Archie Rand

The Contemporary Arts Center

According to the dictionary, “remembrance” applies to a specific act of recall, and in all its senses it connotes intimate associations. Archie Rand is blessed with an astonishing range and depth of remembrance. He is blessed because his remembrance (it is not the same as memory) has not imprisoned or enervated him; instead, it stands before him like a finish line, a reason to run. Rand's goal is to account for everything that ever moved him, to evoke all his passions, to name all he has embraced and been embraced by. His passions include a cappella R & B groups from the ’50s, early Florentine and Sienese art, stock magazine photographs, bebop jazz musicians, the New York School of painting, and obscure portraits by American regionalists. Rand’s humanism and ardor transcend today's fashionable styles; this survey exhibition of 24 paintings took a retrospective look at his career.

Rand is only 35, but he has been exhibiting regularly since the age of 18, and his work has passed through several distinct, internally coherent phases. In House of Blue Light, 1967, he employs stain techniques to evolve an image that is abstract but birdlike. Only 17 at the time, he was already mature, confident, and either foolhardy or daring enough to reject the Formalist proscriptions against image-making. House of Blue Light embodies Rand’s response to the conflict between abstraction and representation, yet even while it successfully evolves an image through the staining process, the method itself is narrow, and Rand began moving on almost immediately.

He first hits his stride in the “Letter” paintings, a series he worked on from 1968 to 1971. Here he not only addresses the problem of content from an abstract bias, but he continually finds ways to combine a wide, inventive range of painterly means in his approach. Heady, obsessive, and bursting with a seductive energy, the paintings incorporate words—mostly names of now obscure bebop musicians, R & B groups, songs, painters, and writers. In Breakage II (Thurston Harris), 1971, Rand divides the composition into two diptych-like halves. Scraped with a comb after it has been laid down, the acrylic gel forms a ridged, patterned surface in the left half, which the right half recalls a crumbling tenement wall. The names are applied with pastry gun, and some are then emphasized with spray paint. Despite the Formalist attitudes prevailing at the time, Rand invested the work with an intense emotionalism. The “Letter” paintings anticipate much of graffiti art by more than a decade. More important, however, is the fact that they convey a fresh conviction which goes far beyond the issues of fashion and style.

Rand’s art has passed through several distinct phases since 1971, each of them building on and referring back to what came before. Painter (In Memory of P.G.), 1983, which honors Philip Guston, typifies the recent work. The right side of the diptych-like composition is a black-on-green evocation of Franz Kline’s paintings. On the left side’s black ground Rand employs several styles to depict a Late Renaissance-like portrait of a young woman, the cartoonish outline of a cadaverous pair of legs, and reddish lines which allude to Guston’s Red Sea, 1975. Each of Rand’s images is purposeful and resonant in its allusions. The painting not only alludes to Red Sea and Guston’s image of a prone, earthbound figure, but, with its corpselike legs hovering above the sea, it is also emblematic of resurrection. Rand has used all his canniness, painterly skills, and knowledge here, demonstrating his ability to make the historical and seemingly exhausted come alive, and conveying his ease with what he knows.

John Yau