A collection of works by abstract expressionist Al Held is on display at the David Klein Gallery.
Abstract art enthusiasts can see one of Al Held’s paintings on exhibit in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Those same enthusiasts can see 13 more Held paintings at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit.
While the DIA is showing Black Nile V, an acrylic on canvas completed in 1973 and part of the museum’s permanent collection, the Klein Gallery is having a temporary exhibit through April 28 — Al Held Luminous Constructs: Paintings and Watercolors from the 1990s.
“I’ve enjoyed working with Held’s paintings, watercolors and prints,” says Klein, who has featured Held images as part of larger-theme exhibits. “I had the opportunity to meet his daughter, Mara, a painter in her own right, and we decided it was time to have this exhibit in Detroit.”
Held, who was born in 1928 and died in 2005 after going through different phases of abstract artistry, had one dominant characteristic — he worked very large, often with a mural approach.
“We’re showing five large-scale paintings reaching 9 by 16 feet, and we have eight watercolors, some as big as 50 by 60 inches,” Klein says. “He created environments.
“The scale of the work, the color, the richness and the depth appeal to me. I like work that compels me to have a visceral response and is not too intellectual. His work does not require a didactic panel next to each painting.”
Held’s work had a black and white phase, 1967-78, with color added to work of other times. Defined geometric forms were important to give dimension to the flat surfaces on which he applied his approach.
In developing the Detroit exhibit, Klein worked with Daniel Belasco, executive director of the Al Held Foundation located where the artist had a home and studio in the Catskills.
“The foundation was established to preserve the legacy of Al Held, educate artists and students in the community and invite groups to see how he worked and lived,” Belasco explains. “His studio is now used as a gallery.”
Held grew up in New York, raised by Jewish parents who were liberal socialists. He studied at the Art Students League and aspired to paint social realist murals. While working in Paris in the 1950s, he began to identify as a second-generation abstract expressionist.
Throughout the 1950s, he applied paint thickly on his canvases, aiming to add structure to gesture. By the end of the decade, he began using acrylic paints for geometric shapes and gave his forms hard-edged clarity.
In the 1960s, the artist showed suggestions of the alphabet, each project moving into geometric forms. He went on to explore space and volume through interconnected geometric shapes with varying vanishing points. With the addition of color during the 1970s, he further extended architectural dimensions of the paintings.
Held spent six months at the American Academy in Rome in 1981 and became inspired by the perspective, volume and light important to Renaissance art. Throughout his last decades, Held’s work picked up on Baroque spatial complexity and luminosity, and he found a second home in Italy.
“He had a beautiful villa,” says Klein, who notes that the artist was part of the generation that fought in World War II, enabling Held to learn about art under the GI Bill.
“Because he loved Renaissance painting, his watercolors show a strong affinity to the way Renaissance artists created a strong illusion of space, like the checkered-pattern floors going into the distance. That’s why he chose to make Italy his second home.”
Held had served in the Navy, was married three times and had the one daughter, who developed her interest in art by watching her father in his studio and using his materials to express her own creativity.
When Klein escorted Mara Held around the Detroit Institute of Arts, she wanted to spend time in the Renaissance section. Like her father and as president of the Al Held Foundation, she found that the approach spoke to her as well.
“Held’s truly mature style started in the late 1960s,” Klein says. “People are starting to recognize the later work, which had color and greater depth in the illusions. Because he moved outside the gestural abstract painting world, people found his work to be challenging, and it sold.”
Besides focusing on his own projects, Held taught at Yale University between 1962 and 1980. He was regarded as a great teacher, interacting with and influencing young artists.
Around the country, Held’s work can be seen in numerous public spaces, including the Empire State Plaza in Albany, Social Security Administration Mid-Atlantic Program Center Building in Philadelphia and the Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C.
“The scale of the work, the color, the richness and the depth appeal to me. I like work that compels me to have a visceral response. His work does not require a didactic panel next to each painting.”
— David Klein
Numerous museums, such as the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, hold his work. The museums range from the Cleveland Museum of Art to the Museu des Arte Morderna in Portugal. Among Held’s professional recognition is the Jack I. and Lillian L. Poses Creative Arts Award, Painting Medal, from Brandeis University.
“In the last five years, there’s been a lot more interest in people wanting to acquire Held’s work, and that’s another reason why we are doing the show,” Klein says. “Since we opened the gallery in Detroit, we have space to really do it properly.”
Al Held Luminous Constructs: Paintings and Watercolors from the 1990s continues through April 28 at the David Klein Gallery, Detroit. (313) 818-3416; dkgallery.com.