Thou shalt not act in the service of pleasing others. Thou shalt speak thy mind, come hell or high water. Thou shalt approach the world with moxie and chutzpah.
If Brooklyn-born and -based artist Archie Rand had had a hand in composing the Ten Commandments, surely these injunctions would have been among the top five.
But Rand, born shortly after World War II to a Jewish family with a strong intellectual bent, missed this particular opportunity by a couple of millennia. That’s why, perhaps, he decided to take matters into his own painterly hands almost 15 years ago and embark on “The 613,” a visual inventory of the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, that medieval Jewish scholars — Maimonides, most notably — compiled from the books of the Hebrew Bible.
Completed in 2006, the 613 20-by-16-inch canvas paintings have never been exhibited in a museum or gallery — until now. Beginning on Thursday, July 20, the works will be on display at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, where visitors will have a chance to express pleasure, confusion, annoyance, consternation, revulsion, excitement and myriad other emotions that the painter’s bold, colorful, lurid, humorous, anti-literal and completely irreverent images evoke.
That would be Rand’s hope, in any event.
Talking recently about his career and the 613 project, Rand spoke of the need to develop a “visual language” within Judaism, where traditions, practices and culture have subsisted primarily on “a textual system” of written codes and interpretations.
There are reasons for these visual omissions, Rand explained. Years of anti-Semitism and oppression, coupled with Jews’ need to swallow their own artistic instincts so as to fit in with mainstream culture, have left them devoid of a system that would enable them to “digest” their religion visually.
Writing in his introduction to “The 613,” the eponymous 2015 book featuring each of his panels, he mused, “I had been thinking about how it would look if there were no stigma attached to doing Jewish work, if Jews were viewed nonjudgmentally and were presented with a limited focus on persecution. What would that look like?”
To answer his own question, Rand looked to the gutsy Jews he admired, including the late comedian Lenny Bruce. Those viewing “The 613” at the CJM will be confronted with paintings of buxom women, cowboys, lotharios, sorcerers, anthropomorphized animals, superheroes and an assortment of other colorful personages, rendered in comic-book style, figuratively standing in for the commandments.
Take No. 506, for example. The commandment “Not to Work the Slave Oppressively” is illustrated with the figure of an older man unplugging a stopped-up toilet. No. 488, “Not to Pity the Pursuer,” shows a ginormous green cat chasing a blue mouse.
“He did not ridicule his own Jewishness and he was assertive,” Rand wrote of Bruce in the book’s introduction. “His performances played against stereotype, confronting the taboo against Jews being ‘attractive.’”
The choice to work in a style reminiscent of the work found in Mad Magazine or EC Comics seemed entirely natural to him, Rand said. It was art he had grown up with in the 1950s and ’60s, art he describes as “Jewish iconography.” Most of the early developers of comic books, he pointed out, were Jews, including Will Elder (born Wolf William Eisenberg) and Will Eisner.
Another strong childhood influence, Rand said, was a non-Jew, artist N. C. Wyeth, who earned his keep illustrating many beloved classics that Rand devoured as a youth. Wyeth, the father of the painter Andrew Wyeth, illustrated editions of “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Kidnapped” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” among others.
“I wanted to be like N. C. Wyeth,” Rand said. “I gravitated toward books with great illustrations.
“When I was bothering my mother while she was cooking dinner,” he continued, “she’d say, ‘Go read a book.’ I would read from one picture to the next. I got hooked on the coexistence of image and narrative.”
A wunderkind at Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School, he was the arts editor of the school’s award-winning literary magazine by the time he was 14. He graduated from high school before turning 17, and while studying at City College of New York he fell in with an arts crowd that included art critic Clement Greenberg and painters Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler and Larry Poons. He dropped out of college, became Poons’ studio assistant, studied painting at the Art Students League of New York and was part of three group shows by the time he was 19.
“I was the kid mascot,” Rand said. “I set up my studio in a former pork store. Painting was all I ever wanted to do.”
While Rand, who eventually completed his education at the Pratt Institute and taught at the college level — first at Columbia, where he was chair of the Department of Visual Arts, and now at Brooklyn College, where he is Presidential Professor of Art — has worked in a number of styles, he has always expressed an interest in establishing a Jewish visual narrative. Occasionally this has gotten him into hot water, such as the time he became embroiled in a controversy at Congregation B’nai Yosef, a traditional Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, where he was commissioned to paint a mural of the Western Wall.
The project grew well beyond that, with many at the shul becoming outraged by much of Rand’s imagery, which they believed tantamount to idolatry. According to numerous reports at the time, congregants objected to his depiction of animals and other figures from the Hebrew Bible, considering them to be graven images, along with designs that they believed to be Christian in origin. Eventually, a preeminent halachic scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, found Rand’s work to be kosher.
At the CJM, “The 613” will be presented in a grid covering 1,700 square feet that will occupy the entire space of the museum’s main-floor Swig and Dinner Families Gallery. Rand’s work, said CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin, will highlight how “architecture, religion and art come together.”
Because “The 613” covers all of the gallery’s wall surfaces, those approaching it will feel as if they are entering a chapel or sanctuary, Pritikin said.
Rachel Gross, a Jewish Studies professor at San Francisco State University, likened Rand’s work to a visual midrash, or commentary on the Torah. “This is really a creative interpretation of text,” she said.