Archie Rand, the Jewish Michelangelo?

Michelangelo had a thousand years of Catholic art to build on when creating the Sistine Chapel. Jews haven’t had such a tradition, until a secular Jew from Brooklyn stepped up.

Archie Rand in front of his 613 series in a warehouse in Brooklyn in 2008. Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Archie Rand in front of his 613 series in a warehouse in Brooklyn in 2008. Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Menachem Wecker
Observation
Aug. 31 2022
About the author

Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

I often joke that I wish I could become Catholic just for the art. When visiting the Florence Baptistry or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I want to feel that the art is mine—that Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, and I are landslayt. But I have never experienced a Jewish space as majestic as those.

Does anything come close? Perhaps the Brooklyn Sephardi synagogue B’nai Yosef, where the American Jewish artist Archie Rand, now seventy-three, covered some 13,000 (or 18,000, depending on who’s counting) square feet of walls with murals. Indeed, having followed Rand’s work closely for twenty years, I believe his serial paintings represent one of Jewish art history’s most unique and ambitious bodies of work, and that synagogue is the nearest thing I know to a Jewish Sistine Chapel. OK, maybe the murals there are not quite so marvelous as the Sistine frescoes, but they’re also more than double the scale, and Rand was eight years younger than Michelangelo was, twenty-five rather than thirty-three. Plus he got it done faster, taking three years starting in 1974, instead of Michelangelo’s four.

Why so many numbers? For one thing, it seems that Rand himself hardly meets a Jewish number over which he does not obsess. One series offers one picture per commandment in the Torah—613 in all. Another series of eighteen responds to the number of blessings in the Shemoneh Esrei, or amidah, prayer. The 39 forbidden Sabbath labors? Rand has done that too. The same goes for a series on sixty paintings from the Bible, the seven days of creation, and more.

One other thing sets Rand apart from Michelangelo: he didn’t have much to work with. Catholic artists who have sought to beautify their sacred spaces have certainly innovated, but the greatest among them did so within longstanding traditions to which they could respond and from which they could borrow. Thanks in part to the prohibition on idolatry in the Second Commandment, Jews lack such a tradition—I cannot think of much beyond the narrative paintings in the ancient synagogue at Dura-Europos—which means that Rand has had to invent on his own a visual language for synagogue decoration and serial paintings. Of course, some of the B’nai Yosef murals are more compelling and successful than others, but the sheer magnitude is staggering, and wildly—perhaps sometimes a hair too—original.

This essay attempts to throw a lasso around some of the greatest hits in the voluminous body of Rand’s work. Since he inserts apparent symbolic bric-a-brac into his work, there is—as with the midrash by which he’s inspired—equal danger of over- and under-interpreting his symbolism. Part of this intrigue lies in Rand’s life story, particularly in how he came to focus so heavily on Jewish subjects.

The B’nai Yosef murals in 2021. Menachem Wecker.

 

Rand was born in 1949 and grew up in Brooklyn. Nobody was very religious. Secular Jews were part of the oxygen of Bensonhurst. “We all went to after-school Hebrew school, and some of us to junior congregation on Saturday mornings,” Rand told me. Starting when he was twelve, Rand would design the newsletter covers for his mother, a Hadassah president.

Instead, his father, who owned a liquor store, would take the family on weekends to restaurants, where he would analyze the food, or to shows, concerts, or museums. Or they would stay home and he would play flute or paint in an American Impressionist style. Rand would watch his dad at work, and sometimes—to get him to stop asking so many questions—his dad would give him Masonite board and oils. Rand thought his dad’s paintings were magic and knew, even at age four or five, that he was to become an artist.

When he left home as a teenager to strike out as an artist, Rand served as an assistant in the studio of painter Larry Poons (born 1937). Tibor De Nagy, who owned an eponymous gallery, asked the then-sixteen-year-old to leave paintings at the gallery, and Rand’s work showed up in De Nagy shows. In 1966, De Nagy gave Rand his first solo exhibit. Writing in the Forward in 1994, then-arts editor Robin Cembalest referred to Rand as “a near-cult figure who started out as a child prodigy.”

Since that first show, Rand’s work has been part of hundreds of exhibitions, many of which were solo shows. Notably, in 1989, a visit to Rand’s studio inspired Norman Kleeblatt, then the curator of the Jewish Museum and a Jew who found himself embarrassed by Rand’s overtly Jewish works, to curate a 1996 show at the museum called “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities.” After that, Rand chaired Columbia University’s visual-art department, before being named presidential professor of art at Brooklyn College in 2004. Among many accolades was a 2020 Farash fellowship; the foundation had only honored one prior artist, Amos Oz, with the $100,000 grant.

