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Back and white photo of a white middle aged man with dark hair posing in front of a table covered with paints jars and paint brushes, a large abstract painting hangs in the background

Held in his Fifth Avenue studio, New York, with Circle and Triangle (partial view), 1964.
Photo Manfried Tischer.

Al Held was one of the most ambitious American painters of the 20th century.

Primarily known as a pioneer of hard-edge abstraction, Held (1928–2005) continuously evolved his abstract painting towards greater complexity in order to formulate unseen truths. Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Held studied at the Art Students League in New York, aspiring to paint social realist murals. While working in Paris from 1951–53, he began to identify as a second generation Abstract Expressionist. Throughout the 1950s he painted heavily impastoed canvases, determined to give structure to gesture. By the end of the decade Held began using acrylic paint for geometric shapes, giving his paintings a hard-edged clarity. The resulting series, most famously the Alphabet paintings of the 1960s, established his signature style of monumental specificity.

Between 1967 and 1978, Held restricted his palette to black and white and explored space and volume through interconnected geometric forms with varying vanishing points. In the late 1970s, he reintroduced color, further expanding the paintings’ architectural dimension. After spending six months at the American Academy in Rome in 1981, he became inspired by the perspective, volume, and light of Renaissance art. In his last decades, he executed immense canvases of Baroque spatial complexity and luminosity. Al Held died in 2005 at his home in the Umbrian hill town of Todi, leaving a fifty-year legacy of painting.

Among Held’s notable accomplishments are major public artworks in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York City, Orlando, and elsewhere. He had solo exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York). His work is in the collections of scores of museums and public collections. Held taught painting and drawing from 1963 to 1980 at the Yale School of Art.

 

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