My artist friends think I’m crazy,” said Archie Rand, who is the first to admit that his newest project is “beyond insane.”
Indeed, Rand’s series is arguably the most ambitious Jewish art enterprise, perhaps ever: 613 canvases, one per commandment. Surrounded by stacks upon stacks of paintings in his studio, Rand is easy to compare to King Lear cursing the indifferent storm. He speaks of Judaism’s “organ rejection of art” and of the need to “tell the entire notion of Western, goyish aesthetics to go to hell.”
Like Lear, Rand, 56, often appears dangerous to the uninitiated, and brilliant to those who get him. Rand, now the presidential professor of art at Brooklyn College, studied in New York at the Art Students League, where he was hailed (even as a teenager) by many, including his teacher, Larry Poons, as the heir apparent to the art of the ’60s. Rand turned his back on the avant-garde, however, and focused on Jewish art. He designed the walls and the ark of the B’nai Yosef synagogue in Brooklyn, as well as a mural at Michlalah, a school in Jerusalem.
The newest installment in Rand’s Jewish trajectory repertoire, the 613 series, is graphically finished, and Rand is applying the finishing touches over the next few weeks: varnishing and spraying the edges “to unify them.” Given that it took Rand and two assistants three days just to prime all the canvases, it could be a while. And even then, one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up: The series demands about 2,000 square feet of exhibition wall space, according to Rand’s calculations, which would require a venue on the order of the Whitney. And beyond these problems, who has the time and patience to see 613 canvases? And who would pay for 613 color plates for a catalog?
“You are basically cutting yourself off from any source of aesthetic applause or nutrition,” Rand admits.
Rand is hardly the first artist to create serial paintings. Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” and “The Course of Empire,” both Claude Monet’s and Martin Johnson Heade’s many haystack paintings and William Hogarth’s “A Harlot’s Progress” are some of the most famous. The past century produced a tremendous proliferation of serial painters: Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Frank Stella, to name just a few. But few painters can even claim a series of more than 100 paintings, a feat that Rand achieved in only two weeks as a teenager at the Art Students League.
Just for the four-year enterprise of painting 613 canvases (each roughly the size of da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”), Rand ought to be recognized. But the power of the series is beyond the scale, because of Rand’s counterintuitive conceptualization. He once illustrated from sacred texts (he calls the academic attack of illustration antisemitic), but after suffering much condemnation from rabbis who accused him of not bringing a sufficiently expert talmudic literacy into his work, Rand has decided that such a drawing model “enervates the visual.” Instead, Rand now does the process in reverse: “coming up with a piece of memorable visual image and then acceding it to the text.” In the 613 paintings, this means applying cartoon images to each commandment. The images derive from a wide variety of artwork and publications, and the sole criterion for inclusion is that they stick out in viewers’ minds.
Rand’s depiction of the Sabbath and holiday kiddush (number 91 of 613) shows a man who has a very rounded purple-and-yellow face and who wears a chef’s hat and apron. He drinks from a bottle (with his pinky up) — a far cry from the reverential images of the Artscroll siddurs.
Image number one — depicting the commandment to know God — shows an astronaut floating upside down, with a large purple planet over his left shoulder. Rather than presenting a nostalgic image of a bearded medieval saint praying from his book to portray the believer, Rand picks a modern, accessible one: an astronaut seeking to discover the mysteries of creation and the universe.
It is perhaps most informative to think of Rand’s efforts to visually grapple with the commandments as a neo-Maimonidean enterprise. Just as the medieval scholar wrote works that made the Bible more accessible, Rand develops an accessible visual iconography that confronts the text. Like Maimonides, he doesn’t let the criticism of his work discourage him. “The only one who cares about what you are doing is God, we hope,” Rand said. “Everyone else wants you to go away.” And like Maimonides, his career will surely enjoy a life after death, as yet another generation’s visual taboos become canonized in the next.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and the assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C.