Jewish material wasn’t Rand’s first artistic focus. He traces his interest in Jewish subjects to 1971, when Yom Kippur found him with his father in synagogue, reading the tragic poem of the Ten Martyrs (rabbis whom the Roman empire assassinated). He decided that would make a great title for a series of ten canvases. When he showed the lot at De Nagy in 1972, the positive reviews ignored the Hebrew titles, he recalls.

“There was nothing unusual in an art world where the many critics, many dealers, and many artists were Jewish, although it was understood that they were rabidly anti-religious and one got the feeling that if most of these folks could crawl into a non-Jewish existence they’d welcome the chance,” he says. Artmaking paved the way then, as it still does, to assimilation. But “I just never had the urge to do that. I found no duality in being an artist and—although not observant by any means—simply identifying, to myself, as Jewish.”

That identification proved anything but simple when Rand accepted the B’nai Yosef commission. He knew it would mean he couldn’t hide anymore, and that colleagues would peg him as a Jew. But although he expected ostracism, he didn’t anticipate how thoroughly art-world colleagues his age would reject him. “I was quietly expelled by many of my former colleagues,” he says. “My generation found that I emitted Jew-stink, and I lost many bar-buddy acquaintances.” Older painters, including Philip Guston, Jules Olitski, and Helen Frankenthaler, became his new circle of friends. It didn’t all have to do with religion, though. Murals practically require narrative, and narrative butted up against then-fashionable teachings in the art world, particularly those of the influential critic Clement Greenberg, the theoretical godfather to the abstract expressionists.

Still, there were some compensations. Rand found that being so blunt about his Jewish identity brought more religious commissions from Jews, who wanted a distinguished art-world star. “I had a secular pedigree and was therefore someone that congregations could point to as an ‘artist’ and not some ‘Jewish artist,’” he says.

Not that Rand is afraid of being a Jewish artist. Or if he was, he’s no longer. As a critic, who has covered the intersection of religion and art for many years, I’ve found that artists often confide in me that the divine voice instructs them to paint. When they say things like this, I ask them to describe that voice and explain how they know it is compelling. Here, the conversation tends to break down into atmospheric abstraction, leaving me hopelessly lost. Rand also hears such a voice when he paints; he calls it “taking dictation.” But—and this I’ve never heard of before—he doesn’t always heed the voice’s instructions.

Say Rand is painting a series about the book of Jonah, and the voice instructs him to add a cat. If his research turns up no feline associations with the book or its related midrash, Rand dismisses the idea of adding a cat as incorrect, as a sort of false prophecy, though he wouldn’t use the term. But if there is even a tenuous connection between the voice’s suggestion and the subject of the painting, Rand decides the voice was meant for him to obey, even if he might feel foolish as he paints a cat into an otherwise unrelated idea.

Perhaps because of such stubbornness and idiosyncrasy—the artist having a process for deciding whether an internal voice is divine or nonsensical—Rand’s serial, artistic depictions of Jewish scripture and stories have elements of humor, absurdity, playfulness, and, at times, genius. Impulse certainly drives some of the process, but he’s also an avid reader and consumer of historical imagery and makes connections and associations at a very high level. That often makes his pictures difficult to parse, and one can be certain, even if one has the opportunity to hear Rand himself describe a picture at great length, that one does not know nearly the full story.

The B’nai Yosef murals in 2021. Menachem Wecker.

 

I spent more than an hour at B’nai Yosef with Rand last summer, nearly 50 years after it was painted. To me the experience was bittersweet, since the congregation has covered many of the murals with bookshelves stuffed with prayer books and rabbinic texts. It’s hard to blame them, since a synagogue is, after all, a functional space, but still I would argue that the murals are vibrant, sacred texts in their own way and could therefore perhaps be given a bit more respect. Rand took it in stride, or at least he seemed to. It reminded me of the story of Rabbi Akiva laughing while his colleagues cried upon seeing a fox emerge from the sacked Holy of Holies.

In any case, the uncovered murals reflect a remarkable artistic range. A bright and lively palette animates the pictures even from across the large sanctuary. Some paint handling is tight and relatively straightforward, while other parts are wholly or partly abstract. Even when the paint is thick, many forms have a lightness, which makes them appear to rise.

Stars of David appear throughout, often set in elaborate geometric patterns. In a small chapel and study hall on the ground floor, the sh’ma prayer appears within a yellow-gold Jewish star, which one cannot help but associate with the Holocaust. The star is set against a floral-patterned trompe l’oeil screen, which also includes six-pointed stars; a painted rod with ring-clips completes the three-dimensional illusion begun by the paint handling. Elsewhere are trompe l’oeil curtains, architectural elements, and even Jerusalem’s Western Wall, while upstairs, an abstract, yellow mural presented in violent brushstrokes also evokes the Holocaust.

