Al Held, American Abstract expressionist painter, Died at 76

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Al Held died on July 27, 2005 at the age of 76; he was an American Abstract expressionist painter. Born in Brooklyn, New York on October 12, 1928, he grew up in the East Bronx, the son of a poor Jewish family thrown onto welfare during the depression.

Held showed no interest in art until leaving the Navy in 1947.

Inspired by his friend Nicholas Krushenick, Held enrolled in the Art Students League of New York. He originally thought about studying in Mexico under the prominent muralist David Siqueiros who created gigantic pieces that contained intense political material.

However, the G.I. accreditation that he planned on using to help with his travels was not accepted at the school he planned on attending. In 1966, Held was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and received the Logan Medal of the arts.

Feeling that he’d reached the end of his style’s potential, he shifted in 1967 to black and white images that dealt with challenging perspectives and “spatial conundrums”.

Some critics dismissed this work as simply disorienting; others declared it Held’s finest achievement to date.

By the late 1970s, he had re-introduced colour to his work. In 1988 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member, and became a full Academician in 1994.

During the late 50s gestural painting was something that Held had begun to lose interest in. He and a few other artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland felt a growing problem emerge.

The style had brought a large number of mediocre artists and become overdone for them. By 1960 he had succeeded in finding an alternative method given the label hard edge. In other ways it has been described as post-painterly abstraction, new abstraction, and cool art.

The famous exhibition organizer Irving Sandler has been known to characterize it as concrete expressionism. Held spent 20 years teaching at Yale University’s esteemed art program, and retired as a professor in 1980.

Represented by the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, which staged what would be his last exhibition of new work in 2003, Held toiled for months and sometimes years on his immense canvases, some of which were so large that they could not be installed in a standard commercial art space.

His works were avidly sought by contemporary-art enthusiasts around the world, and were part of the permanent collections of many institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

Many of Held’s modern artwork includes large symmetric non-objective structures with vivid colors. Using an acrylic medium, he created interlocking scaffolds that overlap with a deep consideration of architecture.

The ancient buildings of Rome and the idea of the renaissance inspired Held as he returned to New York. Describing Held’s images as “room” or “walls” makes sense, however, the art is non-objective and those may not be the best words to use.

On one hand the work has architectural qualities but at the same time the planes of color are nonrepresentational and in a way cannot be grasped.


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