Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Al Held: Paintings, 1979-1985 at Paul Kasmin Gallery

November 10, 2008 – January 10, 2009
293 Tenth Avenue at 27th Street
New York City 212 563 4474

Al Held Roberta's Trip 1985. Acrylic on canvas, 96 x 144 inches. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery
Al Held, Roberta's Trip 1985. Acrylic on canvas, 96 x 144 inches. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

Al Held, known for his mural-scale geometric abstractions, once assigned a student at Yale to look at Vermeer – to learn, Held said, “how the wall meets the floor”.  Vermeer, known for his intimate details, is one of the last artists one might associate with Held, but Held’s appreciation of the Dutch master underscores his respect for the solid construction that much abstract and representational art have in common. However torqued or idiosyncratic the structures he invents, Held deals with gravity and mass, in convincingly rendered volumes and spaces.

These concerns assume special importance in the period covered by this show, 1979-1985, which includes Held’s residency at the American Academy in Rome in 1981. That stay inspired an involvement with Italian art and Italy that shaped the final phase of his work, up until his death at his residence in Todi in 2005. The earliest work in here, S-E (1979), exemplifies the transition to work in color that ushered in this phase, after over a decade of paintings in black and white. Its vocabulary of circular and rectilinear forms extends his previous work in “hard-edge” abstraction, a style defined by the use of masking tape and acrylics to generate large, flat color planes with clean edges. Compared to later paintings, though, it seems lighter in weight, its thin screens of color relatively close to the picture’s surface, stretched on geometric armatures woven together in a Cubist space.

This surface play is progressively displaced by the fuller development of interior spaces and suggestions of infinite depth in the works to follow. In Roberta’s Trip (1985) entrance is provided via a sort of diving platform into a sequence of spaces governed by at least three rectilinear grids that interlace with two sets of circles, all dominated by one zigzagging network that angles in from above. The interplay of colors and contrasting directions endows the open spaces with their own specific movements. The entire composition is cropped cinematically to add implied drama to what can only be called a scene.

Some of this development may have been inherent in the exploration of new possibilities afforded by color, yet the experience of Italy no doubt played an important part. Renaissance art showed how intense color could combine with geometry to create substantial forms, as did early Roman wall paintings, with their nested architectural illusions; the period represented here could be seen as Held’s linking abstraction to a rich historical tradition, building connections while lending literal substance to his forms. But the Renaissance rediscovery of spatial depiction no doubt also aroused Held’s own ambitions to envision a 20th century hyperspace. Most important, perhaps, was the sheer cosmopolitanism of Rome – the interplay of ancient and modern granting him positive support to explore forms, as he always had, somewhat outside the limits of New York’s aesthetic debates.

While he reacted against Abstract Expressionism, Held resisted the impersonal, systematic geometry of “non-relational” painters like Frank Stella.  His work is characterized throughout by inner tension between antagonistic spatial orders.

His idiosyncratic geometries, constructed over lengthy processes of revision, leave us with the sense that much more than formal relationships are at stake. One critic has seen in spherical volumes references to the mind, and titles sometimes offer provocative hints, but if there is a subject to these efforts to endow visionary architecture with a sense of inner logic, it’s to be found in the way glimpses of the infinite emerge through the struggle of competing structures: Held leaves us poised between abstract transcendence and the hands-on human constructions that art contributes to civic life.