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Finding the Light in Abstraction

– an interview with Mara Held

Mara Held (b. 1954) is a native of New York City, currently living in the Hudson Valley. Solo exhibitions include Gary Snyder Gallery, NY; McClain Gallery, Houston; Robert Pardo, Milan, Italy. Held's work is collected by institutions both in the US and internationally, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The New York Public Library; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Cleveland Museum of Art; The International Artists' Museum, Tel Aviv; and Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. 

"I first fell in love with egg tempera looking at early Renaissance painting in Italy and decided to pursue work in the material [...] there is no light like the light that exists in an egg— Life itself."

Could you tell us about your artistic practice and how it has evolved over the years?

I came to the making of art late, I was 35. Early in my practice I did not want to work on a traditional structure, canvas or stretched linen. Instead, I built and painted wooden assemblages that hung on the wall (I have always been interested in how a work of art is constructed - including the compositional construction of two-dimensional work). After engaging with constructions for several years, I began to find painting problems and questions more intriguing than the three-dimensional aspects of the work. I put down my carpentry tools and moved onto large scale paper.

I love paper. I love the light that oozes out of paper but began to feel paper was a bastard child in the art world and not embraced with the same seriousness as painting on canvas or linen. In the early 2000s I refocused again and began working on linen stretched over wooden panels.

Your paintings are executed in egg tempera, which is a very labour-intensive process. Why did you choose to work in this technique and how does it inform the way you paint?

I first fell in love with egg tempera looking at early Renaissance painting in Italy and decided to pursue work in the material. The tempered slowness of the process, both in preparing a canvas to receive paint and in the development of an image, appealed to me. It allowed me to develop a relationship with the work from its inception. And of course…there is no light like the light that exists in an egg - Life itself.

What process goes into making egg tempera?

Egg tempera needs a rigid surface. To prepare a canvas to receive paint I first have to go through a very labour-intensive process which involves shellacking a wooden panel to create a moisture barrier, stretching linen over the panel, applying two layers of rabbit skin glue followed by eight layers of traditional ground. The process takes me several weeks to complete before I’m able to apply the paint. The paint is made with a dispersion of raw pigment mixed with egg yolk, lavender oil, walnut oil and some vinegar as a preservative. It’s stored in the refrigerator.

Mara Held, Studio, 2022

Mara Held, Straight Lines U, 2021

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Some of your paintings seem to have a formal, grid-like composition whereas others are more loose and free-flowing. What part do rules play in the way you approach painting?

A project with Vassar College began my thinking about the rectangle in different ways - I've always been interested in the intersection between rigid and fluid and shifted my mark making from wavy lines to straight lines. I chose to make myself a rule and work with only straight lines for this body of work. The three small works presented by Later Editions come out of that process. Artists often set parameters for exploration. The straight-line series, which I’ve been working on for the past year and a half, has been a very fruitful sphere for exploration and discovery.

You’ve lived in different countries and travelled extensively. Have your travels impacted your work?

I have a wanderlust and make a body of works on paper that I only make when I travel. An abstract imagistic travel journal of sorts. Some are all egg tempera and others are gouache and egg tempera.

Mara Held, Straight Lines R, 2021

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Mara Held, Straight Lines GG, 2021

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