Interviews

On Transforming All 613 Jewish Commandments into Dazzling Paintings

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From ‘The 613,’ by Archie Rand (all images by Archie Rand, courtesy Blue Rider Press)

In the year 2000, Brooklyn-born painter Archie Rand embarked on the most ambitious project of his career: He would transform each of the 613 Jewish mitzvahs — from the first (“To know there is a God”) to the last (“Not to retain her for servitude after having relations with her”) — into its own vibrant painting. Rendered in a Fauvist color palette, and with influences as varied as Marvel Comics, Carl Jung, Art Spiegelman, and John Coltrane, the series resembles no biblically-inspired art you’ve ever seen. With these 613 paintings, which took five years to complete, Rand “is like a biblical sage for the postmodern world, embracing the viewer and all of history,” as filmmaker Ang Lee put it.

The paintings were exhibited in a Brooklyn warehouse in 2008. They haven’t been accessible to the public since, until now: the whole collection has been published by Penguin as a book, The 613These dazzling, super-saturated compositions bear traces of Rand’s transgressive reputation — in the 1970s, Rand’s murals at Brooklyn’s B’nai Yosef Synagogue were halted during installation and put on trial for heresy, until they were finally declared kosher and commendable.

We caught up with Rand about the making of The 613, why “Judaism and art don’t mix well,” as he writes in the book’s introduction; his love of MAD Magazine and EC Comics; and how these paintings reflect his personal spiritual beliefs.

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Carey Dunne: What was the process of making these paintings? How did you translate each commandment into an image, and what informed your stylistic choices, like using super-saturated colors and comic book influences? 

Archie Rand: My interest in Judaic subject matter stems from when it was unremarkable to be a Jewish painter in New York, although not one committed to the tenets of observance or ritual. When I received the commission for the B’nai Yosef murals (1974–77) there was little Jewish involvement, aside from the abstract works selected by Percival Goodman, in locating art in a Jewish religious place. Not having a precedent, I was obliged, by dictate, to invent an iconography whose objects and significance the rabbis could identify. So I was technically making illustration. 

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Eventually, I realized that as long as the textual dictated what could be pictured, the images would be subservient to the word, limiting my capacity as a painter to sense beyond the given. If paintings were corralled by the limits of rabbinic discourse and approval, only illustrative work could exist. A chunk of the rabbinate, understandably, was reliably critical of my work. If I were to escape from this syndrome I would have to engage, as would any painter, the visual as a primary target and relegate scripture to a supportive role. I became aware that this was the only way to make an art from within the Jewish culture that could be of any value. 

By the time I started The 613, I was convinced — as the commandments are directives and not narratives — that the images paired with them could not inhabit the arc of the commandment’s intent. The words would have to scramble to catch the paintings. When I work with poets, it is never assumed that the words are inviolable, so the collaborations are successful as each element is free to play off the other. I joke about it, but in this case, my co-author is God, and you’re not supposed to approach those quarters with any posture other than prostration. 

I decided that God intended for Jews to have art in order to name the architecture in which paintings hang. Installing a painting on a wall is a territorial act as it broadcasts identity 24/7. This knowledge doesn’t sit well with anyone. But the second-century Dura-Europas murals were in a Talmud-era synagogue and even depicted the hand of God, so I can’t accept that iconoclasm is a non-negotiable aspect of Judaism. If a culture sees itself in perpetual diaspora, it therefore can’t nail an identifying painting to the wall, announcing stasis and a more permanent habitation.

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Of course I realize that there is no audience for this position. That these paintings are made for a hypothetical culture of socially engaged, non-exclusionary believers. Normal people with a personal or academic interest in Judaism.

I think of any large serial project as a mural that has been partitioned into chapters. For this project, which ran intermittently from 2001 to 2006, there was a lot of reference work.  I bought 700 pre-stretched canvases and stacked them in rows all over the studio. The first unifying act was demarcating the frame area and then picking subjects, going from one canvas to the other. I would write, in pencil, on the back of the stretcher what number the painting represented. 

