Al Held, Untitled, 1952-53. Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 × 24 1/4 inches
I began to get to know and love Al Held’s paintings in the last three or four years, in particular his late phase complex geometric constructions from the 1970’s-80’s, influenced by his time in Rome up until his death in Todi, Italy. Having become more and more involved with perspectival aspects of drawing and geometric forms in my own paintings, Held’s late work captivated me. I now use this work as a basis for teaching projects in my Design and Drawing classes, stressing the playful overlaps of forms within forms, his use of multiple perspectives and deep space, unusual color contrasts, and his fantastical feel for geometry.
Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-6, Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 inches
That said, it stunned me to see the show at Cheim & Read, Al Held: Paris to New York (May 17 – July 6, 2018), which focused on Held’s sumptuous Abstract Expressionist beginnings. These images felt to me like a pure culmination of nature and paint. Jackson Pollock coined the phrase “I don’t paint nature – I am nature,” which philosophically altered the artist’s relationship to the outside world as subject and turned his vision inward, towards a visceral subjectivity. Held was powerfully affected by Pollock, but said he wanted to “give the gesture structure,”* and synthesize the subjectivity of Pollock with the objectivity of Mondrian. I can see Held’s connection to Mondrian; the black and white slashes anticipating his later geometries. But what struck me most in these paintings was the color, and I could only think of Cezanne. Held’s Ab Ex paintings fully embrace the work of Cezanne in a way I have not seen in any other Expressionist painter. Could it be Cezanne’s use of heavily weighted patches of rich color, each hue holding a distinct plane in space while cohering into a mass of foliage or mountain, that influenced Held’s vivid control of hue, value and temperature in his rich palettes? Both Cezanne and Held used pulsing strokes in an allover vibration across the picture plane. And both artists consistently aimed for a duality of sensation and structure, nature and geometry.
Al Held, Untitled, 1952-53. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches
In one of my favorites from the group of untitled works from 1955-57 at Cheim & Read (shown above), Held’s slashes and dabs of pink, gold, umber, deep reds, muted browns, bright whites, greens and pale blues saturate the space. Each hue resonates as cool or warm, deep or shallow, allowing the eye and the sensibility to soak in energy, light and form as pure color sensation. I then turn to Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes of 1902-6, in which strokes of greens, golds, grays, blues and lavenders pulse against one another, shimmering yet weighty, spreading to the edges of the picture plane while also receding into the depths of land and sky. Looking at these two images together, it is hard to believe Held did not feel the influence of Cezanne when he returned to New York to produce the Pigment paintings, as they are called. In fact, it could be argued that his earlier Paris paintings, shown simultaneously in New York at Nathalie Karg Gallery, with their reduced palette of impasto blacks and whites, hark back to Cezanne’s very early still life paintings, such as Still Life with Sugar Bowl of 1866, with its horizontal composition and thick peaks of bright lights delineating objects against deep black background space.
Paul Cezanne, Sugar Bowl, Pears and Blue Cup, 1866, Oil on canvas, 30 x 41 cm
Cezanne famously said, “What art needs is a Poussin made over after nature,” and “treat nature in terms of the cylinder and the cone.” He was not satisfied with the Impressionists’ emphasis on sensation alone and developed his revolutionary symbiosis of the picture plane with the planar or modulated forms of his subjects. Held too was not satisfied with his own earliest Paris paintings of 1952 (not shown here), because he felt “what they really needed was organic… form.”**, Before the Paris paintings and his New York work, Held found rocks around the Paris streets and drew hundreds of them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cezanne was the great master of rock formations!
The connection between Held and Cezanne has resonance with the larger rich tapestry of connections between American painters of the New York School and their European predecessors. Stemming from my knowledge of Held’s late geometric constructions, this sensual body of early Held paintings opened my eyes to the relationship between these two artists and their shared determination to fuse sensation with structure, and nature with geometry and reason.
* Al Held:Paris to New York, 1952-59, essay by Matthew Israel, Cheim & Read
**Smithsonian, Archives of American Art, Interview with Al Held, 1976
Carol Diamond, Fences, pastel, latex paint and photo collage on paper, 25 x 38 inches