At Yale 1972-1974
The” Big N” is all about the compression of space. At UNC-Greensboro where I taught for several years there was a small Held in the museum called “Black Square marries orange circle”. It showed a square that had squeezed a yellow circle into the corner of the painting. I realized that the goal of his color was not to seek harmony but was based on a Nietzschean use of color as “will to power”. I had to laugh that he used the word marriage to describe this relationship. Harmony is the word most often used to describe marriage and in this painting the marriage allowed for no merger but rather domination of one element over another. An honest portrayal of marriage to say the least.
I had heard from Joe Nicoletti who graduated from Yale in the early 70’s and saw Al occasionally in Todi during Al’s later years that he had mellowed and had come to show some remorse about the aggressive teaching style of his early years. In a show of the later work at BU I seem to recall some reference in the accompanying literature to metaphysics, Platonic higher realms etc., the very sort of thing that he avoided talking about in the 70’s.If that is in fact the case and it allowed him to create the deep space of the later work that he so vehemently suppressed in his early work, it was unfortunate. It didn’t seem to be built up out of the dynamism of the early work. Then again the black and white geometric paintings may have already been a movement toward Pythagorean imagery of essential forms. It appears in the last work he wanted to understand the whole of the universe, how all parts add up to one large cosmos. In his early work he was like a scientist who liberates subatomic particles in an atom smasher. His legacy, if any young painter is willing to receive it, is this tight compression of space and the subsequent explosion of energy generated by that compression. He had learned it from Matisse so there is continuity historically. But that language of painting has not been picked up by subsequent generations. They don’t study its antecedents in Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. They didn’t bother to contradict standard visual expectations that all three were capable of. It is unfortunate that Deconstruction focused on social constructs and political issues, all imbedded in language and didn’t realize that Cezanne, Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse were ardently deconstructing the visual language of 2000 years of painting. Held pushed that deconstruction one step further. Held understood that there is always conflict and tension between any two things. No two things sit passively side by side without turning on each other; that conflict creates real relationship. This also introduces the notion of time, which has not often been considered as a vital component of painting. In Al’s figure/ ground play the picture does not permit a uniform scan but rather pulsates between being taken in as a whole ,where for example the “Big N” is seen as flat space with triangles in the corners and then as an N that is suppressing another color shape behind it. Thus a passage of time is marked by two distinct events.
He once showed a glimmer of sympathy towards me. I was painting still lifes in my studio where I was beginning to introduce color in a more potent manner but the work was not on the scale required by the Yale Faculty and I knew they preferred the over–sized, over ambitious attempts at story telling from my first semester. Al sensed the difficulties I was having transitioning from history painting to color studies and told me that I was probably torn apart by too many influences. The advice was aimed at directing me toward what was typically said in critiques, simplify and master one thing well. e.g. do black and white before color. At the time I bristled at that sort of criticism and said ,”You are right and you are one influence too many. Get out of my studio”.This is probably the response he wanted. He got me to enter the ring.