— Walter Benjamin to Gershom Scholem
I FIND THE ARTIST, Archie Rand, standing with his wife Maria outside B’nai Yosef, a Sephardic synagogue on Ocean Parkway, in a predominantly Orthodox area of Brooklyn, New York. We have made a date to have lunch and discuss his magnum opus, “The 613,” a series of wonderfully odd and troublesome paintings now documented in book form as, yes, The 613 (Penguin Random House/Blue Rider Press, 2015). But first, we are going to see the origins of that project: murals Rand did for B’nai Yosef almost 40 years ago.
“This place attracts mystics from all over New York,” Rand whispers as we step inside. “It can get pretty wild.” The lobby is a sort of high traffic zone with scuffed floors and lockers against the wall, surprisingly busy for 10 a.m. on an ordinary Wednesday. We pass alms-seekers asking for charity, and men in prayer shawls davening in a room off to one side. “There are guys here who daven for three hours on a single prayer, projecting each syllable upward to penetrate the seven layers of heaven.” But Rand leads us on to the main sanctuary where the biggest murals are located.
Some history first: B’nai Yosef’s founder was half-blind and gave Rand carte blanche to do whatever he liked; the congregation asked only for a representation of the Wailing Wall at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But the building was large, and Rand soon realized that images of menorahs and the Temple Mount weren’t going to be enough. What was Jewish religious iconography? Why hadn’t he been exposed to any in the various synagogues he’d passed through during his largely secular upbringing? It was an odd blank spot. He writes about the problem in his introduction to The 613: “Long ago Judaism discarded the apparatus for visual digestion. There are no Jewish keys of Saint Peter, no Jewish eyeballs of Saint Lucy, and no Jewish two camels of Saint Menas of Crete.”
There is a persistent line of thought saying that Judaism’s lack of a visual tradition comes from its suspicion of idolatry, but the story is in fact more complicated. A third-century synagogue found at Dura-Europos in Syria contains narrative paintings depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, Moses receiving the tablets, and other stories. The hand of God appears at points of divine intervention. And Dura-Europos isn’t the only ancient Jewish site that’s been found to contain figurative art. But something about the diasporic experience, Rand believes, led to an atrophy of the Jewish visual imagination over time. “There was a fear of enflaming or irritating the local people by using art to create a distinctively Jewish space — by claiming territory,” he tells me. “And murals can’t be moved if you need to get out of town.”
The idea of essentially inventing a modern Jewish iconography from scratch was exciting. He commuted to a yeshiva in New Jersey to research the mystical symbology of the Kabbalah, while at the same time starting work at B’nai Yosef. (“An artist in an Orthodox situation is like a pork butcher. They didn’t know what to make of it and they left me alone.”) He used buckets of sand to give his Wailing Wall a realistic texture, collected dried grass and glued it in to mimic the weeds growing in the cracks between stones. The congregation approved.
But when Rand moved on to the next mural, the atmosphere shifted. A picture of stones was one thing, it turned out, even with real grass glued on, but an image of Leviathan — the big fish mentioned in the Book of Job — was quite another. Members of the congregation began coming up to him, telling him that he had to stop, that he was violating the prohibition against creating idols. He started painting at night in order to avoid them, and yet he worried that he had inadvertently put some kind of odd dynamic into motion. Isn’t the fear of idolatry just the obverse of the desire? Once, he caught somebody leaving a kvitel or prayer note in one of the ridges on his Wailing Wall mural, as if it were the real Wailing Wall, against which God’s shoulder is said to rest. That night, he brought in an electric sander and removed any edge that might be able to hold a piece of paper. Finally, the congregation forced him to halt work while it sent a delegation to get a ruling on the murals from Rabbi Moses Feinstein, a revered posek or adjudicator of halakha, Jewish law. Rand was not allowed to attend.
In his ruling, Rabbi Feinstein found that the murals were kosher, meaning halakhically correct — in effect affirming the idea that art could express Jewish experience. “What Rabbi Moshe said was that you can do anything you want over six feet from the floor,” Rand tells me. “Below six feet, some people may have to physically bow down to see the image, which opens the door to idolatry, so you need to be more careful. Even with the abstract portions, if a rabbi asked me what something represented, I had to be able to explain it to him, or I’d have to paint it out.”
