The painter Archie Rand is inspired by Jewish texts and history in a big way. His most recent project—a pictorial interpretation of each of the 613 mitzvot in the style of MAD Magazine comic books from 1950s and pulp fiction—is wildly expansive. Rand was at Temple Emanuel in Newton last week on behalf of the Jewish Arts Collaborative to discuss his work and his newest book, “The 613,” with Rabbi Michelle Robinson. But first he gave a talk, which he framed by distinguishing that he wasn’t “a Jewish artist making art, but an artist making Jewish art.”
The concept of “The 613” is reminiscent of the writer and humorist A.J. Jacobson’s book “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” Jacobs spent a year observing as many of the 613 commandments as possible. The challenge was that many of these commandments were obsolete and only practiced in the two temples in Jerusalem, the second of which was destroyed in 70 C.E.
Rand, who is 67, has had a notable career as a painter of secular topics in American culture. He didn’t begin working with Jewish subjects until the 1970s, when he was commissioned to paint a series of now-iconic murals in the B’nai Yosef Synagogue in Brooklyn. He has also blazed an artistic path through Jewish numerology beginning in 1972, when he showed 10 paintings he named after the 10 rabbis that appear as martyrs in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Since then, the prolific artist has created a painting for each of the 54 Torah portions read throughout the year, and he has painted a series of paintings that depict the 39 forbidden labors of the Sabbath. Another of his synagogue murals was based on the 19 blessings that comprise the daily Amidah, which literally translates as the “standing prayer.”
Although he deals with religious subjects, Rand was initially in new territory where Jewish art was concerned. Judaism’s prohibition of rendering images of living creatures or religious figures has been deeply imbedded in the Jewish psyche for millennia. The challenge, Rand said, was, “If I was going to invent an iconography, the visual had to be the primary text and the text [itself] secondary.” Although Rand had few Jewish artists who dealt with explicitly Jewish themes to look to, the 20th-century painter Marc Chagall had gone as far as creating and using the sort of Jewish visual vocabulary that Rand eventually deployed.
Rand’s iconoclasm ran him afoul of traditional Jews who regarded his first murals for B’nai Yosef as idolatrous. The conflict set the stage for what Rand described as a trial of sorts, which was adjudicated by the venerable Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. One of the most influential thinkers in Modern Orthodox Judaism, Feinstein ruled that not only could Jews make art that honored God, but those failing “to employ their gift will be called to account.” Rand, however, offered an alternative explanation for what got him in trouble with Jewish traditionalists. “Jews,” he said, “move around. The murals or frescoes I was painting in synagogues cannot be moved. And they emanate values and identity 24/7. That kind of permanence is antithetical to the Diaspora mentality.”
“The 613” is the culmination of decades of study and reflection on the Torah and Jewish liturgy. Rand spent five years creating a visual representation of each mitzvah on 20-inch by 16-inch panels framed by a gold border. Altogether these panels make up the stunning 100-foot by 17-foot work that is “The 613.” Critics have suggested that Rand’s style for the project—inspired by the genius of Jewish comic-book artists of the 1950s, like Will Eisner and Stan Lee—is not merely nostalgic, but a rendering of his youth. The Wall Street Journal noted: “The nostalgic iconography of ‘The 613’ suggests that the whole thing takes place in the territory of Mr. Rand’s youth, if not his unconscious—a landscape of larger-than-life emotions, pencil mustaches and marcelled hair, of glamorous but distraught women and muscular, volatile men ready to throw a punch.”
Rand considers the comic-book language of “The 613” as a “legitimate inheritance” that deepens his interest in Jewish art. He also views the work as his most Jewish endeavor. “Jesus said specifically that his followers didn’t have to follow the 613 mitzvot,” he said to Rabbi Robinson. “This is a purely Jewish work. And I think it shows an enormous love for Jewishness and the Jewish people who have carried this legacy around for 2,000 years.”