Thou shalt check out this San Francisco mitzvah-themed art exhibit
Archie Rand’s ‘The 613’ uses comic-like imagery to interpret the humor, compassion and horror in the biblical commandments
A brightly-colored comic-book cast of characters illustrate artist Archie Rand’s breathtakingly ambitious massive oeuvre on the biblical commandments, “The 613.” Complete with astronauts, swimmers, archaeologists and parrots, the immense painting is divided into 613 smaller images, one for each commandment, or mitzvah.
“The 613” is not a literal representation of the mitzvot. Its 20-by-16-inch acrylic-on-canvas hyper-colorful paintings represent Rand’s unique reflections.
On display since the end of July at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, it’s the first-ever museum appearance for the artwork, which was completed in 2006. The lone previous public showing was at Rand’s Brooklyn warehouse for four hours one day in 2008. Now it is displayed in a 2,500-square-foot gallery space at the museum through October 22.
Each of the gallery’s four walls presents seven rows of images. And each image is accompanied by the Hebrew number of its mitzvah, based on the traditional list compiled by Maimonides in the 12th century.
“The entire atrium and gallery are covered completely,” Rand said. “My original intent [in the series] was that it should reflect very much the way that large art murals of other religions sort of envelop the viewer, transmit holiness.”
Some panels might be easier to understand than others. For the commandment “Not To Insult Or Harm Anybody With Words,” Rand painted a screaming head. But it is up to the viewer to ascertain why Rand chose a giraffe for “Do not profane the name of God.”
“Most of them seem to have nothing to do with the commandment they’re attached to,” Rand said. “I know why they’re there.”
“Some of the images are very humorous, some are very, what should I say, very serious images, and profound images,” said the museum’s executive director Lori Starr, adding that each one is “a kind of world unto itself you enter into.”
Among her favorites are the screaming head — Starr notes that its commandment “also feels timely and relevant. Words are deeds. We want to live in a society of civility and kindness.”
‘To parse it is a kind of judgement on whether or not I like the actual commandment. Some are almost crazy’
Starr also praised Rand’s image for the mitzvah of preparing the anointing oil: a woman in a diving cap and bathing suit swimming through a substance.
“It conveys the artist’s license and freedom to approach the mitzvah,” Starr said.
Rand said his favorite is “the totality of the commandments as a subject. To parse it to an individual [would amount] to a kind of judgement on whether or not I like the actual commandment. Some are almost crazy.”
Visitors can research the images and mitzvot on the exhibit’s two iPads, while a 10-minute film shows details of “The 613” in a continuous loop.
“We’re the only museum in the world with the name ‘Contemporary Jewish Museum,’” chief curator Renny Pritikin explained. “I have the incredible privilege of manifesting what it might mean to program a museum that presents contemporary art in a Jewish thematic context and see how they might influence each other.”
“When I stumble across an artist like Archie, my job gets a little easier,” he added.
In Rand’s celebrated career, he has collaborated with prominent poets such as Pulitzer Prize winner John Ashbery, and with Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee on “The Hulk.”
And he addresses Jewish themes, often in groundbreaking ways. Rand’s thematic murals for Congregation B’nai Yosef in his native Brooklyn, completed in 1980, made the synagogue the first with narrative paintings since the Dura-Europos synagogue in second-century Syria. Later works explored other Jewish connections, including, in 1989, a series of 54 paintings — one for each weekly portion in the Torah.
‘When we get to the end of the Torah, we start over immediately the next week. It’s this relentlessness I immersed myself into’
“It occurred to me that Judaism sees itself as a community of continuance,” he said. “When we get to the end of the Torah, we start [over] immediately the next week. It’s this relentlessness, the narrative I immersed [myself into] as being a Jewish narrative.”
“I had the notion of making larger and larger series, almost like a Talmud or a Mishnah. It started to seem reasonable to me as a Jewish artist,” he said. Rand is currently working on a series on the Mishnah.
