Born Alvin Jacob Held, October 12, 1928, in New York, NY; died of natural causes, July 26, 2005, in Camerata, Umbria, Italy. Artist. Al Held earned his slot in the annals of American contemporary art with his bold, geometric canvases that took abstraction to another level. His free-floating, interlocked cubes and planes invited the viewer into a vertigo-inducing landscape that seemed to stretch on into infinity. "Immense architectural structures curve and slice through these complex paintings, often enmeshing themselves in cellular structures," noted the Times of London. "Viewers felt that they were exploring some mysterious universe, and Held never lost his passionate belief in abstract painting's ability to create a sublime new world."
Born in 1928, Held grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and as a teenager missed so many days of high school that it was suggested he consider leaving altogether. He eventually earned a night-school diploma, and spent two years in the U.S. Navy. Back in New York City, he enrolled in classes at the Art Students League, and went on to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris in the early 1950s. The first solo exhibition of his work was staged there, in 1952 at the Galerie Huit. It was in New York, however, that new and exciting currents in the art scene were happening, and Held returned home. He co-founded the Brata Gallery on East Tenth Street with several other artists, and worked in construction and as a carpenter to supplement his income during these lean years.
In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant new style among New York-based artists, and best exemplified in the exuberant canvases of Jackson Pollock. Held's abstract work took on a more orderly, formal tone, aided by a switch from oil to acrylic paints in 1959, and he had his first solo show in New York City that same year at the Poindexter Gallery. "Finessing the gap between Minimalism and Color Field painting," wrote New York Times journalist Ken Johnson of the next decade of Held's career, "he produced smooth, simplified works based on enlarged letters of the alphabet. And in the late '60s and '70s he made complex black-and-white pictures of sharply outlined cubes, pyramids, and other geometric shapes floating in illusory spaces of indeterminate depth."
Some of Held's best-known works are those floating black and white cubes, a series he began in 1967. One of the largest, which stretches more than 90 feet in length, was installed at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. In the late 1970s, in an abrupt shift, he began using color again, and the geometric shapes became so precise that they were sometimes mistaken for computer-generated art. But Held worked the old-fashioned way, using masking tape and a straight edge to map out the planes on canvas that suggested otherworldly realms to the viewer. He considered his images not unlike those of religious art, once telling an interviewer that "historically, the priests and wise men believed that it was the artist's job to make images of heaven and hell believable, even though nobody had experienced these places," he said, according to his Chicago Tribune obituary.
Held spent 20 years teaching at Yale University's esteemed art program, and retired as a professor in 1980. Represented by the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, which staged what would be his last exhibition of new work in 2003, Held toiled for months and sometimes years on his immense canvases, some of which were so large that they could not be installed in a standard commercial art space. His works were avidly sought by contemporary-art enthusiasts around the world, and were part of the permanent collections of many institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Held lived in Italy for part of the year, where the gardener for his property near the Umbrian town of Todi found the 76-year-old painter dead in his swimming pool on July 26, 2005. Italian authorities ruled it a death from natural causes. Married four times, Held is survived by his companion, Pamela Gagliani, daughter Mara Held, and one grandchild. At the time of his death, Held was completing commissions for a mural inside the Jacksonville Public Library in Florida, and a mosaic for a Manhattan subway station at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. Sources: Chicago Tribune, July 28, 2005, sec. 3, p. 10; Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2005, p. B11; New York Times, July 29, 2005, p. A17; Times (London), August 22, 2005, p. 41; Washington Post, July 28, 2005, p. B7.
— Carol Brennan