Al Held: Beyond Sense
Robert Miller Gallery
524 W 26th Street
New York, NY 10001
212 366 4774
November 20, 2003 to January 3, 2004
However prepared you are for Al Held’s grandiosity, his work still overawes with technical finesse and compositional drama. Held is best when he’s big. His ability to paint imaginative images at colossal scale sets him somewhat apart from his contemporaries. “Genesis II,” the largest painting in the show, is also the finest.
Two pastel grid ground planes recede toward different vanishing points. They are split by a wide cadmium orange pipe that curls off into the distance. In the sky, if one can speak of skies in a universe as alien as Held’s, a fog composed of green, boa-like curls descends to penetrate a cornucopian form at the painting’s left. This form in turn splinters at its outer lip to flip away in rings toward the grids below. At the painting’s top center, orbs that Alice might have found through the looking glass float downward in a pack. Checkerboard patterning is omnipresent.
“Genesis II,” like all the paintings in the show, is immaculate. Examining its surface the scraped lines of discarded compositions are apparent. These paintings are not pre-planned, they are found through the making. This makes the inch by inch, taped edge design of their surfaces all the more amazing.
But the joy of contemplating Held’s new paintings is tinged with disappointment. In his PS1 show last year, Held seemed to be trying to articulate something very specific about painting’s trajectory. There, he integrated motifs from 19th centrury American landscape painting by recreating them in the physics and mathematics-derived geometry of which he still shows himself to be the master. He allowed earth tones a larger place in a palette suffused in a deep baroque light. That show raised fascinating questions about the role historical modes of painting might come to play
Although elements of the PS1 show are preserved at Robert Miller, Held seems to have abandoned his former historical perspective. The coloring in Beyond Sense is far brighter, at times reminiscent of a candy store. Although the show’s press release states that the senses are of little use in Held’s world, the reality is that his paintings are aimed unabashedley at optical stimulation. Every inch of the new paintings contains a twist of form for the eye to follow. Although these formal acrobatics are often billiant (“See Through” for example), Pop coloring and repeating forms sometimes make the paintings feel more like a roller coaster ride than serious art.
Beyond Sense has more in common with Frank Stella’s recent work than it does with nineteenth century American landscape. An emphasis on optical, graphic impact at the expense of his earlier concerns is understandable at a time when it is difficult for painting to make its voice heard. I nonetheless lament the loss of the delicate motifs- earthtone monoliths reminiscent of rocky outcroppings and distant horizon lines of sparkling intensity- that accompanied Held’s bravado handling at PS1.