When I work this way I can tell myself that I’m not making 613 paintings but one painting that will coalesce from the congealing of its subsets. I swiped a large number of images from EC comics, and its progeny, MAD Magazine, as they represented a high mannerist moment in the comics industry, which, famously, had a significant amount of Jewish pioneers. The rest of the paintings were filled out with a sampling of a book or magazine illustration, for which, in repayment of a childhood debt, I felt gratitude and respect. 

In each painting a Jungian synapse had to occur, uniting the text and the picture in ways not retraceable but which projected a coherence in spite of the incongruity. As these were never intended as illustrations, I looked for that spark plug gap, that space between the image and commandment, where an internal dialogue was proposed and is never answered. 

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CD: What are your personal spiritual and/or religious beliefs, and how are they reflected in these works? 

AR: I figure that there is no such thing as a coincidence unless one believes that there is a greater meaning that is occurring when one delights in the fortunate haphazard.  Otherwise it is just randomness without a trace of surprise. It seems that it takes more effort to not believe than to believe. This is no secret. Tom Hanks’s monologue to a volleyball in Castaway is unquestioningly understood by the movie audience as a natural, if not an endearing, bit of behavior. 

Hope is a religious construct. Gratitude is a religious construct. Otherwise, to what are we directing these projections? I’m not saying that there is a divine address — I just don’t want the illusion of hope and the relief of gratitude taken from me by logic. Logic wins and then I am left bereft of consolation.

I just saw a Youtube video of a bear rescuing a crow from drowning and then walking away. Ethics don’t appear to be a legislated imperative made by reasonable people, but a piece of genetic wiring. It annoys me that artists are assumed to be, and many assume themselves to be, ethical. My indulgence in that which can’t be explained is an expression of my faith in the larger communion’s eventual ability to reassemble something of use from an offering whose impetus I don’t comprehend. The bear knew more about why he pulled that bird from the water than most artists know about why we do this.

The making of aesthetic objects is an act that is observational of unfiltered perceptions, the waste product of which we trust can be reconstituted by the viewer’s receipt. It remains tangible and we hope it can provide nutrition by providing a consensus of recognition. Pathetically, but truthfully, so there is communication, agreement, and absorption, so we don’t feel alone. When this magic succeeds it can change lives for the better. That is the hope that all artists, regardless of declarations to the contrary, share. If that’s not religious, I don’t know what is.

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CD: In a recent interview, you said, “I don’t want to make paintings that were about Jewishness, but that are Jewish.” What is particularly Jewish about these paintings? 

The 613 commandments are an armature of rabbinic Judaism, whereas depictions of dancing Hasidim, portraits of Jews, “kabbalistic” abstractions, and six-pointed stars are associative anthropology. Because of MFA programs, much of what enlists for a slot in any cultural strata, not just Jewish, is a term paper of received information. At a remove from the obligation of accuracy to one’s perceptions, it awaits mom’s approval. Hedging its bets, the artwork will align on a plateau, eliciting praise for referencing a corollary technical or conceptual conceit that is understood to be admirable. The artwork’s concessions neuters its supposed platform and relegates it to the pile of inoffensive pseudo-insurgent pap. Conscience salved, everybody wins. Nestling into that pocket that allows entrance onto the imagined trajectory of Western aesthetics, sporting a temporary edginess, and inevitably useless. 

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The text of The 613 is a precept at the heart of observant Judaism. It has no history of compromise with outside dialogue. The component paintings unaskedly identify themselves with Hebrew letters that report the “gematria”: the numerical sequence of the commandments, an order available only to the most committed and specifically Jewish believers. Not that this invasion has particular merit. I just wanted to see what it would look like. 

The 613 by Archie Rand is now out from Penguin’s Blue Rider Press and is available on Amazon

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