I became acquainted with Al Held in the mid-1950s in the very lively community of the 10th Street cooperative galleries. These galleries were organized by young artists to exhibit their own work and that of their friends. The rivalry between the galleries was very intense and we all participated as if we were in a kind of medieval tournament—we wanted our turn to flaunt our own banners, that is, our own art. We followed each other’s stylistic developments as if we were in some sort of dangerous game, and Al was a very enthusiastic player.
Al had been in the Navy during World War II and he was one of a number of American ex-servicemen who went to Paris to study art on the G.I. Bill. In Paris, he discovered that art could be about ideas, ideas centered on the act of making paintings. In an interview that he gave in 1976, he talked about an epiphany he had while in Paris. He said:
I was sitting in a movie house…, it was like a cartoon…, a bulb lighting up in the middle of your head…, Bang! I had this brilliant idea…I rushed out of the movie house and went back to the studio and started painting. I’d had the great idea…, it went like this: if Pollock was the epitome of the subjective and Mondrian was the epitome of the objective, if you took the two and put them together you’d have the universal… Wow that was it! Which I proceeded to do in very direct terms: I would take the canvas, divide it up into geometric planes of rectangles and triangles, no circles…, [and] inside of each geometric form I would drip a whole matrix of paint…
Years later, Al returned to some of the same ideas of using geometric forms, but he now included circles. Al returned to New York after he used up the G.I. Bill, but after a while he went to the West Coast Bay Area. About his experience there, he said:
Well…, the culture out there is the art of living… But one didn’t get a sense of walking into somebody else’s studio and saying, ‘God damn it, I’ve got to get home and paint! This [guy] is getting ahead of me!’ That’s what New York has. And the sense that it’s important…to paint, it became important that one couldn’t fall behind… and it isn’t just careerism, it isn’t just money… or number of shows, or [being in] a collection. But it has to do with depth of the commitment.
The serious ideas Al talked about were about the process of creating the painting. For instance, talking about his work after he returned to New York, he said:
I remember talking about wanting to use ‘taxicab’ colors, of getting involved in that kind of high-key color…, getting away from… modulated color…, ‘taxicab’ being a kind… of neon lights imagery, a …kind of cityscape… No mixing; just straight out of the tube…
One day I stepped back and said to myself: I’ve changed everything, I’ve changed the color, I’ve changed the painting technique…, I’ve changed the scale. But I realized that I had kept one thing…, I had tied up the painting compositionally by keeping overall patterns, repetitions of shapes and colors. So I decided if I really wanted to change I had to break myself of tying things up that way and I began to set myself a set of axioms, ‘thou shalt nots.’ One of the ‘shalt nots’ was never to repeat a form or a color in the same painting.
For a few months in the early 1960s, Al and I, along with our wives and several other artist couples, took part in a discussion group organized by our friend Irving Sandler, who later wrote a major book about Al’s paintings. These discussions were an intense exchange of ideas about art styles. At one of the last sessions, which took place in Al’s studio, he showed us a lot of small paintings that he had painted on heavy paper exploring his latest compositional ideas, which were radical. Then he generously allowed each of us to choose one of the paintings as a gift. His painting hung in our family kitchen for a number of years and eventually two other versions of it were made. One is a copy painted by my daughter when she was about eight years old, and another copy was crocheted by a Romanian cleaning woman as a Christmas present to our family.
Although Al and I never really buddied around, there were occasions when I was with him and his reactions to something gave me a hint of his sources of inspiration. In 1981, we were both in residence at the American Academy in Rome. The Academy is at the top of the Janiculum Hill and the fastest way down to the main part of the city is to go down a long, steep public staircase that was usually littered with the syringes used by druggies. One day, we walked down together and as we reached the top edge of the neighborhood of Trastevere, Al said we had to stop and see a small church—I think the architect was Borromini—but inside the space seemed to expand and curve, and Al pointed out that the architect had delineated the spaces with a prominent architrave that ran around the top of the walls like a drawn line. He made me walk around the edges of the walls, looking up to experience the space. He fell in love with the complex spaces of the Baroque churches of Rome and I think they influenced his paintings.
