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Abstract Expressionism

Al Held's Visual Thresholds


Al Held, The Yellow X, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 144 inches: Installation View, Al Held: Alphabet Paintings at Cheim & Read, New York (image courtesy of Cheim & Read)

Al Held: Alphabet Paintings is on view at Cheim & Read, New York through April 20, 2013.

Al Held's paintings of the early to mid 60s are now on view at Cheim & Read.  In them, he abandons the physical monumentality previously achieved through the accretion of heavy layers of oil paint in favor of a more visual, graphic monumentality.  This graphic monumentality comes from vigorously painted architectonic arrangements of letterforms painted on near-mural scale canvases.

Held denied a metaphorical interest in the letters; nevertheless, the pictorial device of singling out initials for monumental treatment has precedent, most notably in Celtic illuminated manuscript painting, where the scale and lavish decoration of the initial letter alert the reader to the import of the text that follows. Through their intricate design, these "initials" require concentration and pull the reader into a meditative state. They also function as visual thresholds opening outward and inviting the reader to consider the sacred worlds beyond the boundaries of the page and of earth, itself.

In much Abstract Expressionist painting of the 50s, notably paintings by Rothko and Newman, expanded abstract visual fields reflect the viewer's gaze, conjuring an awareness of self. John Yau, however, recently noted that the forms in Held's early 60s paintings, such as The Yellow X, extend beyond the picture plane, creating an awareness of the environment beyond the canvas edge. "Extending off the painting’s physical edges," Yau writes, "the X is simultaneously skewed and stable, conveying a space that hints at a realm beyond and behind the picture plane."

Making paintings that pointed outward, thresholds onto the physical world, was a stated interest of Held's. He accomplished this through drawing, as described by Yau, and also through color. Held himself noted, in a 1975 interview with Paul Cummings, that he was interested in "'taxicab' colors, loud, crass" - the colors of the city.  

More of Held's and Cummings' discussion of the "Alphabet" paintings is below: