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Al Held: A pioneer of hard-edged abstraction



Al Held, a significant player in American post-Abstract Expressionism, is best known for his enormous, hard-edged canvases. Although Held\’s distinctive embrace of depth and spatial illusion defies easy categorization, his sharp outlines, geometric forms, and clarity of vision are characteristic of post-painterly abstraction. His work rejects reductive geometric flatness in favour of a distinctively architectural style, both in scale and the idea of intricately scaffolded space, unlike other Hard-edge practitioners.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1928, Held spent his formative years in the Bronx. In 1944, after being expelled from high school, he started working for the United States Navy as a marine. Held developed an interest in art after he left the Navy in 1947. He made the decision to start his studies at the Art Students League of New York. He relocated to France\’s Paris in 1951 and attended the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere there for two years. Held spent 20 years teaching at Yale University\’s esteemed art program and retired as a professor in 1980.


The floating black and white cubes series, which Held started in 1967, is among his well-known creations. He abruptly switched back to using colour in the late 1970s, and the geometric designs become so exact that they were occasionally mistaken for computer-generated art. Held used a straight edge and masking tape to draw the planes on the canvas which gave the observer the impression of being in an alien place. 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.


Throughout his later career, Held expanded upon his interest in architectural scale with several important murals, including an installation for the NYC Subway’s Lexington Avenue/51st–53rd Street station. Held died at the age of 76 in 2005 at his home in Camerata di Todi, Italy. During his long career, Held received numerous honors including the Logan Medal of the Arts (1964) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1966). He served as an Associate Professor of Art at Yale University from 1962 to 1980 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984. Today, his work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, all in New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Tate Gallery, London.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Held
  2. https://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2006-Ei-La/Held-Al.html
  3. https://www.vandorenwaxter.com/artists/al-held?view=slider#10

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