Transgressions, Archie Rand, and the Bible in Contemporary Art

Samantha Baskind

Figure 1. Archie Rand. Adam, 1992. Acrylic and marker on canvas, 18 x 24 in. From the series Sixty Paintings from the Bible. Courtesy of the artist.
For some Jews, transgression in art was once considered the mere making of art. The long-standing canard that until the modern era Jews did not make art, and should not make art, was grounded in the assumption that obedience to the biblical proscription against "graven images" denied them this opportunity. Even though the second commandment has little to do with religious belief or practice, but rather a great deal to do with how Jews have imagined Jewish art, to some degree the heritage of this "prohibition" still affected Jewish artists. Maurice Sterne, who in his own day was famous enough to command the first one-person exhibition by an American artist at the Museum of Modern Art (1933), recalled being chastised for his love of art: "Religious Jews took very seriously the Biblical injunction against 'graven images,' and I was punished badly one day by the rabbi of my school for drawing his picture on the ground with a stick. He said that I had broken the Second Commandment." An artist from the next generation, David Aronson, also experienced the lingering effects of the historical and cultural freight attached to the second commandment. Aronson believed he was sinning when making art: "Religion was the main purpose for survival and for whom figurative art was denied by Scriptural precept. . . . I committed the combined profanations [sic] of refusing confirmation and choosing as my life's work that which is prohibited in the second commandment—the making of graven images."

Transgressions by geographically diverse contemporary Jewish artists go far beyond an imagined broken commandment. Jewish artists paint canvases where biblical figures talk about fucking within comic book speech balloons (Archie Rand, 1992) and reconfigure film footage of Hitler to make it appear as if he is apologizing, in Hebrew, for the Final Solution (Boaz Arad, 2000). In other words, the sacred text and the sacred memory—the Bible and the Holocaust—are startlingly desacralized.

Even before the sacred became desacralized, the simple presence of Jewishness in art made some viewers uncomfortable. That is, for some it felt unseemly, transgressively indecorous, to have Jewish subject matter appear in art. In a 1955 review in Commentary magazine, for instance, critic Hilton Kramer denigrated Hyman Bloom's expressionist canvases of rabbis and other Jewish subjects: "To the 'foreign' eye, which brings no associations to it, it must be as absorbing as a kosher dinner—a matter of taste. But for the observer who has associations with this imagery from childhood onwards, Bloom's Jewish paintings stimulate the same surprise and dismay one feels at finding gefilte fish at a cocktail party. It's a bit too stylish to be palatable."

Curator Norman Kleeblatt of New York's Jewish Museum experienced similar discomfort when confronted by especially strong Jewish material, but he dealt with that reaction more productively. Kleeblatt visited Archie Rand's studio in 1989, where he saw the artist's Fifty-Four Chapter Paintings. This series of like-numbered canvases depicts the weekly chapters of the Torah sometimes with literal iconography and at other times symbolically or abstractly, all labeled in Hebrew. Reacting with "embarrassment," to use Kleeblatt's words, at the paintings' "excessive 'Jewishness,'" the curator soon resolved to explore the upsurge in Jewish material in several artists' work. Rand's Fifty-Four Chapter Paintings inspired Kleeblatt's groundbreaking exhibition, Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities (1996).

Rand's vast body of work, transgressive in style and subject, is inspired by the artist's belief that he must augment Jewish pictorial expression, which brings us full circle to the misunderstood prohibition against graven images: "I realized that one of the rights and obligations of any culture is to manifest a visual exponent of that culture. Judaism had been forced externally and internally to ignore that impulse." Let us now look at some paintings from Rand's breakthrough series, Sixty Paintings from the Bible (1992), his earliest on a Jewish theme in a comic book style and largest series to that moment, to better understand his relentlessly consistent interest in creating avant-garde art with Jewish subject matter.

Each loosely painted canvas in Sixty Paintings from the Bible portrays a familiar moment from the Hebrew Bible or the Apocrypha, most rendered expressionistically and in comic book Technicolor. Speech bubbles, encapsulating text written in marker, explicate each story. Within the various-sized balloons Rand inserts everyday vernacular, shaped by closely consulting corresponding biblical passages. Looking at the Standard English translations and then examining the Hebrew, Rand concluded that the English often did not quite accord. Recognizing that the original words were more powerful and dramatic, Rand introduced his loose adaptations of the biblical text. He likens this process to one used by Borscht Belt performers: take an expected conclusion and throw a curve ball. Rand's colloquial interpretations, both stylistically and through the attribution of common language to the biblical figures, convey drama and sometimes humor, adding a fresh, accessible, postmodern perspective to foundational stories that have shaped Judaism as well as human civilization. The canvases in the series offer unexpected rereadings designed to make viewers think twice about proverbial tales.

