by David M. Roth
Imagine King Tut’s tomb decorated with pulp fiction paperbacks and you’ll get a fair idea of the visual impact registered by Archie Rand’s The 613, an exhibition organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco and Joan Brookbank Projects in collaboration with the artist. The title refers to the number of commandments (or mitzvot) in the Torah handed down to generations of Jews by the 12th century scholar Moses Maimonides. Rand, 67, made a painting for each one over a five-year period beginning in 2000.
The hard-boiled imagery, which he lifted from MAD and other mid-century EC Comics and rendered in Fauvist hues and short brushstrokes, may remind you of Bad Painting, Neo-Expressionism and the Chicago Imagists: movements that were gaining traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Rand, at considerable personal and professional expense, quit a successful career in color field painting to explore Jewish themes. The going wasn’t easy.
As he explained to Barry Schwabsky: “It’s a kind of Brooklyn arrogance…When I was doing the B’nai Yosef murals…[the only muraled synagogue in the world] all of my imagery had to be approved by a series of rabbis or scholars, and the visual was always subservient to the textual. I found that pretending to acquiesce to this charade was not going to keep making good art, as everything would end up being illustrational. All of the guts would be taken out of it once you subscribed to all of the differing verbal interpretations that were really tacit directions. So it occurred to me that what Judaism needed was to put the visual in a place of primacy and to depose the textual, which nobody would dare do because no rabbi would accept it,” as doing so would violate the religion’s historic injunction against idolatry.
But, as it happened, one very prominent orthodox rabbi did green light Rand’s ideas for B’nai Yosef, and that unprecedented approval, in addition to clearing the way for him to complete the project, helped lay the conceptual groundwork for The 613, the artist’s most ambitious undertaking to date.
At the CJM the gold-framed 20 x 16-inch paintings are displayed edge-to-edge in grids that occupy 1,700 square feet of wall space, all it painted a matching shade of gold. That backdrop makes for a dazzling exhibition, but absorbing the totality of it presents some challenges. You’ll need a stepladder to bring yourself eye-to-eye with the uppermost paintings and a kneepad to fully take in those nearest the floor. Still, anyone of average height can zoom in on several hundred, which is more than enough. What unfolds is an epic exercise in tragicomic serialism, a parade of muscle-bound toughs, hapless nebbishes, vixens, adulterers, gluttons, thieves and murderers, most of them operating under duress — fleeing, instigating or finding themselves trapped in compromising situations: which is to say, situations that might serve as potent (and potential) metaphors for what we know of Jewish history.
The commandments themselves, the heart of Jewish law, form an encyclopedic survival guide. Religious ritual, hygiene, business, diet, sex, farming, animal husbandry, employment, travel, legal ethics, marriage, divorce, childbirth and funerals are but few of the topics addressed. There are also a good many others that in the 21st century make no sense — which is what you’d expect from a document 2,000 years old.
Rand’s tactical masterstroke was to ignore the texts as he made the paintings. That enabled him to sidestep the taint of illustration and inject a measure of randomness into the project, which yields some pretty wacky juxtapositions. To erect an additional barrier against being perceived as having illustrated the commandments, he allowed the paintings be identified only by number. That decision throws down a gauntlet of sorts for viewers: To match a painting to its corresponding mitzvah you must consult either a book of reproductions (The 613, Blue Rider Press; 2015) or swipe your way through a bank of digital images loaded onto iPads for that purpose. As I moved back and forth between the paintings and their simulacra, I felt as if I’d entered a vastly enlarged version of the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest, the winners of which always seem obvious after they’re published. The 613 reverses that dynamic: seeing the titles doesn’t necessarily clarify the pictures. While many of the texts pertain directly to their assigned paintings, the relationships are often highly skewed. Many are just plain head scratchers. Others are LOL. If that seems like subversion it is, but only to a point. While the artist takes the law into his own hands, he also calls into play the longstanding tradition of Talmudic debate known as havruta, wherein pairs of students dissect a text.
The show ignites debate with the first image you see, that of an astronaut floating in space. It corresponds to Commandment 1: To know there is a God. But instead of conveying knowingness the painting gives us uncertainty, weightlessness. Could there be a better metaphor for the riddle of human existence? Rand wraps many of the 613 commandments in this kind of mordant humor.
