Born in Brooklyn, Rand received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinegraphics from the Pratt Institute, having studied previously at the Art Students League of New York. His first exhibition was in 1966, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. He has since had over 100 solo exhibitions, and his work has been included in over 200 group exhibitions.
He is currently Presidential Professor of Art at Brooklyn College. Before joining Brooklyn College, Rand was the chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Columbia University. He had served as the Acting Director of the Hoffberger School of Painting and as Assistant Director of the Mount Royal Graduate Programs, both at the Maryland Institute College of Art. From 1992-4 he was appointed Co-Chair of the National Studio Arts Program of the College Art Association and from 1998-2003 he served as Chair of the College Art Association National Committee for the Distinguished Teaching of Art Award. The Italian Academy For Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University presented him with The Siena Prize in 1995. He was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Foundation Fellowship in 1999 and was made a Laureate of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which awarded him the Achievement Medal for Contributions in the Visual Arts. In 2002 he received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching from Columbia University. In 2002 he became the artistic advisor to film director Ang Lee for his production of The Hulk, and was asked by Milestone Films to provide a commentary track for the DVD release of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic 1955 film The Mystery of Picasso.
Archie Rand’s earliest major works are “The Letter Paintings” (or “The Jazz Paintings”) (1968–71), a radically positioned series of technically inventive, mural-sized canvases. The Letter Paintings, by incorporating the names of mainly male and female African-American musicians, undermined prevailing aesthetic categories by conflating many contemporary movements including Conceptual Art, Color Field, Pattern and Decoration, diary entry and social commentary.
Although The Letter Paintings had been displayed individually, they were first shown as a unit in an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1983. Selections from The Letter Paintings have been on continuing multi-venue exhibition tours of the United States and Europe (including Palazzo Ducale, Genoa) since their Exit Art exhibition in 1991. Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times and a lecturer on contemporary art, described them as "exhilarating, precocious and lyric" and wrote that "Rand’s paintings demand a substantial place in the history of an unusually fertile period in American art." Others described them as "an uncannily accurate step in the right direction", "[a]s exhilarating as a Charlie Parker solo or a holler from Big Joe Turner", and, almost thirty years after they had been painted, as carrying "the force of a visionary project".
The New York Times called Rand’s first solo exhibition of abstract collaged canvases “An impressive debut”.
In 1974 Rand received a commission from Congregation B’nai Yosef in Brooklyn. Rand was asked to paint thematic murals on the complete 16,000-square-foot (1,500 m2) interior surfaces of the synagogue. The work took three years, and completing this commission made Rand the author of the only narratively painted synagogue in the world and the only one we know of since the 2nd Century Dura-Europos. The religious legal controversy raised by placing wall paintings in a traditionally iconoclastic space was resolved by the verdict of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, then considered to be the world’s leading Talmudic scholar, who declared the paintings to be in conformity with the law.
The murals were received with great enthusiasm: according to John Ashbery,
So varied and intricate are the themes Rand has treated in his murals and so multifaceted the barrage of styles he has employed, that it is difficult to describe the murals. They demand to be viewed. The sweep and eclecticism add up to a startling wholeness. The courage to be hybrid is given to relatively few artists; it was required here and Rand supplied it. The work surrounds one in an environment of wonder, of spirituality and earthiness, of joy and terror, but mostly joy. It attempts to be as diverse as Creation itself and just about succeeds.
Others were equally laudatory, describing the murals as "exciting and exceptional" and "a remarkably impressive achievement" and "energetic tour-de-force". The synagogue itself became known as "The Painted Shul".
As Matthew Baigell has recently written, "The B'Nai Yosef murals, then, when considered in the light of...his mixture of figurative and abstract elements; his appeal to the viewer's imagination and awareness of the artist's sense of inventiveness, are, altogether, nothing less than revolutionary in Jewish American art....After these murals, anything became possible for Jewish-American artists." The aesthetic demands of the B'Nai Yosef murals marked a turning point in Rand's work. His subsequent turn to figuration may have been influenced by his friendship with Philip Guston, whose own work was transformed in the late 1960s. Like Guston, Rand "chafed at the limitations of purely abstract forms."
