One of the first things you notice is that the main upstairs gallery at the Contemporary Arts Center has never looked so big, so spacious. So almost, but not quite, empty. Ordinarily it can hold dozens, even hundreds, of art works, especially when the movable partition walls are in place. But now there is nothing to obstruct our view of the large, windowless room containing six paintings and some overhead lights. That the paintings are not overwhelmed by the setting tells us something about their scale.
At up to 9 feet tall and up to 10 feet across, they are not small, although they are certainly not the largest canvasses Al Held has completed in the course of his 50-plus years as a painter. Not nearly as vast as past efforts that measured up to 30 feet across, the works in this Expanding Universe series seem at home in their cavernous setting because the spaciousness that surrounds them is balanced by their own inner space. Seemingly infinite, their inner space is busier and more colorful than that of the gallery, but it is no less spatial. That is partly because, rather than the representational figures or flat surfaces of traditional painting, Held's works are really about light. Like lasers defining the esoteric formulations of theoretical physics, they are almost metaphysical in tone, ethereal in their emptiness.
Geometric abstraction is nothing new. Kandinsky gave us paintings like musical compositions of cones and spheres in lush, dramatic colors. Mondrian conveyed his religious mysticism through paintings that resembled color-coded schematics with jazzy titles. Peter Halley created canvasses that looked like computer circuit boards morphed into architectural site plans. Held is different; his works contain the painterly illusion of depth and perspective that most modernists and many postmodernists shun like the plague. But Held is no modernist or postmodernist, at least not in the usual sense of those terms. Post-postmodernist is more like it.
Equinox, a 9-foot square rhapsody of interlocking circles, triangles and rectangles evokes a sunset in some unknown dimension. Here a large purple circle like a geodesic eyeball with a golf-ball iris hovers over a glowing, red-orange expanse. Above and below, curiously configured geometric forms fulfill unknown functions that are somehow essential to modulating the pulsation of the central sphere. Perhaps most surprising of all is that none of this looks contrived or redundant. Somehow, all of those things are necessary, as if the glowing central form might malfunction and crash into the wrong universe in their absence. And, unlike so much computer art, none of it looks overly cute or kitschy.
"Cosmic" might be more like it, not that any New York art critic would be caught dead using that word. In the prevailing lexicon of New York postmodernism, nothing is cosmic, not even the cosmos. But that is why Held is intriguing: The esoteric physics and secret geometry of the cosmos is his thing, and he's accomplished enough as a painter to recreate on canvas the mega-dimensional universe in his mind. It's not something that can be knocked off over night.
Works such as Bionuclear II, in which three culvert-like forms containing herringbone patterns of colored light emerge into a concentric grid, slowly take shape on a canvas that evolved from no preconceived plan. Shapes and forms emerge in rich acrylic hues only to be sanded smooth and painted over in a kind of slow brew evolution that can take months, even years to complete. The surfaces of all those polychrome forms become more complex as you look more deeply into them, fragmenting into multidimensional fractals, mini-universes with their own Escher-like patterns that circle back on themselves and seem to turn inside-out before out eyes. It could be really awful, but Held's great accomplishment, beyond his meticulous craft and perfect-pitch color harmonics, is the fact that it all seems almost natural, somehow. Like hyper-realized visions from the void of hyperspace, his paintings evoke Einstein's and other physicist's ideas about the interconnection of energy and matter, of time, space and light.
For a high school dropout who for more than five decades was a successful avatar of abstract expressionism and then minimalism, Held, in his Expanding Universe series, has not only traveled light-years beyond his earlier incarnations, but seems to be having a grand old time of it, along the way.
- The more deeply you look into the polychrome forms of works like Al Held's Bionuclear II, the more complex they become.