I was in London during the summer of 1963, the year before starting my M.F.A. course in Fine Art at Yale. Culturally everything American was admired, envied, desired, nowhere more so than in Britain. Music, cloths, movies, food, lifestyle—and art. The youthful President Kennedy was seen to embody American energy, innovation, optimism and promise. No one imagined he would be assassinated a few months later and America would never be the same again.
The new American Embassy building designed by the great Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen had opened a few years earlier in 1960. Intended to project both an image of American power—the immense golden eagle over the façade—and contemporary American life—modern, informal, welcoming. Anyone could just walk into the building from the street. It housed a library and an art gallery that were open to the public. It was the very opposite of the barricaded fortress it became in later years or the moated bunker it is today.
That summer the exhibition at the embassy gallery was titled “Abstract Watercolors by 14 Americans.” I was naturally curious to see it. The exhibition was serious and substantial, put together with the assistance of MoMA, and with a short catalogue introduction by Frank O’Hara. Each artist—the best known of whom were Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner—was represented by four or five framed works. All the works were abstract, loosely painted and expressionist in style.
All but those of one artist—Al Held. His were comparatively simple and boldly geometric in form, with hard-edge bright flat color planes, striking illusions of shallow depth, and heavily painted in what was then the still-new medium of acrylic. Despite their modest size, their scale was immense, with small details animating implicitly vast planes.
So, unlike everything else in the exhibition, they were to me a revelation—I had never heard of the artist nor seen his work before. They spoke to me directly and I was captivated immediately.
You can imagine my astonishment when I arrived at Yale not long after only to discover that Al Held was to be one of my tutors. He turned out to be the best I ever had.
Initially I was in awe of Held—young people were more inclined towards awe in those days—but it was soon obvious we would get on well. He was in his mid-30s when we met. He looked like a tough guy, but by nature he was gentle, relaxed, generous and good humored, comfortable in his own skin. He had that sophistication and worldliness that comes not from money but hard-won experience. He could be a difficult taskmaster who expected our level of seriousness and commitment to match his own. Despite his lack of formal education, Held was highly intelligent, articulate and intellectually curious. He did not suffer fools, dilettantes, or laggards. If he came to one’s studio space and saw nothing new he would say “Same old shit” and leave without another word. He was open to work of any kind and of all our tutors the most supportive when we tried something new or unorthodox. He told me the work that interested him least was that which was in some obvious way like his own.
He and Alex Katz, his friend and New York contemporary, also teaching at Yale, expressed amusement that despite not having gone to university themselves they were now teaching at one of America’s great institutions.
Held came from an extremely modest background. Born in New York in 1928, brought up in the Depression, he dropped out of high school at 16 and served in the navy for two years. He began studying painting at the Art Students League in New York through his friend, the artist Nicholas Krushenick, and then in the early 1950s lived in Paris. There he discovered and joined a world of young American artists working and studying. Paris was still considered the place for artists to go. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and soon found himself a studio. He would later say that he needed to go to Paris to become an American artist. He made his first exhibition there in 1952 but the following year returned to New York, where there was a growing confidence that the torch of avant-garde art had passed from Europe to America, from Paris to New York, his personal trajectory mirroring that of this historic transition.
Like most forward looking New York artists of his generation his roots were in the world of abstract expressionism, and he was a regular at the Cedar Bar and the Artists’ Club, their highly charged meeting place on 8th St.
Despite the hard edge character of his work he was as instinctively painterly an artist as any of that generation. He was obsessed with the physicality of both the process and the object of his art. His paintings were heavily painted, often overpainted and overpainted until he found exactly the shape and edge he wanted. This belief in finding art through the act of painting and his commitment to abstraction most clearly connects him with the abstract expressionists. He was not a “cool” painter like the younger Frank Stella, but “hot” like ’50s jazz.
It is Held’s work of the late ’50s and ’60s that I know best because I had the opportunity to experience it directly. I loved the alphabet paintings and the immense geometric and occasionally biomorphic paintings that followed, and I still do. On one occasion in 1965 Held invited me to his immense 5th Avenue studio opposite the Flatiron Building to show me what he was working on. It turned out to be the extraordinary Greek Garden—at 12 by 56 feet still possibly the largest painting I’ve ever seen. I think it is safe to say its scale and physical impact had a powerful influence on my own practice many years later.
What interested me most about Held’s work was that he seemed to seek and achieve a kind of space no one else did. His work was always abstract but his paintings create a concrete and precise illusionistic space and presence that I recognize from sculpture but rarely see in painting. Always in Held’s work is the attempt to extend the notion of space beyond the surface of the canvas into that of the viewer. It would be fair to say that in all my drawings and paintings I have sought to achieve this kind of sculptural rather than painterly presence that I first experienced in Held’s work.
In the late ’60s Held changed the focus of his work from planes to lines and from color to black and white. By this time, I was already living in Britain and over the following years I came to know the development of his work primarily through reproductions in art magazines. Over the next decades one can see his growing understanding of the world he is exploring in the increasing complexity and subtlety of his paintings. Held saw these paintings as fundamentally different from what he considered his earlier “reductivist” works. To me, no matter how complex and contradictory his paintings become, they never lose their sense of precision and clarity—that physical articulation of space of his early work—but simply extend it to new territory.
In my final year at Yale, Held proposed a project where we would each choose a specific place to make an installation piece in the new and immensely complex Art and Architecture building by Paul Rudolf, where we were now working. This reflected a growing interest of his own and his recognition of younger artists’ increasing frustration with the limitations of painting at the time.
I think such a student project even today would seem quite radical for painting students. The project was intended to take us out of our comfort zone, to make us look at what we were doing in new terms. I made a work engaging two floors of a back staircase, involving black walls, white handrails and floor to ceiling vertical strips of mirror. I look back on it still with pride and satisfaction. It opened a door that I have kept open throughout my career.
To me Al Held is an artist who has never received the full international recognition he deserved. He was a maverick, not part of any movement or group, not easily categorized or pigeonholed. His work remained rigorous and uncompromising, challenging one’s perceptual pre-conceptions and intelligence, rather than conforming to received wisdom or flattering one’s good taste.
This essay is taken from Al Held, published by White Cube (releasing in February) to coincide with “Al Held: The Sixties,’’ on view at White Cube in London through February 27. Text ©Michael Craig-Martin.