Painting a legacy: Artist illustrates 613 mitzvot

Archie Rand created one of the largest paintings in the world, 613 mitzvot, engages the text in dialogue rather than be subservient to it.

Raphael Poch ,

1.  To know there is a God (Ex.20:2)
1. To know there is a God (Ex.20:2)
Mary Faith O'Neill: Courtesty Archie Rand

A new book illustrating each one of the 613 commandments according to Maimonides’ count has been published by artist Archie Rand. Rand began working on the original masterwork for the book, a 17 foot by 100 foot canvas that comprises some 614 stretchers, in the year 2000. This seminal work, was the most ambitious of the New York artist’s career. Each of the commandments received its due attention and its own vibrant painting.

The paintings were made in a Fauvist color palette, and had a variety of influences including early Jewish artists from the 1950’s in the US many of whom illustrated comic books, as well as psychological influences from masters such as Carl Jung.

According to the artist, the collection “does not resemble any Jewish art that you have ever seen.” The paintings, which were exhibited in 2008 in a Brooklyn warehouse, have not been accessible to the public since. Until now. The entire collection has been published in a book by Penguin’s Blue Rider Press and is available on Amazon.  

In a special interview with Arutz Sheva, Rand discussed his own inspiration and history about the project, as well as what motivated him to create a Judaic work of art, in a style that has heretofore never been used to depict Jewish iconography.

91. Remember and sanctify the Sabbath by blessing wine and lighting the conclusionary candle (Ex.20:8) Mary Faith O'Neill: Courtesy Archie Rand

“I had been working with Jewish subject matter for many years in parallel to my secular work as a gallery museum artist,” Rand said, “and in 1974 I began working on an Orthodox synagogue in the Syrian community, Brooklyn’s B’nai Yosef Synagogue.” Rand described that he was brought up on charges of heresy for his work, before Rav Moshe Feinstein, and was then acquitted. He went on to finish the murals and was brought back a few year later to do more in the same synagogue.   

“The art world is an assimilated place - where secular Jews go out to seek a status seeking society. No one wants to see a particularly Jewish component in that field, he said.” The secular artists want it to be a non-religious practice as it were, and Religious Rabbis frown upon using art or any form of Jewish iconography that isn’t subservient to the text. “My bringing the Jewish content into the secular discourse was frowned upon by both artists and collectors alike,” explained Rand of his early beginnings as an artist.  

Rand, has previously painted series’ of murals using Jewish material for his subject matter. “At the time I was just taking midrashim and illustrating them,” he explained of his previous work. In 1989 Rand painted a series of the 39 prohibited actions on Shabbat. He did another, later in his career about the Parshiyot of the Torah.  

53. Destroy idols, their accessories and the places where they were worshipped (Deut.12:2) Mary Faith O'Neill: Courtesy Archie Rand

“I like working in series’” He said. “I like validating prayer, and religion, even though the market is hypothetical. Most people were not interested in this work, but I wanted to do it because it hasn’t been done. I want to do something so enormous that the enormity itself will tell people that the attempt is not one to make myself religious, but that it would be a testament to time about Judaism.”

The sheer size of the painting, would daunt most artists, but as Rand was trained to be a Mural painter, he felt undaunted by creating the behemoth piece. Rand explained that his vision had been to create the piece, and not what to do with it after it was created. “I was so involved in building a manifestation of the visual in Judaism, that I wasn’t thinking in advance of that.”

182. Not to eat sea creatures without fins and scales (Lev.11:11) Mary Faith O'Neill: Courtesy Archie Rand

Filling a Gap

According to Rand, there never a shortage of artists being involved in Jewish subject matter in the past 50 years. But many were being textually obedient to the point of being obscure. “People were doing illustrations for children’s books, or there were secularists doing paintings of Jewish life.

All of them were being obedient to the directive of the text. And I had done that for 20 years. I took every midrash and noun I could find, and I would milk that noun into a visual foil to avoid rabbinic censure.”

Rand said that there came a time when that type of art was not enough for him any longer.  

“I realized that if I kept doing that the visual would always be secondary to the rabbinic. And there is almost no appetite for the visual in Judaism.” This did not leave room for the dialogue that Rand sought. To create a conversation between the text and a visual icon of the subject matter itself. Not a representation of the text, but ‘an other’ to engage the text and to build a religious image in other people’s mind.

“In order for this project to be successful the visual image had to act as iconography, and I had to invent an iconography. I thought to myself that if I make an image strong enough then the text would be secondary in conversation. I wanted to introduce as quickly as I could and in as large amount as possible the iconography of the mitzvot. I am really making an attempt here to go up against the icon bearing religions of the world that declare a sacred space when they are hung up.

I wanted this painting to exist to create a visually holy space. 

387. To offer two loaves which must accompany the above sacrifices (Lev.23:17) Mary Faith O'Neill: Courtesy Archie Rand

Creating a visual dialogue with the text to enhance not to subjugate:

Rand critiqued the lack of artistic vision that is present in most synagogues in North America. “Synagogues in America are made by committee not by one visionary. With art as a last thought and they come out messy when it comes to the visual."

The notion of making something visually memorable and pleasing, that can add to the spirituality of the experience of the interplay with the liturgical and traditional texts is lacking. Rand said that due to our history being stolen from us, in order for Jews to manifest a visual art we need to go back to square one. “We need to dig our feet in and come up with images. This had to be done in a way that was the most visually digestible.”

“We’ve had our history taken from except for Israel. We have a history of being kicked out of places. I have no desire to go back to Poland and the expulsions of Europe. There is no reaching back he way that Americans can look back on their European fore-bearers and derive some history from it,” claims Rand.   

“Claiming a legacy of visual entitlement that I can take as an artist is difficult. I can take from other Jewish artists, from the Torah, and from the liturgy which provide the text.” But taking visual cues from the text isn’t always easy said Rand. “When your co-author is God it is hard to edit anything” he joked.

“ I don’t mess with text and scripture. However if I make a picture that will try to illustrate it then I will be doing a disservice to the text as the visual will never get a chance to build a dialogue with the text.”

“The primary statement of the text is inherent in the text already. It emanates its own value and truth. And what one does is one makes a conversation with the text through the visual. It is like prayer.”

Rand says that he wants a person to see his paintings of the commandments and to be engaged in discussing them. Not just to say that makes sense with the text, but to build a dialogue in their mind from an artistic perspective, that they will carry with them.

“When you see a commandment, and you ask yourself why was that image used to visualize that law, you’ve asked a question about a mitzvah that likely many have never even read in their lives.  And you now have an image in your mind that you will take with you and associate with that mitzvah. This whole process take the conversation to a much more lively place than the talmudic style of conversation that Jews who do not have that style of thinking can be involved in.”

Rand is very grateful to his dear friend and patron for this project Carl and Sylvia Freyer who paid for the materials and provided a stipend for Rand while he worked on this project.  

“We both knew that there was almost no audience for it. Not only because of it’s size, but because the subject matter was radical.  They saw it as a political activity, and one that needed to be done for Klal Yisrael,” said Rand.