This all could hardly be further from the sea of writhing, nude bodies in Michelangelo’s Sistine frescos. Rand is interested in a very different kind of thing. But his murals, like those of that other serial painter of biblical pictures, are multi-layered and rich with symbolism.

Throughout, Rand includes text, drawn variously from Jewish prayer, the Torah, the Talmud, and Jewish mystical thought. He sets an inscription, “Do it on behalf of those beheaded and burnt for the unification and holiness of Your name,” within thick, chaotic brown and blue brushstrokes, as if the tortures endured for being Jewish throughout history are so obscene that they defy depiction. An abstract mural with Kabbalistic references is unlike any illustration of the s’firot or another aspect of Jewish mysticism with which I am aware. Rand flanks isolated Hebrew letters with moons, planets, clouds, and fire. The effect is intriguing, yet inscrutable.

Another compelling mural bears an inscription from Psalm 122, “Standing were our legs in your gates, O Jerusalem.” Two tallitot, fruit, and plants frame the scene, while a bridge (or staircase), rendered in perspective, offers viewers a path deep into the picture. Hovering above the path, a bull has a sword to its throat, perhaps held in place by a divine hand emerging from the heavens, and red stars—or is it blood drops?—float about, covering parts of the bull’s head. Here, Rand has offered viewers not a literal vision of a pilgrimage to the Holy City but a version Alice might experience in Wonderland. (In this version, the Queen of Hearts would say, “Off with the bull’s head!”)

It’s difficult to explain how one knows standing before a picture like this—whether it is madness, brilliance, or a bit of both. But the more time one spends with Rand’s symbols and inscriptions, and the more one talks to him about his textual and aesthetic decisions, the more one is reminded of the story in the book of Samuel of the high priest Eli meeting Samuel’s mother Hannah. The latter was so passionately immersed in her prayers that Eli mistook her for a drunkard, and indeed, the rabbis say, he sought divine advice via the Urim and Tumim, the breastplate and decorations worn by the high priest, but misread the letters that lit up there as shikor (drunk), instead of kasher (righteous). Experiencing Rand’s works, one might initially make the same mistake, but the more one engages with them, the more one becomes assured of the latter.

Rand’s delving into making Jewish art—which has grappled with the Second Commandment’s prohibition against idolatry for centuries—is “kosher” to such a degree that, he says, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely considered the greatest halakhic mind of his generation, approved of the B’nai Yosef murals. Still, Jewish aniconism (aversion to image-making) often persists, as Rand has told me and many others.

“I realized that one of the rights and obligations of any culture is to manifest a visual exponent of that culture,” Rand once told the art historian Samantha Baskind. “Judaism has been forced externally and internally to ignore that impulse. I wanted to make tangible artifacts that were Jewish, simply so unmistakably and unapologetically Jewish work would exist in the fine arts.” That tangibility and unapologetic posture is just what he has achieved in the murals.

The B’nai Yosef murals in 2021. Menachem Wecker.

 

Almost as staggering in scope as the B’nai Yosef murals is Rand’s series of 613 canvases, known as The 613, which I saw installed temporarily on a wall of a Brooklyn warehouse in 2008. Each canvas corresponds to one of the commandments in the Torah, although that connection is often quite metaphorical. Like the synagogue murals, the sheer scope of this feat is impressive. Although I had read the Torah aloud in synagogue for years, it took seeing the series for me to really appreciate how large a number 613 is.

Seeing the hundreds of canvases lined up, one notices ways in which the pictures interconnect. The series extends from “1. To Know There Is a God” (Ex. 20:2), which depicts an upside-down astronaut casting a maroon shadow on a yellow planet with a pink orb in the distance, to “613. Not to Retain Her for Servitude after Having Relations with Her” (Deut. 21:14), which portrays a man in a blue suit and hat running his hand along a door frame as he peeps through the keyhole, possibly, since he looks kind of like a gumshoe, hunting for clues.

The same complexity underwrites all the works. “27. Not to Worship Idols” (Ex. 20:5), for example, shows a man in a brown hat and coat sitting on a green bench playing a guitar. His posture quotes Edouard Manet’s 1860 painting “The Spanish Singer.” But where Manet’s picture is a study in black, gray, and deep green, Rand renders the man’s pants in bright yellow and the background in a kind of fuchsia.

What has a Spanish singer to do with the prohibition against idol worship? I had a thought recently when I stood in front of the Manet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Manet was a realist painter, but “The Spanish Singer” intentionally breaks down the fourth wall, revealing itself to be composed in the studio. Per the Met, the left-handed musician holds a guitar strung for a righty, and the fingering is all wrong. The painting thus reveals itself to be a composed work of art rather than real life, kind of like a modern play in which actors inform the audience that they are aware that they are dramatic characters. What could better illustrate the prohibition of idolizing—that is, art impersonating that which it depicts—than a picture, like Rand’s, that is blatantly honest about its nature as an aesthetic composition and that undermines its own authority by revealing itself to be an artful fiction?