Robin Cembalest, reviewing Rand's work in The Forward in 1994, noted that:
Until a few years ago, Mr. Rand essentially had two parallel and – for the most part – distinct careers in the art world. In the contemporary arena he is known primarily as an abstractionist, a near-cult figure who started out as a child prodigy and whose admirers range from John Ashbery to Julian Schnabel. In the Jewish world he is a maverick muralist who paints scenes from the Bible in Orthodox synagogues.
Since then Rand, whose paintings range considerably in style and scale, has been seen as a respected and unclassifiable figure in the art world:
What is undeniable is during the 1970s many of the artists who exhibited at the gallery – Rand himself, for example – were irrepressible individualists whose work resists easy classification….the phenomenally talented Rand was unsystematically working his way through every image-making language known to modern man, from material-based abstraction to narrative figuration to cartoon symbolism, sometimes all at the same time, and being given the chance to exhibit the results of his research at regular intervals.
By the 1970s and 1980s Rand had developed and maintained concurrent reputations: one as a visible gallery and museum artist whose work had loosely morphed into representation, and the other as an authority on Jewish iconography. As Dan Cameron observed in Arts at the time, "Far from an emerging talent, Archie Rand is a seasoned young master whom history is finally catching up with." And as Barry Schwabsky described it, “His career has been a Protean flow of stylistic change. Rand’s “courage to be hybrid” as John Ashbery once put it, has led him from color field painting to a combinatory painterly image-making of dazzling dissonance... [by which he] pushed himself to the forefront of his generation’s rediscovery of 'content' in painting (a position which has yet to be generally acknowledged).”
In 1980 and 1981 he was commissioned to do a series of stained glass windows for two Chicago synagogues, Anshe Emet Synagogue and Temple Sholom and in 1984 received an offer to paint exterior murals at the Jerusalem Teachers College. For this project Rand asked Mark Golden of Golden Artist Colors to develop a system for the permanent application of full color outdoor paint. Some of the imagery used in these murals was recycled into his subsequent paintings. Exhibitions from the mid-1970s onward announced a return to mural-scale paintings and showed a prescient neo-expressionism joined with a fealty to narratives which were drawn in cartoon style. As John Yau wrote in Artforum, “Archie Rand is one of the most ambitious and more importantly, the most accomplished artist of his generation.” Holland Cotter, reviewing Rand's 1986 show in Art In America, wrote, “His biography reads like that of a veteran. His recent paintings actually carry an air of accumulated, earned experience....that makes this work so engaging: it is built on an old-fashioned, generous inclusiveness – critical and evangelical at once – that few of Rand’s contemporaries seem interested in attempting, and none that I know of can match.”
In 1988, with master printer Jon Cone, Rand produced a surprising and imaginative series of potato prints, some editioned and some very large, which were exhibited at a number of public and private institutions. As Beth Giacummo, director of the Islip Art Museum, noted on the occasion of a 2012 exhibition of these works:
Archie Rand’s “The Potato Prints” have earned an unexpected niche in contemporary art history. They radiate joy and are appreciated by viewers of all ages. Bold in visual impact, they are filled with humanity and charm. Praised as technically remarkable achievements they remain just pure fun.
Printmaker and critic Ron Netsky urged, "Viewers should be sure not to miss what surely must be the most exquisite bit of potato carving done in the 20th century..." And Lawrence J. Merrill elaborated, “[Rand] is an artist with a shameless appetite to encompass more: an expanding universe aesthetic… Rand has had a career marked by attraction to projects unsanctioned by the official art world… which were ultimately discovered and trumpeted by the art press…”
A 1988 series of 20 large triptychs (“Songs of Dispersion”) was shown in various venues in 1989.
