In January 1959 Held mounted his first solo exhibition in the United States at the Pointdexter Gallery, New York (his first solo show took place in Paris in 1952). Reviewing his own production, he felt dissatisfied and moved to attempt a new direction in his art. The opportunity to work his way out of his old style presented itself when painter Sam Francis (b. 1923) offered Held the use of his studio at 940 Broadway while he was abroad. Held began experimenting on paper, first with collages, then with paintings on a large scale using photographer's backdrop paper — a strong, good quality paper available in rolls. From this emerged a series of four paintings, the 'Taxi cabs', measuring a constant 271 centimetres in height (the width of the paper roll), but varying in length.
While Held's previous paintings had been executed in oil or encaustic, the 'Taxi cabs' were painted in Liquitex, a flat, fast-drying synthetic polymer paint that Held had been experimenting with in minor works for a number of months. The Liquitex encouraged him to paint and repaint quickly, but without the build-up of impasto or the blending of colours characteristic of his earlier work. Although Held worked the surface of the paintings in the 'all over' manner typical of previous work, the 'Taxi cab' series was constructed as an animated grid of triangles, squares and circular forms. Through the sequence of the four 'Taxi cab' paintings the geometric figures emerge with greater clarity, though the turbulence and density of the earlier paintings remain evident. These paintings gave him the direction his mature work was to follow.
The 'Taxi cab' paintings were 'inspired by a "vision" of taxicabs on the New York streets',1 but equally perhaps by the example of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) in such paintings as Broadway Boogie-Woogie 1942-43 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Held was also impressed with what he described as Fernard Léger's (1881-1955) 'vulgarity'.
Ironically the 'Taxi cab' paintings were not exhibited at the time they were made. The urgency of his discoveries carried Held into refinements that superseded this series. He rolled and stored the paintings in his barn Woodstock, New York, and forgot about them for many years. A series of exhibitions examining Held's work of the 1950s, held at the Robert Miller Gallery, New York, in the early 1980s, renewed his interest in this series. The 'Taxi cab' series was first exhibited at the Robert Miller Gallery in 1987.
The Gallery owns a second, later, painting by Al Held, "Skywatch II" 1972.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.292.
- Donald Kuspit, 'Al Held's Taxi Cabs', Al Held's Taxi Cabs 1959, Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1987 (exhibition catalogue).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010