Al Held, I Beam, 1961.©AL HELD AND AL HELD FOUNDATION, INC./COURTESY WHITE CUBE
I was in London during the summer of 1963, the year before starting my M.F.A. course in Fine Art at Yale. Culturally everything American was admired, envied, desired, nowhere more so than in Britain. Music, cloths, movies, food, lifestyle—and art. The youthful President Kennedy was seen to embody American energy, innovation, optimism and promise. No one imagined he would be assassinated a few months later and America would never be the same again.
The new American Embassy building designed by the great Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen had opened a few years earlier in 1960. Intended to project both an image of American power—the immense golden eagle over the façade—and contemporary American life—modern, informal, welcoming. Anyone could just walk into the building from the street. It housed a library and an art gallery that were open to the public. It was the very opposite of the barricaded fortress it became in later years or the moated bunker it is today.