His painting for commandment 29 (Not to Make an Idol), to take one of many examples, has a man nuzzling a woman whose eyes and lips are edged with terror. If there’s a point being made in relation to the commandment it’s unclear. Is the man making love to a mannequin? The woman’s frozen countenance suggests as much, but doubts linger, and they continue throughout the exhibition, prodding you to think long and hard about the intentions (and agency) of a supposedly omnipotent God meddling in human affairs.
In an essay in the aforementioned book of reproductions, the artist identifies himself as “a wise guy” from Bensonhurst, swayed more by Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth and Charles Mingus than by anything he learned in Sunday school. Examples of those influences abound. Among the dozens that jumped out was commandment 460 (Observe the laws of impurity caused by a seminal emission). To this, the artist pairs a picture of a burly man operating a jackhammer. The “caption” turns the tool into a phallus — an association we probably wouldn’t make if Rand hadn’t joined this picture to that text. You can practically hear the yeshiva boys howling. His take on commandment 527 (Not to press the poor for repayment) might also draw titters. It shows a gap-toothed, open-mouthed, google-eyed face clamped between the jaws of a vise.
Rand’s taste for outrageous visual metaphor pervades. For commandment 444, Carry out the procedure of the red heifer, which I assume to mean animal sacrifice, Rand paired a painting of a man seated at a desk with his head on his forearm. Before him lays a smoking gun. To which we can only reply, “Huh?” To another seemingly obsolete mitzvah (commandment 33: To destroy a city that has turned to idol worship) Rand links a painting of a man detonating a bomb. It jolts us into the present, reminding us of the destruction wreaked by ISIS in Palmyra, Syria.
All of which raises a question: At what audience is The 613 aimed? If issues of assimilation were paramount, as they were in Rand’s youth, the answer would be American Jewry. But since Jews in the U.S. are today largely secular, the answer points more toward Rand and to his relationship to Judaism. His dive into it, as he tells it, was in part triggered by his experience of the New York art world.
When he entered it in 1966 as a 16-year-old prodigy exhibiting alongside an A-list of second-generation abstract painters at Tibor de Nagy, Clement Greenberg ruled the roost; the critic determined who was in and who was out, and, more maddeningly to Rand and so many others, the direction painting ought to take. For about a decade, starting in the mid-1960s, Rand enjoyed Greenberg’s support and the rewards that came with it. But citing boredom with the trajectory Greenberg prescribed, Rand, in the mid-1970s, opted out. What followed was a spiritual quest involving a shift to representational painting – forbidden territory for those in thrall to “Clem.” While he lost the critic’s support and that of many close colleagues, the alliances he subsequently formed with painter Philip Guston, and with a great many poets with whom he has collaborated have been sustaining – never mind art world machers who think his work “too Jewish” or orthodox Jews who think he’s over-the-top. “Jewish references in art,” Rand wrote, “must have their shame expunged and decriminalized.”
When asked how his own spiritual inclinations operate in relation to The 613 Rand told Hyperallergic: “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…If that’s not religious I don’t know what is.”
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Jazz Alert: If you’re as addicted as I am to watching music videos, I highly recommend offgrid offline, an installation of YouTube mash-ups compiled by the Israeli musician and composer known as Kutiman. The artist brings together 96 unrelated video clips and weaves them into a seamless whole across 12 monitors, bringing together everything from swing and free-form saxophone shrieks to Indian ragas, electronica, bebop, funk, field recordings of birds and a good deal more. Several feature soloists and duos performing on instruments of their own invention, including one in which a saxophone mouthpiece is joined to tubing from several different brass instruments (French horn, trombone, tuba).
The 38-minute piece, which made its U.S. debut at CJM last month after having first been shown at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2016, draws ready comparisons to Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet and Janet Cardiff’s The Forty-Part Motet; but it also harks strongly to early 20th century spirit photography in the way moving images dissolve, overlap and shift unpredictably from monitor to monitor, creating what feels like an audio/visual relay race run by phantoms. You can listen to an annotated version of the piece online and zoom in on individual segments, a real plus. But to experience the sensation of architecture being activated by sound, nothing beats hearing it in the CJM’s light-drenched Stephen & Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery.
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“The 613 by Archie Rand” @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum through October 22, 2017 and “Kutiman: offgrid offline” through July 8, 2018.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.