Al Held is an abstract artist best known for large-scale, geometric abstractions that often employ illusionist devices. He began his career in the mid 1950s, showing gestural abstractions with heavy impasto, characteristic of the second-generation New York School.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Held was a high-school dropout. But after a 1945-47 stint in the Navy, he enrolled in the Art Students League. From 1950 to '53 he lived in Paris, where he studied under the G.I. Bill at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere with Ossip Zadkine. During his stay in France, he befriended a coterie of U.S. artists working and studying there, including Sam Francis and George Sugarman. Held returned to New York in 1953.
After a studio fire destroyed most of his early work, he relocated to San Francisco, where he met the sculptor Ronald Bladen and the dancer Yvonne Rainer (to whom he was briefly married). Returning to New York in 1956, Held helped Sugarman and John and Nicholas Krushenick found the Brata Gallery on 10th Street, and he showed there before signing with Poindexter Gallery in 1959. That year, he hit his stride with large canvases featuring crisp but still painterly geometric forms in bold colors, and soon began to receive international attention.
A long association with Andre Emmerich Gallery began in 1965. Two years later, for his second solo show at Emmerich, he introduced a series of black-and-white paintings that would occupy him for over a decade. These works feature flat surfaces with bold lines that suggest interlocking cubes, rhomboids and other 3-D shapes, while surface incident is entirely suppressed. He received numerous mural commissions in the late 1960s and early '70s, and in 1974 a mid-career survey was mounted by the Whitney Museum. In the late 1970s, Held reintroduced color into his paintings, and the compositions grew increasingly elaborate.
Beginning in 1981, he spent a part of every year at his home and studio in Tuscany. His works of the '80s, with their interconnecting arcs and circular forms, reflect the influence of Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
He taught at Yale from 1960 to 1980.
Held died in Todi, Italy on July 26, 2005.