The Hyams Judaica Museum
Temple Beth Sholom
401 Roslyn Road, Roslyn Heights, New York
On one level we all have the same glorious inheritance. The Torah in its largest sense, along with the voluminous Oral Tradition in the Talmud, its commentaries and elaborations, make the Jewish artist the richest creative person imaginable. However, there are crucial distinctions in how we use this inheritance. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) famously distinguishes between creative thinkers who are like either a “hedgehog” and those who are “foxes.” Ah, there’s the rub!
Berlin posited that some thinkers are like the hedgehog (who seems to be solely expert at self defense), knowing one big idea that subsumes all their creative work; while others are like the fox (cunning and drawing on a multitude of strategies and concepts,) constantly seeing new and different visions. Archie Rand is a fox of epic proportions, as evidenced in his latest exhibition: “Three Major Works.”
In this show Rand offers us three distinct ways of making biblical art. He presents “The Chapter Paintings” (1989), “60 Paintings From the Bible” (1992) and “Psalm 68” (1994) as divergent paradigms of Jewish art methodology. The approximately one hundred and twelve paintings shown here are testimony to the breadth of his vision of Jewish art.
Over the last ten years I have reviewed Rand in this column many times: “The Painted Shul: B’nai Yosef Murals” (April 2002); “Rand’s Prayer: 19 Diaspora Paintings (December 2005)”; “The Image Before the Text: The 613” (April 2008) and “Had Gadya” (April 2011). While his more recent work has frequently taken a deeply personal and idiosyncratic turn, these earlier works over a scant five-year span provide very important markers in the development of contemporary Jewish art.
“The Chapter Paintings” (1989) were a groundbreaking series of 54 paintings, each dedicated to the weekly parsha. Curator Bat-Sheva Slavin comments that their creation “instigated curator Norman Kleeblatt’s landmark 1996 ‘Too Jewish’ ” exhibition at the Jewish Museum. In this series Rand bravely selects one significant image or theme to characterize each parsha with “what he calls ‘the visual key.’ ” This approach ranges from the simple meaning (Rand’s “pashat”); for example Chayei Sarah represented by the gaping mouth of a cave; to the considerably more complex, frequently based on midrashic sources. The painting of Ekev, a brightly shinning red ruby, is based on the verse, “…if you obey these rules and observe them faithfully, the Lord your God…will love you and bless you…(Devarim 7:12-13). We can only understand his image in light of the midrash in Devorim Rabba that relates: “R. Shimon ben Shetach once bought a donkey from an Arab. His students found a jewel in the animal’s neckband. They said, ‘God has granted you riches!’ But Shimon ben Shetach replied, ‘I paid for a donkey, not a for a jewel.’ He sought out the Arab and returned the jewel to him. Overjoyed, the Arab exclaimed, ‘Blessed be Shimon ben Shetach’s God.’” So, where is Rand going with this? It seems that the blessing and love God will give us for observing his commandments will come in the form of peace and blessing from the non-Jews. Thus Rand’s visual midrash casts the verse in a radically different light indeed.
In this exhibition Rand and curator Slavin have offered the viewer invaluable textual references to each work. The majority of the paintings are close to eye-level along with the wall labels creating a wonderfully user-friendly installation. This allows the viewer not only to orient the image in relationship to text, but also to contrast or in some cases ignore the text allowing the image to operate quite on its own, liberated from the original inspiration. And this is crucial. Rand’s work is so deeply Jewish because it demands, like the Torah text itself, both a pshat (literal) meaning and a drash (homiletical) meaning, and refuses to be limited by either.
The “Chapter Paintings” were an early exploration of exactly how a visual language can express and appropriate sacred text and narrative. Rand’s earlier work in the Syrian B’nai Yosef Synagogue (1977) on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn approached similar material but was in many ways constrained by the dictates of the congregation and rabbinic supervision. Acutely conscious of issues stemming from the second Commandment, there was no human representation. Rand cautiously used Jewish symbols, landscape metaphors and liturgical texts to decorate all the walls of the main sanctuary, the balcony and the downstairs study halls. The result was a one-of-a-kind totally decorated synagogue, a sacred space transformed into one of visual contemplation and a lush pictorial feast.