We enter the main sanctuary and move from mural to mural: the Wailing Wall; the Leviathan; a lion and a leaping stag, which reference a famous Talmudic quotation; a complicated Star of David derived from mystical sources; a series of esoteric diagrams depicting the Kabbalistic account of genesis. Rand calls it “my doctoral thesis,” and it definitely has a more studied, intellectualized feel than “The 613.” Nevertheless, I see hints of the later work everywhere: the grid that will impose order on “The 613’s” chaos is visible in the square stones of the Wailing Wall; “The 613’s” use of text is foreshadowed by the Hebrew quotations dotting the wall. Most important is the refusal of one coherent style or plan. “I wanted an approach in which nothing made sense together, indicating that this wasn’t a religion of commandments and rules that can’t be modified or reinterpreted,” Rand explains. “Judaism is a questioning process in which there are no answers.”
We walk out of the sanctuary and head back to the lobby, where Rand is suddenly besieged by a couple of very aged administrators who were there for the controversy 40 years earlier. They are genuinely pleased to see him: one interrupts a study group to introduce Rand to the new rabbi there. “This is the guy who painted the shul,” he explains with great excitement. “He made this the only painted shul in the world. People come from all over to see it.”
That is true: despite the posek’s ruling, B’nai Yosef remains the only fully decorated working synagogue in the world. Rand’s attempt at a rapprochement between official Judaism and the visual arts did not catch fire and spread. “Art and the rabbinate are in competition because both are essentially religious modes of understanding,” he says to me.
We leave B’nai Yosef and end up in a kosher Italian restaurant on Kings Highway, where I pull out my copy of The 613 and place it on the table, looking to make connections to the murals. Rand considers “The 613” a single painting, but it is in fact a series of canvases illustrating the 613 commandments of the Torah, the backbone of Jewish law. It is self-consciously religious art — and yet maybe it isn’t. Rand’s style is derived from the EC Comics of the 1940s and ’50s — think Tales from the Crypt and early Mad magazine — and his imagery stands at an odd slant to the ancient Hebrew text. Commandment Number 10, “Not to Test the Prophet,” pictures a man standing in the open mouth of a brontosaurus. Number 80, “To Bind Phylacteries so that the Laws will be as a Sign upon your Arms,” shows an Alfred E. Neuman–type goofball playing with a yo-yo.
What’s clear is that Rand’s experience at B’nai Yosef led him to replace the iconography of the synagogue with the imagery of a 1950s Brooklyn boyhood steeped in comics. It is a brilliant move, as it enables the painting to deal with the same subject matter but in an intuitive and highly emotional way. The work is full of beautifully rendered images of struggle, yearning, and conflict: a boxer knocks out his opponent; a man hangs from a cliff by a rope; a man and a woman glare at each other in a barren, claustrophobic room. There are scary clowns, vaudevillian pratfalls, obscure forms of psychic suffering — the vulgar, lurid, sorrowful chaos of life itself, as filtered through the sensibility of postwar American urban culture.
“The 613” functions through a set of tensions: between style and subject, sacred and secular, high and low, sincerity and irony, text and subtext, language and image. In a 1999 conversation with the artist James Hyde in Bomb, Rand quotes Franz Kline: “Painting has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving.” His own work seems bent on just that sort of interaction with the viewer: it wants to give us the world in a form too emotionally complex to pin down.
“Tell me about the relationship between image and text,” I say to him. “The pictures are often so enigmatic.”
“When you have a text that is so dogmatic, you need to create a sort of synaptic space in order to expand it. Otherwise, at best you get illustration, and at worst propaganda. A lot of the images are taken from EC Comics, early editions of Mad, a lot of Will Elder.”
Rand explains the connection. The visual world of his 1950s Brooklyn boyhood was a mélange of popular art forms: film noir, illustrated books, the covers of pulp novels, and comic books, particularly the titles produced by EC comics, such as Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, and Mad, which cultivated an unfiltered, fringe aesthetic. It mattered to him that many of the artists who constructed that world were Jewish, particularly Will Elder, who worked for Mad and Playboy, and Will Eisner, who ultimately helped pioneer the graphic novel in the 1970s. Later, as a painter, Rand would connect the energy of comics to their narrative impulse and would seek to capture that sense of emotional urgency in his own work, as a way out of the rarified precincts of abstraction — much as his friend Philip Guston was doing at the same time. In a recent essay entitled “Why Make Bible Pictures?” he writes:
In 1977, the novelist and essayist Ross Feld told Philip Guston that if modernist icon Jackson Pollock were alive he’d be painting like his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, who had painted Renaissance-inspired pictures of American legends. Philip looked at Ross gravely, smiled and nodded his head in solemn agreement.