Adam, the first canvas in the series, reveals Adam and Eve's nudity more obviously and wittily than the old masters (fig. 1). Jan van Eyck, for example, had the original humans press fig leaves against their genitals in The Ghent Altarpiece (1430–1432). The fig leaf coverings indicate the couple's newfound shame—and minimize the embarrassment of fifteenth-century churchgoers. Masaccio painted the figures in Adam and Eve Fleeing the Garden of Eden in the Brancacci Chapel's Expulsion fresco (1425) nude, but a later artist covered the pair's genitalia (1620). In contrast, Rand cuts right to the chase, demarcating the pairs' exposed sex organs with green triangular outlines. Separated from a red-haired, Rubenesque Eve standing beside the Tree of Life at the center of the composition, Adam turns to his mate and shouts, "We're naked!" An exclamation point, large, capitalized lettering, and triple underlining convey his surprise.

Figure 2. Archie Rand. Elisha Watches Elijah Depart, 1992. Acrylic and marker on canvas, 18 x 24 in. From the series Sixty Paintings from the Bible. Courtesy of the artist.
Some canvases can be cynical and even a bit snarky about religion. Elisha Watches Elijah Depart—one of three paintings in the series devoted to Elijah's protégé—portrays the moment when Elijah passes the baton to his successor (fig. 2). Elijah leaves the world in a chariot that radiates yellow flames, while a seated Elisha, rooted to the earth on the left side of the canvas, is charged with his formidable task as prophet. The biblical text explains that Elisha asks for the faith that Elijah possesses: "I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me" (2 Kings 2:9). Playing with words, Rand's uncertain Elisha requests, as if he were sitting on a barstool: "Can I have a double portion of your spirit?" A strong drink to calm the nerves may be the best way for Elisha to blindly follow God's directives.

Unafraid to be subversive, especially in the realm of sexuality, Rand makes evident the seamier moments in the Bible. An unnamed woman of Egyptian descent, known only as Potiphar's wife, attempts to seduce Joseph. The biblical text dances around any lascivious aspects, but Rand's canvas puts them front and center (fig. 3). Lounging nude in an elaborate canopied bed with a sheet barely—and provocatively—wrapped around her body, Potiphar's wife grabs the fleeing Joseph's flaming red cape, attempting to pull him back to her. She vulgarly exhorts, in large capital letters, "Fuck me!," as opposed to the mild language of the biblical passage (in its common English translation): "Lie with me!" (Genesis 39:12). Rand paints the interior of Potiphar's wife's bedroom, a place of sexuality and lust, in sensuous colors, whereas the outer, safer, public spaces of the palace appear only in gray.

Figure 3. Archie Rand. Potiphar’s Wife, 1992. Acrylic and marker on canvas, 18 x 24 in. From the series Sixty Paintings from the Bible. Courtesy of the artist.
Viewers who cringe when viewing these paintings are missing the point. Crucially, Rand's series is not didactic religious art akin to that made by Old Masters such as Raphael and Caravaggio, but a postmodern artistic conception that tries to universalize some of the Bible's archetypal stories, delineating basic human emotions and issues, such as power, faith, humility, sexuality, and family dynamics. Nor does Rand aim to be disrespectful or wantonly shock; he feels humor offers viewers an "in" to the Bible by "taking the sacrosanct-ness out of the stories without being necessarily irreligious. There's nothing irreligious about these pictures. It's exactly what's going on, but they're painted in such a way that they become available. The notion of making something so sacred available is, still to this day, a very touchy subject." Moreover, Sixty Paintings from the Bible stands as an experiment in style, color, and word as much as a contribution to "Jewish art."

Rand knew that by working on biblical subjects in the late twentieth century, even though the paintings are not meant to be theological in nature, he would probably be excluded from the modernist discourse (and he was). Namely, the canvases are considered transgressive by the mainstream art establishment because the subject matter is understood as passé. Nonetheless, Rand's ambitious, game-changing Sixty Paintings from the Bible was a risk with consequences he was willing to take, a risk which to this day resonates in his art.