The complexity seems to be paying off, enough to paint over some of the too-Jewishness. The 613 has been shown in both Jewish settings—including San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum—and secular ones, including at James Madison University and, with Farash support, at a gallery at the University of Rochester. “It is still a very hard sell,” Rand says. “But the stigma of exhibiting this work is, very, very faintly eroding.”

Archie Rand in front of a new series. Menachem Wecker.

 

Looking at Rand’s work is not that far from trying to break one’s teeth on the difficult Hebrew of the book of Job, as well as the complex and foundational questions that it raises.

One of my favorite series of Rand’s is the ten-part one (2006) inspired by the Aramaic Passover song “Ḥad Gadya.” Horns to the ground, the bovine protagonist in “And the Ox Came” is suspended in one corner, while center stage belongs to two seated adults and a sandaled child, from whom the Aramaic title emanates in a speech bubble. At least one man wears a Jewish prayer shawl. The cholent-like mixture of styles—bold, bright colors melded with cartoon bubbles and classical approach to composition and drapery—is unique to Rand. The picture is comical, or at least absurdist, but it isn’t fun and games. Rabbinic understanding holds that the song’s escalating carnage, from caprine victim to God slaughtering the Angel of Death, symbolizes the persecution of Jews across history.

At the same time, the work is, as always, preoccupied with its location in art across history. “He probably has stored in his memory more pictorial images than most people see in a lifetime,” the art historian Matthew Baigell writes of Rand in the catalog to the series. Baigell identifies each of Rand’s visual inspirations for the “Ḥad Gadya” works, including artwork by Maurycy Gottlieb, Lazar Krestin, Bernard Picart, Willem van Leusden, Max Lieberman, and Wilhelm Wachtel, as well as a Nazi poster, an old photograph, and a Qajar-dynasty Persian painting.

At its best, Rand’s work unites both preoccupations, Jewish and art history. For example, the composition in “And the Ox Came” quotes from Lieberman’s painting “Twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple” (1879), and in line with commentary on what the various parts of the song symbolize, Baigell notes that the ox “is thought to symbolize the introduction of Greek thought into Judaism.” (Other readings differ. In a “secret history” of the song published on the Aish HaTorah website, for example, Henry Abramson, academic dean at Touro University’s Lander College, associates the ox with the Islamic conquest of Israel.)

Rand’s “point of view is not to duplicate the story in pictures,” Baigell writes. “Rather, he invents a parallel visual universe that evokes aspects of the text and therefore in Talmudic fashion invites the viewer to think about and to ruminate on the meaning of what is read and visualized.” Baigell invokes the notion of khavrusah, paired study, to explain the relationship between Rand’s paintings and the texts and meanings upon which they draw. I agree with him that what Rand is up to is “very complicated—and very Jewish,” but I see it a bit differently.

Rand creates new Jewish interpretive knowledge, and he does so visually. I am not sure what it would mean to suggest there is an element of true prophecy in the “dictation” he receives, but whatever its source, Rand plays with both sacred image and text in a manner that, when he is on his game, does not illustrate a story as a picture book would but creates something new. I see it less as khavrusah and more as a form of the original talmudic style of shakla v’tarya (give-and-take, back-and-forth), over the records of which a khavrusah might nowadays pore.

The adjective “talmudic” is often used in the press and in everyday conversation in troubling ways, which tap into longstanding anti-Semitic tropes of Jews being overly legalistic. Rand, by contrast, brings to the fore the beauty, humor, and absurdity of such a way of looking at the world and the Jewish faith. Some of my favorite passages in the Talmud involve—seemingly just for the heck of it, to the everyday reader at least—rabbis trying to determine the maximum number of sins that one could commit in a single action. Or, when a debate seems to hit a brick wall, the rabbis decide to work their way forward by introducing the most seemingly outlandish new detail. It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, who preaches that, after one has eliminated all other impossibilities, the highly improbable simply must be true. This, to me, is the domain of Archie Rand’s Jewish art.

Why does the forbidden Sabbath labor of winnowing (throwing wheat into the wind to separate the chaff) get depicted as a hand with blue nail polish holding up the ace of spades, and why is the labor of slaughtering portrayed as Humpty Dumpty sitting upon a wall? Who ever heard of shearing animal wool happening on a boat, where a man in hat and raincoat raises a knife to a large octopus? The answers raised by these 100-percent Archie Rand artistic moves might be elusive, but they are, in my opinion, 100-percent Jewish.

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More about: Archie Rand, Arts & Culture, Jewish art