Al Held was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the East Bronx. Expelled from school at the age of sixteen for chronic truancy, he eventually joined the Navy and served for two years. After returning to New York he audited a class at the Art Students League and began attending classes in drawing and painting. He used the G.I. Bill to enroll as a full-time student and in 1949 he went to Paris where he spent the next three years studying at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere.
In 1953 Held returned to New York and over the next several years, he established himself as a working artist. He had his first solo exhibition at a New York gallery in 1959. By the 1960’s he had established a secure career and he was exhibiting almost every year at the Emmerich Gallery and in numerous galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe.
In 1962 Held was appointed to the faculty of the Yale School of Art where he taught until 1980. In 1966 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In the late 1960’s Held began to introduce more volume and depth into his work and from 1967 to 1978 his work became more figurative. During the late 1970’s he began to reintroduce color, alienating some viewers who had just come to understand his earlier black-and-white paintings.