In 2001, Rand attended an exhibition at the Jewish Museum on artist Charlotte Salomon and her 769 Holocaust-era autobiographical paintings, “Life? or Theater? A Song-play.” (Salomon, who died with her unborn child at Auschwitz in 1943, is the subject of a recent New Yorker article about her long-hidden confession to killing her grandfather, which was revealed in 2015.)
Rand said that seeing the Salomon exhibit “instilled the validity of me doing the 613 mitzvot.”
The mitzvot — said to have been given from God to the Jews on Mount Sinai — are divided into 248 positive commandments and 365 negative ones. The latter two numbers are said by the sages to represent, respectively, the number of bones and organs in the human body; and the number of days of the year. All are compiled in Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot.
“He was the first to extract them,” Rand said. “It’s a perfectly reliable, respectable source. I used his order.”
He described the mitzvot as “either crazy or horrific or wonderful.”
‘You watch ISIS do it in Syria — blow up Palmyra, destroy a city of idol worship. Some are absolutely horrifying’
For some of the commandments, Rand said, “you watch ISIS do it in Syria — blow up Palmyra, destroy a city of idol worship. Some are absolutely horrifying.”
Others reflect the spirit of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which he called “lovely,” such as the commandment to spare the life of the mother bird when taking her egg — “how lovely, how compassionate,” he said.
Over the course of five years, Rand painted each mitzvah. But, he said, his paintings “are not illustrations.”
“An illustration would assume I was actually painting the textual imperative as a primary, so the painting would either replicate or personify the particular mitzvah,” he explained. “I realized in order for this to be effective, I could not let rabbis or historians of our oral tradition take precedence over the visual.”
He set the tone with his first image, which happened to be the very first mitzvah on the Rambam’s list: “To know there is a God.”
Rand painted an eye-catching visual inspired by the 1950s-era cartoonists of EC Comics, “an astronaut floating out, coming undone, untethered from his spaceship,” he said. “That astronaut, that spaceman, is certainly right now thinking something about mortality and his relation to the universe.”
After that first mitzvah, Rand worked “indiscriminately,” painting random mitzvot on any given day so there would be “stylistic consistency available when they were all painted together.”
It added up to an average of 122 paintings a year. Yet he never lost sight of the work “as one painting, in pieces,” he said. “With a grid in my head, I was able to keep the rhythm of the picture.”
And, he said, “It was a great joy. I couldn’t wait to finish.”
He finished the work in 2006. Two years later, in 2008, he held a one-day public viewing at a Brooklyn warehouse he had bought as a potential studio.
“I advertised it locally on a Sunday for four hours, 1 to 5,” Rand said. “The New York Times came, [and a] guy with a clicker. There were 1,000 people.”
But until 2015, only two museum directors would show interest (Rand declined to name either).
The first director “was a very nice, decent man,” Rand recalled. “I said, ‘I really appreciate the offer, but any day the Whitney will show it, the Guggenheim.’ I was absolutely confident. There was no way any major museum could resist showing this crowd pleaser.”
But this “never happened,” Rand said. “I went back to the director. He was so offended that he never even answered my emails or phone call.”
A second director backed out after his curators unanimously vetoed the idea, Rand said.
In 2015, however, “The 613” was released in book form, and publicist Joan Brookbank successfully pitched a show to chief curator Pritikin at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “She really believes in him,” Pritikin said. “She worked really hard.”
It would take one more step for “The 613” to be shown at the museum. “We commissioned a 614th from Archie,” Starr said. “That, to me, was very important.”
This painting is related to post-Holocaust philosopher and survivor Emil Fackenheim’s statement that “there should be a 614th commandment,” said Starr — a commandment “that Jews should not lose faith in God because of the Holocaust, granting Hitler a posthumous victory.”
Rand painted “a very beautiful image,” Starr said, “a woman dressed in clothing of the period, sniffing a beautiful flower. It’s a version of another painting in the show. A flower with a man in the background, coming into her life, ruminating on loss. It put it in a position of remembrance, zachor.”
Visitors will undoubtedly remember the 614th mitzvah — and the 613 that preceded it.
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