Another time, we were walking near the Piazza Navona and we passed through a small square created by the four sides of different buildings. Each wall slanted at a different angle and each had a different dimension and color and a different number and arrangement of windows. They were all from different periods. The square was dominated by a single stone pillar unrelated to the walls; it was left over from an ancient Roman structure. The square is an accidental montage of architectural history. Al stopped and analyzed the space. It really did reflect one of his rules of composition, that no major element should be repeated.
Later, on the Academy’s annual bus trip around Sicily, we stopped to visit the ruins of the ancient Greek temple complex at Selinunte. The site was strewn with segments of pillars that had been toppled by earthquakes and I was using an old-fashioned stereo camera to photograph the haphazard arrangements of these column drums and Doric capitals and rectangular plinths. All circles and squares, which by then were Al’s favorite forms, and he walked over to me and he directed several of my shots. Later on, many of his paintings recall this place to me, all this toppled geometry, and Al really did insist that he was a realist rather than an abstractionist.
During this stay in Rome, we visited the platform erected in the Sistine Chapel where conservators were beginning to clean Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings. As we climbed up the scaffold, we paused to rest inches away from the faces in a fresco painted by Ghirlandaio and I remarked that the irises of the eyes and the eyes lashes were precisely delineated even though nobody would be able to see them from the floor of the chapel. Al asked me if I were painting them, would I paint them so precisely if I knew that no one would see them up close. I replied that I would if I knew he would be coming up. At this early stage of the cleaning, the conservators were concentrating on the figures on the side lintels, and when we arrived on the platform at the top we saw that Michelangelo had painted those incidental figures very freely, just as if he knew that no one would ever bother to come up and examine them, while the figures of the important scene right next to us had been painted with tight precision. These figures on the lintels were painted with such broad strokes that it was difficult to make out their forms, and the large strokes and the colors really looked as if they belonged in a water lily painting by Monet. They were bright saffron, magenta, light and dark lapis-lazuli blue. Al’s comment was: “Wow! Real whorehouse colors.” But they were the colors that he used in his own paintings.
On a different occasion, we traveled together to Washington, D.C. as representatives of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to give presentations at the National Portrait Gallery about our own work as artists. I can’t remember what the occasion was, but our Director, Maggie Mills, thought the event was important enough to send two artists. Al came along very reluctantly. After we gave our talks, we went to the National Gallery and did a very fast tour of the permanent show and an even faster tour of the special exhibition of drawings on loan from the British Royal Collection. Suddenly we both stopped, transfixed by the power of a tiny drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a swirling vortex of storm clouds. It suggests the beginning of the universe. The tiny drawing, no bigger than 4 by 5 inches, was overwhelming. When, after a prolonged look, we walked away from it, Al said: “Man, that’s it.”
When I look at Al’s painting of the past few years, I sense that he had been aspiring to capture the viewer by setting up his own versions of da Vinci’s spinning vortex. But Al gives us freeze-frame shots of the interior of the vortex, which has shapes flying around in it that seem to me to hark back to his great Paris epiphany: squares and rectangles and, now, circles, all drawn and painted with the precision and clarity found in Italian quattrocento paintings and exercises in descriptive geometric drawing by artists like Uccello, Piero, and Fra Angelico, in which forms seem to exist in airless space.
Perhaps the best place in New York City to see an excerpt from Al’s dynamic drama about geometric forms is in the subway passage at 51st Street that links the E train with the Lexington Avenue line. It’s really a stunning mural meticulously executed in thousands of tiny mosaic tiles of brilliant color. It runs along the walkway for a hundred and twenty feet. I pass it frequently on the way to my doctor and get drawn into one of its several vortexes each time, and each time I imagine I hear Al saying “Man, that’s it.”