New York

Archie Rand

Phyllis Kind Gallery

This exhibition confirmed a suspicion I’ve had since the late ’70s: Archie Rand is one of the most ambitious and, more importantly, the most accomplished artists of his generation. Born in 1949, he produced his first mature paintings when he was 19. As a series, these “Letter Paintings” are perhaps the greatest, still relatively unknown body of work done during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Incorporating with obsessive thoroughness the names of both famous and forgotten bebop musicians, doo-wop groups, and r ’n’ b bands, the “Letter Paintings” are not only an extension of linear Abstract Expressionism but also anticipate graffiti painting by more than a decade.

The 12 paintings in this show reveal the parameters of Rand’s restless ambition. Most are fairly large, and one of them, Garden Party, 1985, is epic in both scale and scope. A tour de force, Garden Party typifies the artist’s desire to evolve a personal style that can embrace all styles. He doesn’t quote past styles so much as transform them into a coherent statement that one can paint freely, in any and every manner. In this regard, Rand’s approach bears comparison to Gerhard Richter’s. Like Richter (and Malcolm Morley), Rand is capable of painting convincingly in any style he chooses. The difference between Rand and Richter, however, is that the former wants to put all the styles into one painting, while the latter isolates them in separate series. Furthermore, Rand pushes his crowded compositions toward dissolution with an unrivaled generosity and uplifting wit. Consequently, his paintings become Dionysian celebrations of freedom.

Garden Party is an episodic composition, and each of the more than 15 scenes or images is painted in a distinctive style. Confronted by this barrage of images, the viewer may at first feel that Garden Party is the result of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. While Rand does want to put “everything” into his paintings, he also finds numerous ways to make the disparateness cohere. In Garden Party he reveals the associative current connecting such seemingly arbitrary images as a boldly painted brick furnace and a beautifully drawn, bratty young boy munching on a turkey leg. Here, food is equated with fuel: one has to destroy in order to convert and assimilate. Both images become metaphors for the creative act. Yet the furnace is also a traditional symbol of the Holocaust. Whether it’s an object of good or of evil depends on the context in which it is used, and for Rand, context is a crucial issue. Like Walt Whitman, he aspires to expand the possibilities of his medium to the point where the variousness of the world can be re-presented with a dreamlike logic. Over the upper half of the composition the artist has depicted a huge paintbrush and a shopping bag in bold outline. An easel is “visible” inside the bag. These images, and that of someone painting, are devices Rand has used in numerous works to examine the way we look at a painting, and to point up the artifice and commodification of art. Yet, in contrast to most artists of his generation, Rand’s self-consciousness has not led him to either a repressed or an egotistical stance. Humor, the painting tells us, is another liberating possibility.

In the “Letter Paintings” Rand was already bold enough to embrace and honor Abstract Expressionism’s gestural freedom and heroic stance. At a time when coolness and detachment prevailed, his paintings were sensual and emotional. With Garden Party, the artist once again extends out of Abstract Expressionism; however, his new style, rather than celebrating its independence, celebrates all styles and images. In contrast to Jackson Pollock, who can be said to have believed that the only story worth telling was his own, Rand is more humble and democratic. He is a storyteller who believes every story is worth telling.

John Yau