Al Held


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Painter and printmaker. Known for monumental abstract paintings, Brooklyn-born Alvin Jacob Held left school at sixteen and the next year enlisted for two years in the U.S. Navy. He then studied at the Art Students League for about a year before sailing at the end of 1949 for Paris to continue his training at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Abroad until 1953, he abandoned an early figurative style for abstraction that attempted to combine Mondrian's example with aspects of Jackson Pollock's work. After his return to New York, he worked in an aggressive, gestural style indebted to Willem de Kooning's paintings as well as Pollock's. Becoming dissatisfied in 1959 with the structural laxity of abstract expressionism, he introduced simpler forms that dominated through the mid-1960s, as he gradually smoothed out his brushwork. Although these canvases verge upon hard-edge painting, Held's continuing emphasis on the materiality of paint and his ready accommodation of awkward formal conjunctions produced a tenor somewhat different from the authoritative crispness of most contemporary hard-edge work. Along with close friend George Sugarman, he emphasized structure without abandoning abstract expressionism's punch. In a major break with New York taste at that time, in 1967 Held banished color in favor of black and white, and resuscitated three-dimensional geometric volumes delineated in Renaissance perspective. From 1969, he interwove these shapes to produce complex, exhilarating spatial effects, enhanced by the enormous dimensions of his canvases. In the late 1970s color reappeared, providing epic dazzle to his visionary quest for a humanistic, heroic, even utopian form of expression. Later, skirting retinal overstimulation, he often added stripes or checkerboard patterns to the surfaces of the mathematical solids that fill his theatrical “landscape” spaces. Held also worked in several print media, including woodcut and intaglio processes. In 1956 he married avant-garde choreographer and, later, filmmaker Yvonne Rainer (1934– ), who moved to New York with him from San Francisco, where he had lived during the previous year. They divorced in 1957. In 1969 he wed Toronto-born sculptor Sylvia Stone (1928– ), known for large-scale Plexiglas abstractions. This relationship also ended in divorce. From 1962 until 1980 he taught at Yale University. In 1965 he bought a farm in the Catskill Mountains village of Boiceville, New York, for use as a summer retreat, and in 1988 he restored a farmhouse in the central Italian town of Todi. In the mid-1990s he left New York to divide his time between these two residences. He died in the swimming pool at his Todi home.

Subjects: Art.

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