Years later and now outside the synagogue walls, he was free to approach the Torah as a totally autonomous artist. Rand produced in 1992 “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” that was a significant departure from his earlier methodology. Here the paintings themselves imposed pertinent biblical texts on the viewer in the form of text balloons, even while depending upon an esoteric visual scaffolding. That scaffolding was provided by a set of seventeenth century engravings, Icones Biblicae (1630) by the Christian artist Matthaeus Merian. Rand’s appropriations are superficially similar to those of the widely reproduced Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695. The difference here is that Rand uses the images as a mere framework to “reassess the Tanach, get past the standard English translation and find the ‘punch’ of the original Hebrew.” The results are compelling.
Initially the images seem to be straightforward and literal depictions of the text. But then one becomes aware of the enormous tension between the late Renaissance compositions, the eclectic postmodern color, and the large word balloons that virtually shout text at the viewer. Rand demands our absolute attention by enlarging and underlining specific words to provide his very personal biblical commentary. The prophet Isaiah pleads; “Lord, HOW LONG?” and his ancient cry becomes ours today, still in a perpetual Exile. Likewise the prophet Daniel calmly facing a pride of lions, his hands clasped behind his back, assumes the role of the viewer in the image. Darius demands “…Did your GOD save you from the lions?” and we acutely feel the trepidation and angst of our daily challenges.
In each of these “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” Rand utilizes underlined texts and vivid colors to shift our focus of well-known narratives in totally unexpected ways. It is as if he went through all of Tanach and circled sixty passages as crucial and important because they represent the enormous richness of human diversity as we struggle in our lives within the Divine plan.
As Rand continued to develop a multi-faceted strategy (much like Isaiah Berlin’s resourceful fox) of making biblical art that would fully engage the text, he posited that his primary job was to create a visual language that need not be tied to verbal rabbinics. Increasingly the visual had to be primary for the works to be totally evocative of the narratives. Psalm 68 (1994) was an early example of this methodology.
Psalm 68 has thirty-six complex verses that chart the struggle of God’s faithful for the Final Redemption and recognition of God’s sovereignty. Each painting is an abstraction (except verse 12) that accommodates the handwritten text in English in a rectangle (except 4 circles and 1 triangle), each along an edge. Recognizable images can be found, as in almost all abstractions, but I don’t believe this is the point. Rather these paintings operate as visual meditations meant to exist alongside the poetry of the psalm. They are not representations; rather they are anti-illustrations, simply meant to allow the viewer to read the psalm in a visual context. Much like biblical poetry, they evoke meaning obliquely, defying easy interpretation.
They also are illustrative of a major theme that runs through Archie Rand’s work: a fascination and love of text in relation to images. In the “Chapter Paintings” Rand essentially uses the Hebrew name of the parsha as a label atop ornate painted frames that contain the images. The “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” internalize text in cartoon-like dialogue balloons, embedding text in image. Finally the text is simply imposed on an abstract image in Psalm 68, emphasizing its distinct function. Other paintings of Rand likewise experiment with text/image combinations: “The 613,” a series of paintings of each biblical commandment numbers each painting with its equivalent in Hebrew letters, effectively turning a label into numbers that are expressed in text. The “19 Diaspora Paintings” depict the 19 blessings of the Amidah as biblical episodes with prominent Hebrew quotes as part of the composition. In “Had Gadya,” a series of 10 images from the Passover song, the verses are written in English on the painted frame and then found again in Aramaic in word-balloons in each image. In more recent paintings by Rand he seems to inevitably include text-balloons, now mostly in Hebrew.
This consistent motif in Rand’s work seems to be aiming for a final reconciliation between the intensely textual bias of Judaism and the equally alluring visual tradition of Western culture. Rand’s art wants to have it all and, true to form, this fox is unrelenting in his search for the marriage of exciting biblical meaning with a visual experience that fully appropriates our sumptuous Jewish inheritance. That’s foxy!
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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