Al Held was born in Brooklyn, NY (1928) and grew up in the Bronx. As a young man, he enlisted in the Navy (1945-47) and after serving, enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City. Under the GI Bill, Held continued his studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris (1950-53). When Held returned to the US, he worked in Abstract Expressionism creating "pigment paintings" (1950-1958), later painting the "Taxi Cab" (1959-60) and “Alphabet Painting” (c. 1961-67) series. During this time, he constantly made gestural India ink drawings on paper. In 1962, he became a professor at the Yale University School of Art, a position he would hold until 1980. In the late 1960’s, Held moved away from flatness and frontality. Working primarily in black and white, he began to include shifting perspectives and odd spatial conundrums, going against Greenbergian flatness. In addition to painting he made drawings with marker, ink and graphite. In 1978, he returned to using color. He thought of color as “just another plastic element, a tool to create space.” In 1981, Held was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, a residency that would greatly impact his future work. He was taken with Baroque architecture and Renaissance frescos and as a result began working in watercolor, a medium he liked because of its immediacy, fluidity and the directness it gave him.
Held’s first New York solo exhibition was at the Poindexter Gallery in 1959. André Emmerich Gallery began representing him in 1964 and continued to show him until 1997. Over the years Held’s work has been shown internationally and in major exhibitions. Held completed many public commissions during his lifetime including: "Order/Disorder/Ascension/Descension" at the Social Security Mid-Atlantic Program center in Philadelphia, PA (1976), "Gravity’s Rainbow" at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. (1996), "Passing Through" at the 53rd Street subway station in New York City (2003) among others. Held’s work is represented in many major museum collections including The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Tate Gallery in London, Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and Kunsthaus in Zurich. Held died in 2005 in Camerata, Italy.