From 1989 to 1991 he presented an unanticipated series of large-scale black and white abstractions which retain a residual authority. Donald Kuspit reviewed the Black and White series for Artforum at the time: “Rand’s works are post-Modernist in the best sense.... the intimacy Rand evokes is reminiscent of Paul Klee’s: he reinvents an alphabet of familiar shapes...and the result evokes a primary sense of magical meaning and feeling." The exhibition featured large paintings which offered startling and effective revisions on the formats of contemporary abstraction, prompting critic Terry R. Myers to write in Flash Art:
Dare a critic put a word like "inspiration" down on paper, sincerely mean it in its larger sense, and still think he or she has a voice among the pedantry that is the art world? I'm tempted to believe that there is some type of visionary impact in Archie Rand's latest paintings, but nowadays such a claim would seem delirious at best and at worst illicit. These recent works stymie into oblivion attempts to classify them which is nothing new for Rand, who will be difficult to pinpoint on the misleading map of art history but perplexity on the part of the viewer obviously does not always lead to greatness on the part of the artist. Rand's latest paintings could very well be exceptional.
Throughout the 1990s Rand produced abstract and figurative works simultaneously, although all of the works indicated an intention to re-integrate representation into conceptual formats. In 1999 he mounted an exhibit of mural-scale paintings (“The Segments”) which featured hundreds of compartmentalized painted cartoon-like images. On the occasion of a 1992 exhibition of serial paintings, which linked the Kabbalah’s view of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet to the 22 major arcana cards of the Tarot deck, David Brown wrote: “Extremely competent in any style that he chooses to call his own, it can be said of Archie what young players say of greats in the jazz world: “somebody should just break their fingers.” In 2005 he completed a substantial painting commission for Aetna.
His work has been cited as influential, although some critics concede that his output has been difficult to pigeonhole. Rand’s paintings display a vast and savvy menu of inventive and finely executed approaches. Working often with poets, he has produced books with Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, John Yau, David Lehman and Jim Cummins, Clark Coolidge, and David Plante, among others. The critical response to Rand's collaborative work with poets has been abundant and commendatory, as in this review of his work with Creeley:
...this is utterly joyous work, natural and unlabored.... They are – thanks mostly to Rand – part fairy tales of staring cats and castle walls and, with Creeley’s poems, part brilliant condensations of real-life emotions and desires... "Robert Creeley’s Collaborations", mounted last year by the Castellani Art Museum in Niagara Falls and currently touring nationally, documents the phenomenal scope of the poet’s interests in the visual arts. Of these artists, Rand is especially compatible. The New York City artist moves freely from figurative and abstract modes, often combining the two in a single work. An artist of almost legendary energy and invention, Rand has exhibited widely throughout the United States and Europe.... Without at all losing individuality, Rand effortlessly evokes master draughstmen from Rembrandt and Fragonard to Matisse and Manet.... Somehow poet and painter always maintain a delicate and quite magical balance. It is a delightful performance to watch.
He has done painting series after the work of Montale, Spicer, Beckett/Eluard among others. For each collaborative project he utilizes a different visual persona, a vestige of the stylistic crucible from which he has always worked and which he sees as being consonant with his gradual invention of an unconventional Jewish iconography. This approach stimulated an engaged correspondence with the painter R.B. Kitaj. Rand’s pioneering 1989 series “The Chapter Paintings”, which dedicated one painting to each of the 54 divisions of the Hebrew Bible, instigated the groundbreaking 1996 “Too Jewish” exhibition, that originated at the Jewish Museum and traveled to other sites. As Vincent Brook saw it, “A useful date from which to mark the onset of postmodern American Jewish art is 1989. The year that saw the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the premiere of Seinfeld was also the year Archie Rand exhibited [sic] at the Jewish Museum in New York a series of fifty-four paintings inspired by the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Jewish artists were by then no strangers to the upper echelons of the American art world, but baldly Jewish iconography was.”
