The Comic Book Commandments

A renowned New York artist adds a modern twist to ancient Jewish law in creating a painting of Biblical proportions

There are too many pictures to see. They cover the entire wall, floor to ceiling, of an old garage in Brooklyn. 1600 square feet of paintings; 613 of them (plus one title painting, shown right). In each, God is commanding His people on some specific task: Do not worship false idols; Do not take the name of God in vain; Keep the Sabbath Holy.

For Archie Rand, creating The 613 was an act of prayer. Instead of sacrificing a goat at the temple, as Abraham would have, Rand—an accomplished painter whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and the Art Institute of Chicago—sacrificed self to illustrate each of God’s commandments. He read every rule in the Bible and painted a picture of it. The resulting work of art is not 613 separate pictures but the totality, made up of 613 connected parts.

Art as Prayer
“There is a kind of prayer that leaks out between the panels of the work,” said Rand, who is Jewish, but not observant. “Art can’t be separated from the spiritual. Any creative activity is an act of prayer.”

Rand, a fast-talking middle-aged man with tough, worn hands said he wanted to create a Jewish iconography. The result is an overwhelming wall of pictures, all painted in comic book or dime novel style cartoons that lays out in black and white and purple and magenta just how present God is in all aspects of life.

“This is very much like the music of John Coltrane, the poetry of John Ashbery: things are just relentlessly revolving on themselves to the point where it implodes and creates a calm. All you can do is come under its protection,” Rand said, describing the effect of the completed work.
The 613 mitzvot of the Hebrew testament, articulated in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, govern every aspect of Jewish life, from the familiar ten commandments and rules on food preparation to dictums on what to wear, how to conduct warfare, every possible iteration of who not to sleep with.

“I’m turning out an artifact that is inarguably Jewish. It was a debt I could repay to the Jewish community that I could not accommodate by ritual observance.”

Unlike Christianity, which has a strong tradition of visual art from the Sistine Chapel to the Renaissance paintings to the laminated prayer cards in your grandmother’s wallet, Judaism lacks a visual iconography, Rand said. Instead, the Torah is the object of veneration. There are a few reasons why a rich tradition of visual art emerged in Christianity, but not in Judaism. One is the commandment against graven images. Observant Jews don’t even utter the name of G-D, much less paint pictures of God. Secondly, under attack at least since the advent of Christianity,Rand theorized that Judaism had no time to develop a visual history. The culture is preserved in things that could be carried through all those years of wandering in the desert and bundled up whenever the next pogrom struck: the Torah, but also songs, folktales, food. But Rand wanted to feast on his religion with his eyes too.

A Notion of the Visual
“I don’t believe any culture can survive without all of its senses indulged,” he said. “My responsibility as an artist is to the visual. In a religion that is a verbal, intellectual religion, I had to inject the notion of the visual,” he said.

“I’ve been very fortunate and had a very good career in the art world,” Rand explained on recent afternoon. Indeed, in 1966, at age 16, when many kids on his Brooklyn block were still playing stickball, he had his first exhibit at the Tibor De Nagy Gallery in Manhattan. He became a protégé of Larry Poons and a street-wise regular in the art world. In 1999 he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Among his best-known work are “The Letter Paintings,” a series from the late 1960s that married color field abstraction and conceptual art in huge, bold paintings of the names of African-American musicians.

“Most of those people were not famous,” he explained. “There’s a part of my work that has to do with memorializing. And I realized the Judaism that I grew up with was disappearing,” he said. “I said, I better do this now. I’ve got to make some visual representation that this culture existed.”

Too Religious
The artist doubts the work will be exhibited again. It is, after all, 1600 square feet, too profane for a religious space and likely considered too religious by the modern art world for a gallery or museum. Instead The 613 is something like a mandala. Rand’s visual prayer and gift to the Jewish community, secular, Orthodox or somewhere in-between.

“I’m turning out an artifact that is inarguably Jewish. It was a debt I could repay to the Jewish community that I could not accommodate by ritual observance,” he said. He could paint The 613, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time following them.

The 613 is not Rand’s first foray into Jewish themes. He’s been painting with faith in mind for more than thirty years. His most notable project is the painted shul, the B’nai Yosef Synagogue on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, which he covered in a 13,000 square foot mural. The work initially drew controversy from the congregation and a group of rabbis who argued that it violated the injunction against graven images. But after Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, considered the highest orthodox rabbinic authority at the time deemed the work kosher, Rand was vindicated. In fact, Rand said the lack of Jewish iconography is belied by the Dura Europos, a third century BCE synagogue uncovered in Syria in the 1930s. The ancient shul is decorated in elaborate paintings that depict Moses receiving the Commandments, the flight from Egypt and the history of the Jewish people in that place. Rand draws deep inspiration from Dura Europos as an affirmation that visual art can indeed be Jewish.

“I assume the culture would need to have produced artists, but we don’t know who they are, because the art was always destroyed,” he said.
The 613 will be carefully preserved. Rand said he has made his son promise to care for the massive collection after his death.

The 613 is an overwhelming work. Standing beneath it, the viewer can’t even take it all in at once. The eye is drawn across the work in a scattered flurry, attracted to the vivid comic-book images painted in garish colors. And that’s the point, Rand said. He wanted the viewer to feel immersed in The 613. The individual paintings aren’t drawn in visually august tones— the comic-book style doesn’t suggest heavenly choirs. Rather, like the eminently practical rules themselves, the painting’s style is vernacular, accessible.

There is seemingly no end to the rules. Do not plant a tree as a sacred pole. Do not cut your hair at the temples. Do not eat unclean animals. Do not wear cloth woven of linen and wool. Pay wages on the day they were earned. Do not destroy fruit trees even during a siege. They could become oppressive, an invitation to obsessive compulsive disorder, a ceaseless, hectoring voice. Instead the work is calming.

“The feeling I got was that of standing under the image of the deity Pantocrator in a Byzantine church,” he said, referring to the mosaics of the head of Christ that cover the massive domed ceiling of some eastern European and Turkish churches. The mosaics dwarf and envelope the viewer. “When this stuff came together this was bigger than me. It’s frightening and incredibly comforting.”

In the hands of painter Archie Rand, as in the lives of the devout who endeavor to conform their lives to the law, the 613 mitzvot of orthodox Judaism are like a warm embrace, a familiar reminder of an all-present G-D.