Archie Rand’s challenging, hybrid artwork has long been difficult to categorize. As a progressive painter who frequently incorporates Jewish themes and sacred texts into his canvases, Rand has faced criticism from purists in both the religious and avant-garde communities. His work, however, is probably best understood as a series of paintings that consistently make use of the written word. In addition to more than 80 solo exhibitions, he has collaborated frequently with such writers as John Ashbery, Robert Creeley and John Yau.
The lone shortcoming of “Archie Rand: Iconoclast,” a delightful exhibition of the artist’s religious paintings at the Yeshiva University Museum’s art gallery, is its failure to place adequately Rand’s explicitly Jewish work within the larger context of his entire career. But this hardly should discourage a visit. The museum has assembled way more than 100 paintings, all but two of which belong to one of seven series. Each is grouped around a specific text, which ranges from the Bible to a Yehuda Amichai poem. Almost every image is painterly and scholarly enough to satisfy critics in both camps. But the show’s real revelation is that Rand is a deeply sensitive reader of Jewish texts.
For each series, Rand has created a unique visual language. Both “Nachmanides’ Letter to His Son” (1993) (33 images based on a letter of moral instruction from the Ramban to his son) and “Psalm 68” (1994) (36 paintings, each a single verse of the Psalm) comprise small, abstract works that capture the intimate, private nature of the texts. Yet the two sequences also manage to reflect the distinct personalities of their respective authors. The Ramban’s abstract language is subtle, symbolic and intellectual, while David’s is colorful, earthy and expressive.
In “Sixty Paintings From the Bible” (1992), 48 of which are on display, each image is a single-panel comic, replete with exaggerated colors and dialogue bubbles, of a particular scene from the Bible. In “Adam (Genesis 3:7),” the serpent-draped Tree of Life stands between Eve and Adam, who exclaims to his future wife: ‘We’re naked!’” As if this statement weren’t ridiculous enough, Rand plays it up by underlining the word “naked” three times. While Rand’s religious critics could point to this painting, along with many others in the series, as proof of the artist’s irreverence, the image’s comic-book flippancy is more a commentary on pop art than an expression of Rand’s take on Eden.
The exhibition’s most ambitious and impressive series is “The Seven Days of Creation” (1996), seven large, acrylic and enamel canvases full of warm, inviting colors and an intriguing combination of recognizable objects and hard-to-read iconography. As is appropriate for a story of division, “Day Two” — on which God created the firmament (often interpreted as the sky) that divides heaven and earth — is split in two. On one side of the canvas stands a chain of male revelers, linked arm in arm, which could have come out of a Weimar-era caricature. On the opposite side is a seated boy holding what looks like a drawing pad, but that also reads as a toy sailboat. Though the two halves are clearly separated by a vertical blue-and-white line that bisects the canvas like a Barnett Newman zip, the canvas’s strict division is violated by two other lines of thick paint, squirted almost directly from a tube onto canvas, like toothpaste onto a brush, which challenge the rigid barrier. This gesture of ambivalence is particularly fitting for the second day of creation, the only one that God neglected to praise as “good.”
It is a tribute to Rand as both painter and reader that the exhibition’s least successful works are its two individual canvases, “The Coming of the Messiah” (1978) and “Joshua” (1997), neither of which belongs to a series or follows a text as closely as the others. Yet ironically, these two images are also the most dependent on the biblical passages to which they refer. Among so many inspired paintings, they are the lone illustrations.
David Grosz is a writer living in New York.