Monday, January 01, 2007

Fare thee well, Al Held

I just discovered that Al Held, my favorite abstract artist, died a little over a year ago.

Unfortunately he didn't have a great web presence, and there are few quality pictures of his later works, which I find most engaging. The two paintings accompanying this post are from that era, and though I couldn't find much information on them, I'm guessing from the era, that these works are at least 8 to 10 feet tall and up to 30 feet wide.

I'm not an art critic. I'm just a paint monkey who likes to talk shop. The critics say Held is a minor note in American Art. He was a success, but not a stellar one, not a household name, by any means. Held fans think his black and white work from the sixties and seveties is his most important. I disagree. I love the rebelliousness of crafting abstract work that still plays with spatial awareness and volume. I love the shere overwhelming joy and beauty I percieve in these works. Thanks, Al.

Al Held was also interesting as a study in the transformation and persistence of artistic vision. He went through several phases in his artistic development, though there are transitional notes to be seen in the works at the beginning and end of these phases. This site shows some examples of his work from 1958 to 1991, though not in chronological order, but I think it will give you some sense of his evolution. His approaches and techniques changed, generally evolving organically, but looking over the entire arc of his career, it seems to me that there are themes of light and dark, and of the approach and retreat of objects in space, which he was constantly struggling with. One theme he was drawn to over and over, constantly trying to find new and better ways to illuminate it.

A streetwise New Yorker and Navy veteran, Mr. Held embodied a number of contradictions in his art and life. He was a high school dropout who became a professor at Yale University. He was well schooled in the classical tradition of Western art yet worked in an abstract style that suggested the time-warp universe of space flight. Without using computers, he brought a mathematical precision to the exuberant, loosely disciplined abstract expressionist style.

A 2003 review from the New York Sun said:

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.

I've also heard Held described as a "cool square."

Al Held, painter, born October 12 1928; died July 27 2005

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