“You can feel a story floating underneath each image,” I say to him now, “but it’s so weird that it’s hard to decode. And then the text puts an extra spin on things.”
“The 613 takes dogma and turns it into parable,” he replies. “The pictures are chosen to instigate a parable that may have no direct or obvious connection to the original commandment. When art functions, what it seems to do is generate a discussion. It’s a questioning process, like lying on an analyst’s couch.”
“So it’s okay with you if the image ultimately lands somewhere the commandment itself wouldn’t naturally go?”
“The truth is that many of the commandments are problematic. Some of them are similar to what ISIS does. Two thirds of them can’t even be practiced any longer because they refer to the temple in Jerusalem and there is no temple in Jerusalem and hasn’t been for 2,000 years.”
It only takes a second to flip through the book for an example: Number 354, “The Priest Shall Not Cut Off the Head of a Bird (Sin) Offering,” shows a cartoon lumberjack whacking in someone’s noggin — noggin is definitely the right word here — his arm sunk up to its elbow in the poor guy’s rubbery torso.
“Working in series also helps,” says Rand. “It takes away the absolutism of the subject you’re addressing.”
The idea of series is important to a wide range of postwar artists, but Rand mentions Warhol a number of times. “With Warhol, there was a language that rejected the whole idea of aesthetic high water marks,” he explains. “For many years I was not a fan. I was loyal to the romance of bohemianism. But I couldn’t really be an Ab Ex painter — it wasn’t my birthright. When I realized this, I started to understand what Warhol and I had in common.”
What they had in common was not only their interest in the uses of series but their positions at the social margins: Warhol as a gay working-class Catholic, Rand as a blue-collar Brooklyn Jew. By looking at the way Warhol flaunted the boundaries of good taste — and later, how gay artists such as Bacon, Hockney, and Mapplethorpe incorporated explicitly gay imagery into their work — Rand began to understand the unexpectedly provocative nature of the Jewish material he was beginning to experiment with. Art-world people weren’t sure how to react. Was this art? Was it serious? Why did it reference comic books when it was talking about religion? Instead of drawing back, he could sense a creative opportunity. He quotes the feminist poet Audre Lorde on the idea that you can’t deconstruct the master’s house with the master’s tools. Rand decided that he was going to use Judaism like a wrecking ball.
It’s hard to believe that any of this could be a problem in the contemporary art world, which is geared toward work that explores questions of identity, often in provocative ways. But galleries and museums have been hesitant to show Rand’s Jewish paintings; the book version of “The 613” took eight years to find a publisher. I can imagine a hypothetical gallerist looking at Rand’s work — with its loaded subject matter, its irreverence, its strange sincerity — and foreseeing its potential to disturb just about everybody who walks through the door, regardless of religious affiliation or politics.
Yet a part of me wants to think otherwise. “Wait a second,” I say. “The art world is full of Jews. They must get it.”
“The art world is one of the places where Jews go to assimilate,” Rand answers. “It’s okay if as a Jewish artist you sublimate your identity into a nonspecific religiosity through your art.” Think of Rothko or Barnett Newman, he tells me. “But they don’t want to be connected to overtly Jewish material. It’s in bad taste.”
“Who then are you painting for?”
“My work requires a very specific kind of Jew, secular but still connected. That middle ground is disappearing now. People are either Orthodox or completely assimilated.” Rand shrugs. “The darker side of me is the band on the Titanic. I feel that if all this — the Jewish world I grew up in in Brooklyn — is really going to disappear, I want to preserve some memory or trace of what was once here.”
There’s a moment of thoughtful silence, but it’s only a moment, and then the mood shifts again: Rand’s wife Maria says something about her allergies, and somehow that gets us onto the subject of Lenny Bruce, and then Rand tells a joke involving Gershom Scholem and Witold Gombrowicz, and then it’s time to go: he wants to show me the big new studio he is renovating not too far away. He is busy, pursuing a series of large-scale painting projects, experimenting with animated film, and traveling frequently to talk about The 613, which, despite his rueful asides, is building an audience.
“Have you ever wished you did it Barnett Newman’s way instead?” I ask him.
“No,” he says, looking content. “This was the work I wanted to do.”
Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of two novels, All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. His collection of autobiographical essays, Criminals, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press.