NY artist Archie Rand takes on Torah’s 613 commandments

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Archie Rand, an artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Archie Rand, an artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Archie Rand, an artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Archie Rand, an artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press

(RNS) A new book by a trailblazing artist raises an old question: Is there such a thing as truly Jewish art? And its corollary: If so, would anyone buy it?

On Nov. 10, Penguin Random House’s Blue Rider Press will release a 1-pound high-gloss volume titled “The 613.” It consists of 613 full-page, screamingly colored paintings by New York artist Archie Rand.

Each features one of the 613 Jewish commandments (or mitzvot), distilled by the 12th-century scholar Maimonides from the Torah.

The mitzvot are a bedrock feature in Judaism’s patrimony. Rand’s images, in a style that might be called Leviticus meets “Amazing Stories,” the ultra-pulp mid-20th-century comic series, incorporate each commandment’s Hebrew number. Captions standing in for museum wall labels provide English text.

The first image, “To Know There Is a God,” depicts a blue-clad astronaut floating upended against a background of chartreuse mountains and a hot-pink alien moon.

Archie Rand, an artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Archie Rand, an artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press

The $45 book boasts a murderer’s row of testimonials.

“Conceptual and retinal, altar and push-cart, lox and bagels,” raves “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Wow!’”


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He is joined by novelist Cynthia Ozick, Pulitzer-winning poet John Ashbery, filmmaker Ang Lee and a dozen more luminaries. On Nov. 18, Rand will field questions from Camille Paglia at the New York Public Library.

It almost makes you forget just how unlikely the book is, and how hard Rand, 66, has labored in a tradition — painterly engagement with the central texts of Judaism — that almost doesn’t exist.

Western art developed largely out of the soil of 1,500 years of Christian religious art.

In that period, beyond the decorative ritual objects, there was almost no Jewish art. One reason was the Second Commandment, often rendered, “Thou shalt not create graven images.” Although the wording leaves room for interpretation, it paralyzed art by believers for centuries.

Even today the ghost of the inhibition, combined with assimilation and art market ambivalence, exerts a chilling effect. Artists who are Jewish abound; artists whose work seriously engages Jewishness (such as Marc Chagall and R.B. Kitaj) are few.

Museum-quality artists consistently addressing the faith’s beating textual heart are a small band, Rand foremost among them — claiming back “the conversation from which we have been rebuffed and that we ourselves have rejected.”

Rand did not start out a Jewish painter. Although he attended childhood Hebrew school in Brooklyn, he cracked the gallery scene — at age 16 — in 1966 as, he says, a “mascot” of color field painting, New York abstractionism’s last wave. The New York Times lauded his “impressive debut.”

Archie Rand, the artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo by Barney Kulok, courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Archie Rand, the artist who has a book coming out with a painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments. Photo by Barney Kulok, courtesy of Blue Rider Press

But his career swerved in 1973 when he received a commission to paint a mural of the interior of the B’nai Yosef, a synagogue on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway.

Suddenly solvent, Rand began mining the Bible, Talmud and Judaism’s vast commentary for a visual vocabulary. But he ran afoul of two groups: abstract painters scandalized not only by figurative painting but religious painting, and Orthodox Jews who regarded the exact same things as idolatrous.


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His backers boldly set the core question — could Jews do art? — before Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, then American Orthodoxy’s foremost legal scholar. The rationale for Feinstein’s positive oral ruling eventually appeared in a posthumously published book: Not only could Jews make art for “the honor of (God),” but those failing to employ their gift “will be called to account.”

Rand thinks the completed synagogue, all 13,000 square feet of it, is the first thematically illustrated synagogue in 1,800 years.

He imported his new subject matter into his secular work. He painted the cycle of 54 annual Torah lectionary readings; the 18 blessings of the Amidah prayer; the 60 manifestations of truth. His style was highly accessible but always included irreducibly Jewish particulars, often the Hebrew text.

“I don’t want to make paintings that were about Jewishness, but that are Jewish,” he said.

Aficionados were effusive. “(Rand) has effectively revolutionized the way the rest of us view Jewish art, heretofore an endangered species,” wrote Menachem Wecker in The Jewish Week.

Rand won a Guggenheim fellowship and chaired Columbia University’s visual arts program; his work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum. But, he points out, not on their walls.

He has never sniffed the stardom of, say, Julian Schnabel, a family friend from Brooklyn. Rand’s current art is too unbridled for most Orthodox Jews, too Jewish for some other Jews and still oddly unsung by art tastemakers.

