Born in Casablanca but raised and educated in Israel, the artist Jacob El Hanani has lived most of his life in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, which when he arrived was a leading center of artistic minimalism. Adam Kirsch describes El Hanani’s work, and the Jewish influences that shaped it:
Jacob El Hanani often uses Hebrew letters in his work, though he is neither a mystic nor a scribe. His abstract minimalist drawings conjure wavering networks and textures through the accretion of minute, hand-drawn lines. . . . While Jewish themes and titles appear in the work of other minimalists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, El Hanani’s upbringing gives him access to a tradition that runs deeper than the occasional allusion.
Circle-Drawer (Ḥoni ha-M’aggel), which is one of El Hanani’s most ambitious and profound works, was completed just last year. From a distance, the canvas looks like a wash of grays, delicately transitioning between shades like patches of cloudy sky. Seen more closely, it reveals itself as an enormously complex mesh of tiny circles. Hand drawn, like all of El Hanani’s work, these circles are not perfectly round—not ball bearings from a machine but packed cells seen under a microscope.
The title, however, opens up a new, specifically Jewish dimension of meaning. Ḥoni ha-M’aggel—in English, Ḥoni the Circle-Drawer—is the subject of a famous, theologically provocative story in the Talmud. During a serious drought, Ḥoni issued a challenge to God: drawing a circle around himself in the dirt, he declared, “I take an oath by Your great name that I will not move from here until you have mercy upon Your children.” When a little rain began to fall, Ḥoni complained that God wasn’t sending enough; when the rain grew dangerously strong, he complained that it was too much. Finally, God got it right, and the rain continued until Ḥoni told God to stop.
What does El Hanani mean by titling his own circle drawing after Ḥoni? Is it only a witty allusion? Or is there a deeper similarity between the ancient sage and the modern artist, whose practice also rests on audacity, persistence, and faith? If El Hanani draws countless circles while Ḥoni had to make only one, perhaps it’s a sign that God has become exponentially harder to reach.