Paul Rand, Art in Advertising

“Mail order advertisers, as we have said, have pictures down to a science.”  Claude Hopkins

As you enter the Paul Rand exhibition, you can’t miss a quote of his in a display case filled with his work. It proclaims, “There is no science in advertising.”

Advertising has always wanted to be scientific. Clients want to know where their dollars are going. They want a return on investment. They want ads that are “two-fisted”.  Within this den of Philistines, Paul Rand offers an alternative.  Instead of the huckster aesthetic of cold hard cash he tries to bring culture to the product. Paul Rand believes that art can be just as persuasive as science, if not more so.

Rand is an astute and eclectic salesman who embraces the art movements of the avant guard. If Matisse were a graphic designer, he would be Paul Rand.  A defining style incorporates the Mediterranean color, cut-outs and simplicity of the French master.


A pharmaceutical ad is an homage to Constructivism.


A book cover for “The Captive Mind” presages Op Art by a least a decade.


An ad for Westinghouse makes a deconstructionist statement.

Rand is the last modernist before the full weight of postmodernism eclipsed his generation’s optimism. His work is full of whimsy, not irony. It is a testament of how a lowly advertising art director can become one of the greatest artists of his time.

There is a saying that an ad in this morning’s newspaper is used to wrap fish in the afternoon. Sometimes it is also used to line the bottom of a bird cage. But every once in a while it ends up in an esteemed exhibition, like the one running now until October 13, at the Museum of the City of New York.

Thomas McManus is a writer, artist and professor at Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.