His interest in Judaic narrative has been seen in numerous recent painting series, each of which is painted with novel technical and/or content approaches for example: “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” (1992), “The Eighteen” (1994), “The Seven Days of Creation” (1996), “The Nineteen” (2002) and “Had Gadya” (2005). In a review in 2005, of an exhibition of the 1994 series “The Eighteen”, Menachem Wecker wrote, “[Rand] has laid out a clearly demarcated path for others to follow. In his own way, he has effectively revolutionized the way the rest of us view Jewish art, heretofore an endangered species until Rand nurtured and raised it to fruition."
In 2003 Rand did two murals for Beth El Congregation in Fort Worth and in 2005 executed the large entrance mural at Congregation Beth-El in San Antonio.
In 2004, a retrospective exhibition was mounted at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York, to very positive reviews:
I want you to try this. It is really important. Do a Google search for 'Archie Rand: Iconoclast' easily the most important exhibit the Yeshiva University Museum (YUM) has ever hosted or ever will.... I will tell you who he is and why he is great.... Archie's series 'Sixty Paintings from the Bible' (1992)... takes scenes from the bible, illustrates them with Classical compositions, expressionist, almost cartoony lines, and bold pastel colors. The images contain speech bubbles that convey what the Biblical characters really said.... To Archie this playful synthesis of cartoon and Biblical stories....by creating a patchwork of different styles, the Bible works... provides a 'way of compensating for the inability of English to get at the Hebrew text' all in cartoon bubble form.... If you are up to the challenge of really trying to bridge the experiential Judaism with an aesthetic vision, then Archie Rand is the most perfect guide I know.
Writing on the occasion of the same exhibition, Richard McBee concluded:
This is it. This is the one exhibition that you must see if contemporary Jewish Art matters at all. Archie Rand has been bravely creating radical Jewish art for the last twenty years, challenging both the contemporary art establishment and the purveyors of Jewish culture. As a consequence of this insolence he has been exiled to what amounts to a critical wilderness. It is time to redeem him from exile, time for the Jewish public to take note and acknowledge the accomplishments of the foremost creator of Jewish art working today. Our cultural future depends on it.
In 2008, on a warehouse wall, Rand mounted the painting, “The 613”, which at 1700 square feet (17’ x 100’) is nearly twice the size of James Rosenquist’s F-111. It is one of the largest freestanding paintings ever made. Reminiscent of “The Segments” paintings it is intimidatingly enormous. Paradoxically, despite the raucous cartoony bytes that shoot colorful flashes from the manic surface, “The 613” glows warmly. Its overall effect is strangely calming and majestic. It is composed of 614 contiguous panels, each of which deals with one of the obscure but traditionally fixed number of 613 commandments, which were salvaged by sages from a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible. The viewing for “The 613” took place on one day and lasted only four hours. The event drew one thousand attendees. Menachem Wecker, describing this work in The Forward, averred that “Rand’s series is arguably the most ambitious Jewish art enterprise, perhaps ever.... It is perhaps most informative to think of Rand’s efforts to visually grapple with the commandments as a neo-Maimonidean enterprise. Just as the medieval scholar wrote works that made the Bible more accessible, Rand develops an accessible visual iconography that confronts the text.... And like Maimonides, his career will surely enjoy a life after death, as yet another generation’s visual taboos become canonized in the next.” Prompted by this showing, the art historian Matthew Baigell reflected on Rand's accomplishments in a 2009 article:
He is arguably the best known, most important, the most imaginative, and the most prolific...as well as the artist most willing to take risks....He became the most creative and outspoken proponent of a Jewish-themed art in America....He has articulated in both words and images to a greater extent than anybody else a loose-jointed attempt to assure the viability, visibility and continuity of this art.
In an article on a 2011 exhibition of Rand's "Had Gadya" series, David Kaufmann wrote
Archie Rand paints a lot, paints big, and paints complex. Since his first gallery exhibition in 1966 when he was only 16 he has been recognized as a prodigiously talented artist. Over three and half decades he has turned himself into one of the most important Jewish painters in America.