What the Mind Sees: Al Held’s Later Work

David Klein Gallery
Mar 22, 2018 7:31PM

Al Held | Luminous Constructs: Paintings & Watercolors From The 1990s opened at David Klein Gallery (Detroit) on March 17th and runs through April 28th. Al Held’s massive painting, Orion V - 1991 (measuring 9 by 16 feet), Geocentric IV – 1990, and Ducio VIII – 1991, represent the core of the exhibition and are also some of the artist’s major aesthetic achievements of the early 1990s. Held started making watercolors in 1988 after he purchased a home in Camerata di Todi, Italy. The watercolors are an intimate and contemporary response to the great Renaissance painting that surrounded him in Italy.

Memories of the late 1980s and early 1990s culture wars have largely defined the art of the era. At stake in these controversies was the role and status of the artist in civic discourse. Are artists individual visionaries or public servants? Should artists lead or follow? Painter Al Held offered a third alternative, that of a private vision painted on a public scale. His abstract paintings and other works sensitively resisted the era’s partisanship and proposed that the legacy of five centuries of Western painting provided an essential shared language of meaningful imagery to be valued not dismissed.

The paintings and watercolors in the present exhibition are excellent representatives of his later work, after he had moved on from being a Yale professor and vocal leader of the new abstraction in the 1960s and 70s to become a quietly influential éminence grise. Now in his early 60s, Held created large paintings and smaller watercolors that asserted his positive vision that one man might utilize the tools and compositional techniques of Renaissance painting to visualize the complexities and paradoxes of contemporary life. The tension between individual perception and cosmic scope animates Held’s work, as the viewer experiences both intimate moments of recognition and disorienting juxtapositions. In both the paintings and the watercolors Held pursued clarity from the chaos.

Held executed the paintings with several assistants in his studio, a converted barn in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The images were created through a process of trial and error, as Held worked improvisationally to choreograph the scale and relationships of the geometric forms. He never had a preconceived design for his canvases and did not use devices like projectors or computers. Held typically worked in series, evolving his ideas about a set of images from one canvas to the next until he exhausted the possibilities and moved on to the next set of concerns. This restless experimentalism oddly externalizes the painting process so that Held could behold the paintings afresh as is if they were not his own.

Al Held, Duccio VIII (left) and Geocentric IV (right)

Al Held, Orion V (left) and Duccio VIII (right)

Held painted the watercolors at his second home in the Umbrian hills of Italy. Their very titles suggest an intimate, domestic setting. Victoria was Held’s longtime housekeeper, and Primo her cousin who also worked as a gardener. In Italy, Held would “go dreamy,” in the words of his daughter Mara, absorbing the shapes, colors, and vistas and reimagining them in his highly formalized pictorial language. Some watercolors became the starting points for new painting series, while others contain unique imagery unseen in any of his other work.  

The dynamic between the public eye of the paintings and the personal realm of the watercolors express two distinct yet interrelated aspects of Held’s practice. Working exclusively in a geometric abstract vocabulary, Held endeavored to assimilate competing worldviews, such as the culture wars themselves, into a single image imbued with optimism.

- Daniel Belasco, art historian and Executive Director of the Al Held Foundation

Written for David Klein Gallery's exhibition titled Al Held | Luminous Constructs: Paintings & Watercolors From The 1990s

David Klein Gallery