Would that all art books began with such enticingly informative paragraphs as Al Held by Irving Sandler (Hudson Hills: $75): "Sometime in 1950, while an art student in Paris, Al Held had a 'brainstorm.' He would synthesize the 'total objectivity' of Piet Mondrian with the 'total subjectivity' of Jackson Pollock. The upshot was a series of abstractions composed of rectangular and triangular compartments filled with skeins of dripped paint. Later he was to consider them naive, to say the least, but he never gave up the ambition to create an art that was additive and inclusive. . . . "
Sandler's prose soon loses its urgency but rarely its coherence as he traces Held's career from Social Realist aspirations to dazzling paintings of floating, simultaneous volumes. This sensible book champions a painter who has had difficulty achieving his place in the art world because he failed to abide by prevailing dogmas. Held's early inclination to have art both ways--gestural freedom and geometric structure--destined him to fall in a critical abyss between Abstract Expressionism and abstract purism.
If Held felt misunderstood, it didn't cause his muscular art to falter. In this snappily designed volume, concise text and lavish illustrations reveal a fundamentally optimistic and robust sensibility. Held's mature painting literally unfolds from vivid, flat shapes--inspired by Matisse's cutouts--into illusionistic constructions in which weightless volumes move through spaces of shifting perspective.
He becomes so adept at orchestrating these complexities that he eventually overwhelms his viewers with virtuoso clutter while confining them to an outside vantage point. Held redeems himself with an astonishing mural done in 1983 for the Southland Center in Dallas. Here he opens an endless, architectural space and compels his audience to enter.
Within the Underworld Sky: Mimbres Ceramic Art in Context by Barbara Mouland (Twelvetrees: $40) is also a visual delight, though of an appropriately subdued, black-and-white nature. The heart of the book reproduces animal effigies and hemispheric bowls, ritually punctured to allow for the exit of underworld spirits. Apparently, Mimbres Indians wore such bowls on their heads when they were buried, which explains the material's survival.
The iconography of such Classic Mimbres pottery (ca. AD 950-1150) is among the most intriguing and appealing in Southwestern ceramics. Linear, geometric designs provide a form-fitted structure, while schematized animals add an element of life brushed by magic and whimsy. Unfortunately, Mouland's stalwart effort to put Mimbres ceramics "in context" is so relentlessly academic that she discourages all but other scholars and extraordinarily diligent lay readers. Those who persevere find a framework for interpreting the art of a still mysterious culture.
Gemini G.E.L.: Art and Collaboration by Ruth E. Fine (Abbeville: $45) is a generously illustrated exhibition catalogue that also serves up an important slice of Los Angeles art history. Fine chronicles the development of a graphics workshop that has become one of the nation's foremost art publishers, attracting artists of international stature to its home on Melrose Avenue.
Fine stresses the collaborative effort involved in Gemini's productions and credits the often unsung technicians for their contributions. Entries on exhibited artworks combine technical data with thematic explanations and artists' quotes. Short biographies of 31 artists--from Josef Albers to Frank Stella--bring up the rear of the indexed volume. (The show of graphics and sculpture began at the National Gallery and will arrive at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the spring of 1987.)
Two other new exhibition catalogues colorfully document outstanding collections of art from foreign cultures. African Masterpieces From the Musee de l'Homme by Susan Vogel, Jean Guiart and Francine N'Diaye (Abrams: $40) is the permanent record of a stellar selection of African wood sculpture that inaugurated the Center for African Art in New York. The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art From the Kronos Collections by Martin Lerner (Abrams: $40) records the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent presentation of images of Buddhist and Hindu deities.