“His take is very important,” said Samantha Baskind, author of “Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America,” who will curate a show of Rand’s Bible series at Cleveland State University in September 2016.

“But much of the market doesn’t understand or feel comfortable with Jewish subject matter,” she added. “Disheartening as it is, if he used his formidable talents on a different topic, he could be way bigger.”


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Perhaps “The 613” will change that. It pairs mitzvahs with appropriated images from Mad Magazine, pulp and 20th-century illustration. Sometimes the connections are obvious, sometimes intriguingly oblique. It is outrageous and inviting, in-your-face and mysterious, making Rand’s case 613 times over.

Not everyone will buy it. But Rand believes in the power of good intent.

“There are Hasidic stories of children who whistle in synagogue because they don’t know how to pray,” he writes, “ … or soldiers who can only recite the alphabet, knowing that heaven will arrange their spoken letters into prayers. The 613 is one of those whistles.”

YS/MG END VAN BIEMA

  • Bernardo

    And summarizing to save some time worrying about Judaism or Christianity or Islam:

    Abraham and Moses are myths:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    “The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation. “

  • Fran

    Both Abraham and Moses actually did live and die on earth, as did Jesus, the son of God, as well as the son of David and son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17), his lineage.

    That fact will be confirmed when both men are resurrected back to life on earth (Acts 24:15; John 5:28,29) during the upcoming millennial rule of Christ Jesus (Isaiah 11:1-9) over the human family.

    Then you will be able to personally talk to them face-to-face about what they did during their lives, as well as receive other blessings that God’s kingdom will provide (Rev. 21:3,4) at that time.

  • Bernardo

    Fran,

    About the book of Revelation:

    “Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation “the insanest of all books”.[30] Thomas Jefferson omitted it along with most of the Biblical canon, from the Jefferson Bible, and wrote that at one time, he “considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” [31]

    Martin Luther once “found it an offensive piece of work” and John Calvin “had grave doubts about its value.”[32]

    And Matt 1: 1-17 (Luke 3: 23-38), not authentic: See for example: http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb368.html and Professor Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 279-281.

  • Fran

    Bernardo,

    All Scripture (Genesis to Revelation) is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, determining what is wrong and right and providing truth about God, his personality, and his purposes for the human family, which was created by him.

    Both God and his Word, the Bible, will be vindicated and proven to be truth in due time, as expressed above. Many humans have denied God and the Bible through the ages. Many persons did not believe Jesus was the son of God or the Messiah, even after his performing a plethora of miracles, healing the sick and diseased (even touching a leper, causing him to be clean) and resurrecting the dead. The proof was right in front of their eyes!

    I will take the words of Almighty God, who is perfect in love, justice, wisdom and righteousness, over any words or expressions from imperfect and sinful men they express against God and the Bible. In God I will always trust, as well as in his son, Christ Jesus.

  • Bernardo

    Professor JD Crossan notes from his book, Who is Jesus-

    “Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.”

    But then again, there is no god or gods and never were or will be unless you have his or her phone number.

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    Quoting a “scholar” like Crossan, a former Dominican priest who lost his faith, isn’t strengthening anyone’s position. Read NT Wright’s response to Crossan.
    Rand’s art is too garish for my taste. I’ve seen other Jewish art that is modern and far better, like Marc Chagall.
    But, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

  • David F

    Wow, that’s like saying that Martians do exist, and we know this because there have been so many science fiction movies about them, and this will be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt when they return in full force sometime in the future and attack us by throwing hero sandwiches off of roofs at us. The mind boggles.

  • Fran

    Bernardo,

    LOVE is the answer to the question of why God gave his son as a ransom sacrifice for the human family, including you and me.

    God loves us so much since that ransom guarantees we will be able to enjoy everlasting life on earth instead of eternal old age, sickness, disease and death (John 3:16).

    Jesus said no one has greater love than someone who would give his life for a friend (John 15:13). Jesus did that, expressing his ultimate love for mankind as well as his Father, God. No one “twisted his arm and made him do it.” Using free will, he felt compelled to do so!

    Humans are made in God’s image, able to reflect aspects of His personality such as love, justice, mercy and wisdom. People can reflect love with much sacrifice to themselves. A person can donate one of his kidneys to save another person’s life. Complete strangers can attempt to rescue persons from a burning car, at a risk to their own lives!

    The love of God and Jesus cannot be denied.

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