Thursday, December 4th, 2003

Al Held at Robert Miller and Nancy Spero at Galerie Lelong

“Al Held: New Paintings” at Robert Miller Gallery,
524 W 26th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues, phone: 212-366-4774) through January 3

“Nancy Spero: The War Series, 1966-70” at Galerie Lelong
(528 W 26th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, phone: 212-315-0470) through December 6

Al Held Genesis II 2002-2003 acrylic on canvas, 180 x 240 inches Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Al Held, Genesis II 2002-2003 acrylic on canvas, 180 x 240 inches Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York

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)
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.

Packed, altarpiece-like, 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 by “cold.”

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 Bomb 1968 gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 27-1/4 inches Courtesy Galerie Lelong
Nancy Spero, The Bomb 1968 gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 27-1/4 inches Courtesy Galerie Lelong

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 analysis?

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.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 4, 2003