Space oddity

Al Held was a troubled student who ended up making great achievements, a typical story we often hear.

One of America’s foremost post-war painters and a pioneer of the abstract movement, Held was a problematic student who dropped out of high school and joined the US Navy at the age of 17.

“His youth was misspent, yet he always questioned everything, including authority,” said John Good, the director of artists’ estates at White Cube.

Running until January 11, Al Held: Modern Maverick at White Cube in Central is the late artist’s first exhibition in Hong Kong.

The exhibit features works from throughout his career, focusing on his exploration of abstract painting.

During Held’s nearly 50-year career as an artist, he constantly questioned and challenged existing frameworks and theories.

After he retired from the Navy, Held lived in Paris on US$75 (HK$585) a month under the US Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – commonly known as the GI Bill – and followed his passion for painting.

But his breakthrough came in his hometown of New York. “Post-war New York was a time of incredible intellectual development and discussion, and Held found his milieu here,” said Good.

In New York, as abstract expressionism reached its height, Held quickly embraced the avant-garde artistic concept and became acquainted with abstract artists like Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, who generously told Held that he must create something new.

Short on money, Held began experimenting with homemade pigments created from dry dyes, waxes, resins and linseed oil. The pigments were not only cheap but also highly malleable, allowing him to paint as much as he wanted on the canvas with sharp daubs.

This eventually became the style of his first series, Pigments Paintings, where traces of Piet Mondrian’s rigorous geometries and Jackson Pollock’s splattering techniques were evident.

The series that was inspired by renowned abstract expressionists later developed into a pioneering style that helped the young artist gain international recognition.

Untitled (1959), from his subsequent Taxi Cab series, is a critical piece that represents a key development in Held’s oeuvre. He applied found images, rough outlines and highly conflicted compositions to create dreamy scenes that resembled the neon lights of New York’s Broadway.

At the end of 1959, a large wall at a friend’s studio inspired Held’s creativity. He boldly superimposed the most basic geometric shapes – the circle, square and triangle – on the wall and tried to extend them beyond the frame. This challenged a no-go area in 1960s modernism: creating space.

In the 10 years following 1967, Held almost entirely gave up the use of colors and used only two or three tones of one color or just black and white.

Using tape and a grinding wheel, he created clear outlines while connecting geometric shapes with each other, resulting in a fuller volume in the frame and achieving the creation of space.

For example, Inversion XVII (1978) features architectural, volumetric shapes in highly fractured, layered compositions. This disorienting yet compelling spatial complexity continued into Held’s later works.

After more reflection during the monochrome period, Held decided to return to colors in his 50s. He realized that he needed colors to distinguish geometric shapes and lines as they increased, as well as to provide a more profound visual effect.

In the Luminous Construct series, which was produced from the mid-1980s until the end of the artist’s life, Held demonstrated his lifetime of exploration and experimentation in space and form.

An intoxicating hallucination is presented in one of his final pieces, See Through III (2001), in which distorted, patterned forms, ribbons and lines lead the eye unexpectedly through, around and over the picture plane. “Colors, forms and space were where he started and where he finished,” Good said.

(This article was published at The Standard on January 3, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Space oddity )

Space oddity

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