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Groundbreaking artist to discuss ‘The 613’ at Summit shul
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Groundbreaking artist to discuss ‘The 613’ at Summit shul

Archie Rand rejects ‘textual obedience’ in his mitzvot images

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Archie Rand with his series, The 613. 
Archie Rand with his series, The 613

Jews are used to looking at illustrations of sacred text, not interpretive art. If you’re not sure what that means, consider Archie Rand’s The 613. He takes the 613 Torah commandments and offers a visual tapestry of 614 cartoon images — one for each commandment plus a title image — in garish, saturated color, full of action and drama. The graphic style comes straight out of comic books, with pop culture references from Humpty Dumpty to Lizzie Borden, alongside echoes of masterpieces by the likes of Degas, Chagall, and Wyeth. These are not faithful illustrations that would all pass rabbinic muster. 

Rand brings a distinctly American contemporary viewpoint to ancient texts. Instead of faithfully illustrating the text in front of him, being “textually obedient” in his words, he tries to create a visual narrative that is separate from the text, something so radical that Jews have not done it since the second century. Consider two “wise guys” — read: mobsters — facing each other for “Judges must not accept testimony unless both parties are present” or an astronaut floating in space for “To know there is a God.” 

“Jews have no visual digestion” of our texts, is how he puts it. His role, since 1974, has been creating this Jewish iconography. 

On Sunday, Nov. 13, at noon, Rand will speak at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit about creating The 613. An internationally renowned painter and graphic artist, Rand, who earned a BFA from Pratt Institute, is the Presidential Professor of Art at Brooklyn College and the former chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Columbia University. Rand has had over 100 solo exhibitions and 200 group exhibitions. His work is in the collections of many museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. He has received many awards, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Achievement Medal for Contributions in the Visual Arts. He is also a laureate of the NFJC. 

Born, raised, and still living in Brooklyn, Rand is famous in the Jewish world for the brouhaha surrounding the murals he was commissioned to create for the borough’s Congregation B’nai Yosef in 1974. There were no previous similarly narrative paintings in synagogues since the second century, and it raised a question about whether they were halachically permissible. The question was resolved by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, then considered a leading talmudic scholar, and the murals stayed. Called “revolutionary” by art critics, it gave Rand his start creating Jewish imagery that hadn’t previously existed — and paved the way for his career in the Jewish world, separate from his trajectory in the secular art world. His parallel lives provided an unusual perch from which to observe how the secular art world views Jewish identity and Jewish art, and how the Jewish world conceives of art. 

In advance of his local appearance, Rand spoke with NJJN about The 613, his role in the Jewish art world, and how to create Jewish visual narrative. According to Rand, Jews don’t have narrative art because Jews lived in an environment with rampant anti-Semitism for so long. 

“Unlike music, theater, literature, once it is on the wall, [art] transmits Judaism 24 hours a day. Painting is like tattooing the building with a Jewish image that won’t shut up,” he said. “There was rampant paranoia [among the rabbis] about inviting scrutiny.” Therefore, although not really forbidden, Jewish narrative art was eradicated. 

If that kind of reasoning no longer holds sway, something else has taken its place, said Rand: art as a medium for assimilation. “Jews who collect art do it to assimilate,” he said. “And non-Jews have no use for Jewish art. It’s a white elephant.” In writing he goes much further. In the introduction to the book version of The 613, published by Blue Rider Press in 2015, he says outright that art historians misunderstand art with Jewish themes because “etiquette tends to exclude Jewish scholarship from the discourse.”

Rand decided Judaism really needs Jewish art, and he was the one to do it. “I realized it was a very good time to make work that is unabashedly Jewish but without making concession to the notion that I want to be praised or lauded by the rabbis.”

He also wanted to start a conversation with Jews about Judaism through contemporary art, by inserting Jewish texts that are, as he put it, “echt Jewish” — they cannot be construed as anything other — into a secular art space. The 613 mitzvot fit perfectly, he said, “because these 613 are the very thing St. Paul says Jesus excluded from Christianity.” 

“They are ‘echt’ Jewish; they smell of herring.” 

But the mitzvot are critically important. “They are what hold Orthodoxy together. People study them in yeshiva all the time. But outside that world they are unknown or ridiculous.”

He described the process of coming up with the images for the mitzvot. Because he is drawn to the series as a way to represent the dialectic in Jewish texts — there are always many opinions, in opposition to Christianity, which is dogmatic and hierarchical — he said he decided to create one image for each commandment. 

Asked about the garish, comic book style, he acknowledged he was casting about for something essentially Jewish in the secular world, and came up with comic book figures. He pointed out that many trained artists who were Jewish could not get jobs in the first half of the 20th century, and many of these found jobs working in the comic book industry, often with Jewish cartoonist Will Eisner. Together they created comic book villains and heroes by taking stereotypes of vulgar and garish Jews, internalizing them, and moving them forward. 

“The colors and imagery embrace the accusations the dominant culture was making, that Jews were pushy, nosy, money-grubbers.” He added, “In my opinion it’s also echt Jewish that they were taking pride in their own marginalization and had the self-respect to be able to assimilate into the larger culture with a sense of self-confidence.” He decided these images were the perfect jumping-off point.

Matching the actual commandments with the images, Rand acknowledged, can be an exercise in absurdity, which it turns out, is exactly what he had in mind. The juxtaposition of, say, a giraffe with commandment No. 7: not to profane His name (Leviticus 22:32) — an absurd image with a familiar text — stays with the observer and makes them continually return to both. 

Of course, there are actual reasons behind each image that are not immediately apparent. In this example, because a giraffe doesn’t have vocal chords, Rand said, he hopes the viewer will connect the mute animal and the commandment as a subtle directive not to profane the name of God. For Rand this is a kind of “visual magic.”

The 613 has had success beyond his expectations. He considers it “subversive proselytizing,” pointing to how synagogues may take advantage of his drawings. 

“It could be used by a congregation that feels disenfranchised but who have a predilection for the visual, and the visual could lead them back to Judaism,” he said. 

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