Perhaps inspired by the India ink drawings of lines, circles, triangles, and squares that he made in 1966, Held had already begun moving away from the flat, boldly-colored shapes of his earlier work. Using charcoal and white acrylic directly on canvas, he started sketching multi-dimensional, interlocking configurations, surrounding them with colored ground. In late 1967, this experimentation yielded to an increasingly graphic, complex, and illusory space. While compositions were still worked out on the canvas, often in several iterations, Held’s soft-edged charcoal was replaced by the sharply defined contours of uniformly painted forms, their thick black outlines positioned against a stark white field. The paintings featured in this exhibition encompass the initial phase of this new body of work. The “B/W series” is comprised of Held’s first fully realized canvases in his new style and limited palette, while works from the “Phoenicia” series are more explicit in their development of multiple perspectives and vanishing points, resulting in evermore ambiguous spatial relationships. As with his earlier work, Held painted on a monumental scale; the majority of these canvases measure over nine feet tall.
The paintings’ large size, combined with the density of stacked, angled, and seemingly jumbled geometric shapes, has a disconcerting effect. Providing the viewer with simultaneous optical illusions, the orthographic forms first appear to recede into space, and then—with a slight change of focus—expand outwards instead. Cropped by the boundaries of the canvas, the shapes seem to emerge and extend past them, untethered by gravity. Disregarding the flat picture plane so celebrated by high Modernism, Held deliberately constructed the illusion of deep space, and then populated it with an unpredictable, animated interplay of edges, forms, volumes and, ultimately, ideas. The viewer, unable to comprehend the image in totality, is required to conceptually construct and deconstruct a complex arrangement of visual information; multiple readings are encouraged. This intellectual engagement with the composition was Held’s main concern. His interest did not lie with the subtle differentiation of forms, but with the perceived contradictions inherent to their relationships in space—their simultaneous stability and instability, their elusiveness and concreteness, their genesis and inevitable dissolution. As he remarked in an essay for a 1977 exhibition catalogue (“Al Held on his Work”), “…perceptions…keep flowing back and forth in the same space…The structure is continually in flux…its constantly coming together and coming apart and coming together and coming apart.”