Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Visually Self-Evident: Al Held’s Alphabet Paintings at Cheim & Read

Al Held: Alphabet Paintings 1961- 1967 at Cheim & Read

February 20 to April 20, 2013
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, (212) 242-7727

Al Held, Circle and Triangle, 1964. Acrylic on canvas, 144 x 336 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York
Al Held, Circle and Triangle, 1964. Acrylic on canvas, 144 x 336 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

The titles of abstract paintings can be important. When Frank Stella named his protractor-based Tahkt-i-Sulayman (1967) after an ancient shrine in Iran, he encouraged very different style of interpretation than did Daniel Buren, who titled one early picture Manifestation 1 – Peinture acrylique sur tissu rayé (1967). Stella, it seemed, wanted to associate his art with Islamic decoration. By contrast, Buren presented a much more literal minded way of thinking about his stripes.

Al Held, who started out making classic Abstract Expressionist pictures, in his later career created marvelously elaborate perspectival constructions. In between, in the 1960s, he did geometric paintings, many of them based upon fragments of alphabet letters. The Big A (1962) is a truncated black ‘A’ with a yellow and blue insert; The Big D (1964), a leftward facing ‘D’ with a black center; and The Yellow X (1965) is a yellow ‘x’, with triangles peeking in on the top, bottom and sides. And sometimes he did constructions whose titles refer to their geometry — Circle and Triangle (1964) is a good example. Held wanted to associate his large geometric abstractions with the most rudimentary general culture- the letters of the alphabet; geometric forms or shapes, Maltese Cross (1964) for example; and cultural figures known to everyone—Siegfried (1966), Mao (1967).

The meaning of abstract painting has always been up for grabs. It can be associated with mystical ‘higher experience’— as Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted; with nature, as for Pollock or Thomas Nozkowski; or with materialism—Malevich and Robert Mangold do this. Held, so his titles reveal, was a surprisingly straightforward, even literal-minded visual thinker. He wasn’t interested in Stella’s art historical references, in Buren’s visual materialism or in allusions to nature; but neither was he a materialist. He wanted to create large, relatively simple, simplified, slightly illusionistic images whose meaning was visually almost self-evident. The letters of the alphabet and Held’s other subjects have no intrinsic scale. And so the danger then, as I see it, is that paintings with these subjects become inert, turning into quasi-minimalist compositions. That’s why their size is very important. In reproduction, these pictures look handsome.  But they hold up on the high-walled galleries of Cheim & Reid perfectly—they have a self-sufficient presence. The Big N (1964-66), almost a monochrome, depends critically upon the small notches of black at the top and bottom of the field of white. Untitled (1965) uses four such inserts at top, bottom and the sides to turn the red field into a floating plane. And Upside Down Triangle (1966)—which is more than four meters wide—seems to twist around the small triangle cut into the center.

Without working in series, or ever repeating, and using simplified means, Held created an astonishing array of varied effects. You feel that he is reinventing the art of painting as he goes.

Al Held, The Big D, 1964. Acrylic on canvas, 144 x 114 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York
click to enlarge
Al Held, The Yellow X, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 144 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York
click to enlarge