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 Al Held  (1928 - 2005)

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Lived/Active: New York / Italy      Known for: geometric-abstraction

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Ad Code: 2
Al Held
from Auction House Records.
Volta II
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An abstract oil painter often using large, geometric forms with aggressive coloration, Al Held became a major figure in the New York art scene in the later part of the 20th century. His work is stark, usually large-scale, and much of its "in-your-face" forcefulness reflects his desire to bridge the division between viewers and his paintings.

He was born as Alvin Jacob Held in Brooklyn and grew up there and in the Bronx during Depression times when his Polish-Jewish family had a hard time financially. He was asked to leave high school because of chronic in-attendance, so he joined the Navy in 1945 and served for two years.

He began associating with people interested in "leftist" politics and art and attended the Art Students League from 1948 to 1949. Then with money from the G.I. Bill of Rights, he went to Paris and enrolled at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Ossip Zadkine, Russian-born sculptor, was one of his teachers, and he had his first solo exhibition at Galerie Huit in Paris in 1952.

Until 1959, he painted in the Abstract Expressionist style, admittedly influenced by opposites--Jackson Pollock's emotional, gestural involvement in painting and Piet Mondrian's objectivity. He also went through a phase of Social Realism.

Between 1960 and 1967, Held changed from the heavy textures of Abstract Expressionism to tightly controlled geometric pieces, often giving the appearance of being suspended on the canvas by not touching the edges with color. Many of his works were black and white, exploring aspects of Analytic Cubism. His 90 foot "Albany Mural" in the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York is a good example of this type of work.

From 1962 to 1978, he was a member of the art faculty of Yale University.
However, he mostly lived in New York City until the mid 1990s, when he went back and forth between homes in Boiceville, New York near Woodstock and Todi, Italy, where he died at age 76 on July 26, 2005 in his swimming pool.

By the 1980s, with the resurgence of realist art, the market for his paintings became less active. But he kept painting, and many of his works were too large to fit into galleries. His painting "Requiem" measured 15 feet high and more than 60 feet in width and was exhibited at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens in 2002.

At the time of his death, Al Held was working on a mural commission for the Jacksonville Public Library in Florida, stained-glass windows for the Federal District Court in Orlando, Florida and a mosaic for the subway stop at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan.

Held was married and divorced four times. His wives were filmmaker Giselle Wexler, dancer Yvonne Rainer, sculptor Sylvia Stone and Kathleen Monahan.

Matthew Baigell, "Dictionary of American Art"
Ken Johnson, 'Al Held, Painter of Geometric Complexities, Dies at 76', "The New York Times", A 17, Friday, July 29, 2005

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):
Al Held began his art career in 1947, after he finished his service with the Navy. Upon his return to New York, his birthplace, he enrolled in the Art Students League, where he harbored an idea of becoming a muralist. In 1949, funded by a G.I. Bill stipend, he went to Paris for three years and studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. After deciding to abandon social realism, he adopted an Abstract Expressionist-inspired style characterized by geometric shapes rendered in dark colors and very thick impasto. He sought to marry the objectivity of Piet Mondrian and the subjectivity of Jackson Pollock. (1)

Throughout the 1950s, Held’s palette grew progressively lighter. The geometric shapes disappeared, replaced by an intricate network of gestural, multidirectional strokes applied thickly with a palette knife. By the end of the decade, Held had become frustrated with both his style and his medium; he wanted to make the structure underpinning his paintings visible. Within six months beginning in 1959, Held transformed his work by switching from oil to Liquitex, a quick-drying water-based acrylic medium. The advantage to Liquitex, as Held described, was that “the acrylic couldn’t be built up and you couldn’t work wet into wet with acrylic, and so the imagery remained clean and clear.” (2) Among Held’s points of departure for his new work was his admiration for Matisse’s "Jazz" cutouts. He was also influenced by the stronger “taxicab” colors of Fernand Léger and Stuart Davis. (3)

The scale of Held’s work increased during this period; he slowly filled canvases that were as large as 12 feet high and 28 feet wide. Even small pieces reveal Held’s preoccupation with scale. An important formal aspect of his work is his tendency to crop forms, to create the impression that they continue to expand and exist outside the picture plane.
In a 1975 interview, Held described his working process. He would experiment with the placement of the main shapes, sometimes moving them entirely and painting over them. Once he was certain about the placement, he would work to define the edge between one color form and another. At first, he recalled, “the notion of drawing an edge I had no consciousness of. I didn’t know what that meant. Or the tension between two edges. I had to literally educate myself.”(4) None of his edges is perfectly straight; instead, they are intentionally modulated, convex in some areas and concave in others, to heighten the tension between the forms.

Held’s style at this time has been described as concrete abstraction.(5) Other artists working in this vein included Knox Martin and the sculptors Ronald Bladen, George Sugarman, and David Weinrib. Held’s work appeared with theirs in the “Concrete Expressionism” show curated by Irving Sandler at New York University in 1965.

Held was a member of the Yale University Faculty of Art from 1962 to 1980. In 1966, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. The following year, he abandoned color and the flat shapes and began exploring perspective, space, and complex interlocking geometric forms in black and white. He eventually resumed work in color in the late 1970s while continuing his exploration of geometry and perspective.

Held also completed public art projects during his career. One of his last such public projects was a large mural for the New York subway system’s East 53rd Street and Lexington stop. Held died at his home in Italy in July 2005. During his career he had one-man shows at the Stedelijik Museum in Amsterdam (1966), the San Francisco Museum of Art (1968), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1974).

1. Irving Sandler, "Al Held" (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1984), p. 13.
2. Al Held interviewed by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art (1975-76), available at
3. Sandler, p. 34.
4. Al Held interview.
5. Sandler, see “Chapter 3: The Concrete Abstractions.”

© Copyright 2012 Hollis Taggart Galleries

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