Letter Press: Al Held Alphabet Paintings at Cheim & Read

Some of the most massive — and massively satisfying visually, despite of and due to their reverberating minimalism — paintings exhibited in the West Chelsea gallery run right now hang in Cheim & Read, in Al Held's seven-part suite of classic Alphabet Paintings. These are a treat: they exemplify Held's 'golden age' geometric abstraction as much as Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images is tied to Surrealism and Damien Hirst's shark the excessive '90s. But seriously, Held's early hard-edge compositions, spanning 1961-67 and dipping into his deftness with black and white, leave big impressions. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor

Al Held | Circle and Triangle, 1964, Acrylic on canvas, 144 x 336 inches (365.8 x 853.4 cm). Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

'Grand' is an adept word to describe Held's early canvases, though 'heavy' (in presence and physical weight) follows instinctually. The reductive mostly-black and mostly-white four-panel behemoth Circle and Triangle bears neither Franz Kline's brushy action style nor Ellsworth Kelly's ultraclean roller technique. Held does this cake-batter thing, slathering the acrylic on and working it so occasional globs and rivers build up across the awesomely large surface. The compositional elements are so blown up that two of the LP-colored triangle's three corners truncate off. Meanwhile, the voidlike burgundy circle, traced in royal blue, nearly resembles a rectangle with a convex side (it's that huge) except for two tiny white corners on the painting's extreme left, forcing the circular shape to retain its Euclidean stability.

Courtesy: Cheim & Read, New York
Al Held | Alphabet Paintings installation view. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
Al Held | Ivan the Terrible, 1961, Acrylic on canvas, 144 x 114 inches (365.8 x 289.6 cm). Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

The seven paintings here do not equal a sparse exhibition. The small front gallery, which usually houses a statement piece or installation to punctuate the current Cheim & Read show, contains Held's drawbridge-scaled Ivan the Terrible by only sheer architectural might. Were this to hang on an art fair's temporary walls, we could imagine them toppling over, or blasting back by the composition's goldenrod 'X' and white-outlined 'T'. The Yellow X in the back gallery repeats the former's fat shape in Lichtenstein-like Pop yellow, exploding across two abutting canvases like a Batman and Robin 'ka-pow!'

Al Held | The Yellow X, 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 144 1/2 x 178 inches (367 x 452.1 cm). Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
Al Held | Siegfried, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 114 x 192 inches (289.6 x 487.7 cm). Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

My appreciation for Held's play with depth and illusionary volume really cranked up in an awesome five-decade-spanning dual show with longtime friend Philip Pearlstein mounted at Betty Cuningham Gallery back in early 2010. Despite the artists' respective styles (Pearlstein's harshly lit, realistic nudes vs. Held's geometric abstraction), their restless exploration of space was irresistible to observe. Alphabet Paintings greatly preempts Held's late forays into what I call 'video-game landscapes', though his panache for asserting his paintings beyond their compositional parameters is totally active here. Consider the interplay between Siegfried, a heavy white bent bar leaping off its reddish ground, and the lenticular black field dominating The "I" across the gallery. It's practically a conversation, in billboard-sized letters.

Al Held | The “I”, 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 76 inches (274.3 x 193 cm). Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.


Al Held was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928 and studied at the Art Students League of New York. He studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris for three years before returning to New York and diving into geometric Abstract expressionism. In 1966, Held was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and received the Logan Medal of the arts. At that time, Held switched his style to black and white, spatially challenging images, and reintroduced color in the late 1970s. He is subject of numerous solo exhibitions in the United States and abroad, and in 2005 he completed a large, colorful mural in the New York City subway system, at East 53rd Street and Lexington. Held passed away at the age of 76 in Camerata, Italy. Alphabet Paintings continues through April 20. 

Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List (http://feeslist.blogspot.com) covers his three loves (art, film, live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).

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