems
to have internalized more of the aggression she sought to exorcize than
she might have realized
Sexuality, a forceful metaphor
for aggression, is a pulsating presence in the artist's voluptuous touch.
The content may belong to Thanatos, but the form is claimed by Eros.