Greenwald writes that despite "superficial similarities, the works on display reflect the strikingly different temperaments and intentions of two ambitious abstract artists... Willis’ work comes out of a belief that 'painting is mystical, even magical,' whereas Held’s paintings, enormous objects influenced by Minimalism’s principle of Gestalt and objecthood, have been willed into existence. Gallery visitors have a chance to see where their allegiance lies."
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:
Panero writes that Willis' "abstractions are a blend of geometry and intuition. For his latest series, he pares down his forms and used strong color contrasts to energize the tension between figure and ground... Thornton is one of Soho's artist pioneers. He and his family moved into the loft where he lives and works in the 1970s. Over the past decade, his work has attracted a new range of interest. "
An exhibition of new work by Thornton Willis will be on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York from March 14 - April 13, 2013.
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.