“One of the profound powers of the artist is that he can will, or choose, to become anything he wills or chooses,” Al Held said in 1989. “The art doesn’t come from his soul, or from his genes, it comes from his choices. And those choices are infinite and hopeful.” Throughout his career, Held made hopeful paintings. As Nancy Grimes wrote in ARTnews in 1988, “Held’s painting projected an exuberant, humanistic confidence—a refreshing alternative to Abstract Expressionism’s tormented vision of an imperiled self.” Al Held was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928 and grew up in the East Bronx. He had a long, successful career as an artist and died at his home in Todi, Italy, at age seventy-six, in 2005.
After a two-year term in the U.S. Navy beginning in 1945, Held enrolled at the Art Students League in New York. From 1950 to 1953, financed by the GI Bill, he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris with sculptor Ossip Zadkine. After returning to New York in 1959, he joined the Poindexter Gallery and began to receive international attention that established him as a critical success.
A long association with the Andre Emmerich Gallery began in 1965. In 1974 he had a midcareer survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Beginning in 1981, he spent a part of every year in Tuscany, where he established a second home and studio. His works of the 1980s, with their interlocking arcs, arabesques, and circular forms, reflect the influence of Italian Renaissance and baroque architecture.
In his last years, Held worked on vast, dramatic compositions in which geometric shapes are enmeshed in a mystical, labyrinthine, deep space that rushes to a distant horizon. Held said, “I don’t think of my paintings as space trips but I am trying to make a space that I’ve never experienced or seen.” An obituary in Time magazine described these works as “dizzying grids and spheres in eye-popping colors” and quoted Held as saying, “We’re not going to get rid of chaos and complexity, but we can find a way to live with them.” Al Held created nineteen prints at Crown Point Press, and among them are the largest, most colorful and complex works the press has ever produced.
Held was appointed associate professor of art at Yale University in 1962 and taught there until 1980. A museum show of his late large-scale works was held at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York in 2002, and in 2005 he completed a large, colorful mural in the New York City subway system, at East Fifty-third Street and Lexington. His paintings are in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. The estate of Al Held is represented by the Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.
- Dana Zullo