Archiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2005-07 > 1122743297

From: "Peter_McCrae" <>
Subject: HELD; Al--JUL/2005-USA
Date: Sat, 30 Jul 2005 18:08:17 +0100

Al Held
(Filed: 30/07/2005)
The Daily Telegraph & the

Al Held, who has died aged 76, was an abstract expressionist painter whose
work was chiefly concerned with exploring the geometry of space.

Held's pictures owed something to the dizzying perspectives of MC Escher,
and more to the effects most often associated with Op Art. Simple triangles,
circles and squares were arranged in tight patterns to produce (as in J's
Passage IV, 2000) impressionistic and eyestraining architectural planes or,
in his earlier paintings, stark attempts to play with the appearance of
depth on a two-dimensional canvas.

Al Held was born into a Polish Jewish family at Brooklyn, New York, on
October 12 1928. His father Harry was a jeweller, and young Al was educated
in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Bronx districts, but was expelled from
school at 16 for persistent truancy. He spent most of his time at the
movies: "I just wanted to get out of my skin," he later said, "and the
movies were a perfect escape." He worked in a series of odd jobs and
eventually gained his high school diploma after attending night classes, but
was still itching to escape from home. In 1945, he signed up for the Navy,
and spent two years in the service.

When he returned to New York, he became active in Left-wing groups and, in
1948, enrolled in the Art Students' League. His first pictures were in the
Soviet Realist tradition but, after seeing Jackson Pollock's drip paintings
at the Museum of Modern Art the following year, he settled on a new
approach, and used the remainer of his GI education grant to go to
Montparnasse, where he studied at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière with
the sculptor Ossip Zadkine.

Held often picked up stones from the street, and drew them in various media,
and from different angles, in order to expand his technique. This obsession
with form caused him to abandon figure studies for abstracts which attempted
to reconcile the free drip paintings of Pollock with the geometrical
compositions of Mondrian: they were to remain his primary concern.

Held had his first solo show at the Galerie Huit in 1952, before returning
to New York, where he met and was encouraged by the painter Mark Rothko. But
shortly afterwards a fire destroyed Held's studio, and much of his work.

Dispirited by this catastrophe, Held moved to San Francisco in 1954 and
worked as a carpenter, truck driver and navvy, though he had returned to the
East Coast within a couple of years. There he exhibited in a group show at
the Tanager Gallery in 1955 and held his first one-man show in New York at
the Poindexter Gallery four years later. Despite this industry, he still had
to support himself with manual work, running a removals firm.

But at the end of the decade he moved, like Ellsworth Kelly and Frank
Stella, from the use of heavy impasto (his Untitled of 1957 was a
characteristic exercise in the form) to explore the possibilities offered by
acrylic paints: the resultant planes of solid colour, without much in the
way of textural variation, were immediately seized upon by the critic
Clement Greenberg, the high priest of Abstract Expressionism, as an example
of a new style, which he dubbed "Post-Painterly Abstraction" and made the
subject of an exhibition in Los Angeles in 1964.

It gave rise to two schools: "colour-field" and "hard-edge"; the first was
primarily concerned with tone and the impact of the brilliant, fast-drying
acrylics; the second, with which Held became more involved, with the
geometrical possibilities of such compositions. His Maltese Cross (1964)
began a series of large (it was nine and a half feet square) paintings
examining basic shapes, which continued with variations on letters of the
alphabet, as in The Big A of 1962 and The Big N (1965), a solid white square
with small triangles of green and yellow.

He carried this minimalist approach yet further two years later, when he
began to paint optically challenging variations on geometrical shapes in
black and white. The Black Nile series examined three-dimensional space; the
Solar Wind paintings drew on a fascination with radio astronomy.

From 1962 until 1980, Held taught at the Yale University School of Art,
where he was an influence on many younger painters later to become
successful. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1966, and his first New
York retrospective, at the Whitney Museum in 1974, firmly established Held
as a major figure in abstraction. He had earlier been the subject of an
important debut exhibition at Amsterdam's Stedelijk in 1966.

Held proclaimed that his excursions into three-dimensional geometry were, as
the critic Nancy Grimes put it, a deliberate attempt to challenge the
"formalist dictum that a primary task of painting was to reveal its
essential quality of flatness", but he was accused by some of a reactionary
flirtation with figuratism.

In 1978, he made a return to colour but, while the new paintings revealed
something of Held's earlier, jittery energy, they also showed a continuing
interest in shape, and his busy, interconnected circles, triangles and
squares offered peculiar optical effects. Some detected in paintings such as
C-B-B-1 (1978) similarities with the approach of Bridget Riley, though
Held's different shapes offered a much more ambiguous perspective on spatial
relationships than Riley's careful constructions.

In 1981, Held moved to Italy, where he spent much of his time thereafter. An
increasing interest in the forms of classical architecture, and in the
geometric structures of Renaissance painting, were detected by many critics
in the period after this move. In 1982, he became a trustee of the American
Academy in Rome.

He continued to produce public work in America: large-scale pieces can be
seen in Philadelphia and Dallas, and in the New York subway system. His
paintings are in the collections of the Walker Art Centre, Minnesota, the
National Gallery of Australia and the Smithsonian; the Fine Arts Museums of
San Francisco have an extensive collection. His last exhibition was at the
Robert Miller Gallery, which had shown much of his later work, at the end of
2003 and the beginning of last year, under the title Al Held: Beyond Sense.

Al Held was found dead in the swimming pool of his Umbrian villa on
Wednesday. He married first, in 1953, Giselle Wexler, with whom he had a
daughter. The marriage was dissolved in 1955, and the following year he
married Yvonne Rainer. In 1969 he married the sculptress Sylvia Stone, whom
he had met 10 years before. He is survived by his daughter.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.

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