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Al Held was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928. After a two-year term in the U.S. Navy beginning in 1945, Held enrolled at the Art Students League in New York. In 1949, using the support of the G.I. Bill, he went to Paris for three years to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In Paris, he decided that realism was not for him, and moved into abstraction. A long association with the Andre Emmerich Gallery began in 1965. In 1974 he had a midcareer survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Beginning in 1981, he spent a part of every year in Tuscany, where he established a second home and studio. His works of the 1980s, with their interlocking arcs, arabesques, and circular forms, reflect the influence of Italian Renaissance and baroque architecture.

In his last years, Held worked on vast, dramatic compositions in which geometric shapes are enmeshed in a mystical, labyrinthine, deep space that rushes to a distant horizon. Held was appointed associate professor of art at Yale University in 1962 and taught there until 1980. A museum show of his late large-scale works was held at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York in 2002, and in 2005 he completed a large, colorful mural in the New York City subway system, at East Fifty-third Street and Lexington. His paintings are in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.