Archie Rand recently published an unusual book, The 613 (Blue Rider Press, 2015), reproducing his extraordinary series of paintings corresponding to the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Hebrew Bible. John Ashbery praised it as a “mesmerizing wall of colored shapes and visual oratory” while Art Spiegelman could only exclaim, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Wow!’” Barry Schwabsky met with the artist to find out more about the project and its background.
Barry Schwabsky (Rail): So, Archie, we’ve known each other since, I think, 1983 (Maybe that shouldn’t be revealed! People might guess our age) when you were exhibiting very actively in the New York art world and probably much further afield as well. At a certain point you seemed to step aside from that arena. Is that right? And if so, why?
Archie Rand: Sometime around the late 1980s, it started to occur to me that the art world was following a predictable trajectory. I saw how the hegemony of the art market was working and how artists either subscribed to that, or, if they were an earlier, more beatnik generation, decided to drop out in anger and disgust. I wasn’t angry or disgusted, but I was bored. I realized that a lot of what I wanted to do, whether it was working with religious subject matter, which I knew was taboo, or working with poetry, for which I knew there was no market (for a number of reasons)—there was not going to be any commercial viability for that product. And I sort of made the decision that I didn’t really care. I had a system of patrons who were very supportive, and that kept me somewhat protected from the clutches of the gallery system, which was a unique and very fortunate situation. So I just sort of silently tiptoed backwards a little bit. There was no real antipathy. I just said, “Well I don’t really feel like doing this anymore, I want to do what I want to do.”
Rail: What was it about using religious subject matter that drew you, that spoke to you?
Rand: When I was doing the B’nai Yosef murals in the mid ’70s, the painters who were slightly older than I, who were formerly my colleagues and friends—we would drink at Fanelli’s and Max’s—started to become very obviously repelled by what I was doing. The figuration bothered them—the fact that I was working representationally. But the religious stuff bothered them as well, and a lot of that had to do with the edict that Clem Greenberg had set down, where he had figured out that what Jews are supposed to do is evaporate—basically convert, assimilate, and just erase themselves. That was Clem’s attitude. I was annoyed by that. I was much more Brooklyn. I thought, you know, many critics, and a good chunk of the dealers and collectors and many artists at that time were Jewish, although they did not identify as Jews. I was aware that it was not an intelligent thing for someone to do, to declare their Jewishness. And consequently, there was no sensate manifestation of Jewish art forms. I figured, every culture has to have the five senses somehow accommodated, and Judaism had amputated its access to the visual. I just thought it would be interesting to see what that looked like since nobody had done it before. Or rather, none of it existed; I’m sure plenty of people did it. And I wanted to see what those kinds of paintings would look like. It started out quite innocently, but also it was a bit of a counterpunch, because there was some real animosity that I was facing, aside from the older painters. Jules Olitski was very supportive, and Philip Guston was very supportive. And, although they were antithetical as artists, they were both older, and they remembered the WPA (Work Progress Administration), and they equated my mural painting with social realism. Both Jules and Philip used my work as a catalyst to re-enter their own Jewish-like thinking as they got older. Jules called me up once and asked me what the colors of the afterlife were, because he was doing a commission for the Holy Blossom Temple in Canada. And we went and had lunch and I explained to him what I knew from Midrashic iconography. But that’s the kind of information that almost nobody wanted, nobody needed, and is still fairly irrelevant to the discourse. But, as the discourse gets more and more porous, and as the discourse, basically, is collapsing in on itself, I find less pressure to conform.
Rail: I’m going to ask what might be a really dumb question—
Rand: Go right ahead!
Rail: Are you religious?
Rand: No. [Laughter.]
Rail: So you’ve plunged yourself into this arena, which is essentially an arena that doesn’t exist, or didn’t exist before you made it. You’ve entered a tradition that is deeply textual and only very skimpily iconographic, and you’ve been somehow trying to create an iconography, almost, out of stray threads. If your motivation for doing it is not the motivation of a religious believer, then what is the motivation?
Rand: It’s a kind of Brooklyn arrogance. When I was doing religious commission work—when I was doing the B’nai Yosef murals, and later the Jerusalem Teachers College murals, and a lot of the stained-glass work I did in Chicago—all of my imagery had to be approved by a series of rabbis or scholars and the visual was always subservient to the textual. I found that pretending to acquiesce to this charade was not going to keep making good art, as everything would end up being illustrational. All of the guts would be taken out of it once you subscribed to all of the differing verbal interpretations that were really tacit directions. So it occurred to me that what Judaism needed was to put the visual in a place of primacy and to depose the textual, which nobody would dare do because no rabbi would accept it. Ah, Jewish professionals. I wanted to reimpose a lost Jewish proletariat. And I figured, I don’t really care. At this point, I had certain distant role models to go by. One of the people I’d met through Larry Poons and Clem Greenberg was Barnett Newman, and Newman used to say things like, “you know, painters paint so they can have something to look at.” I figured, I’ve never seen this, I want to see what it would look like if I did something that was absolutely, undeniably Jewish, but didn’t depend on nostalgia, didn’t depend on repeating the same old tired symbols. What if you just took something from liturgy, scripture, tradition, and painted it as if that were a totally normal thing to do? And the pictures came out very strange.
Rail: In doing that—and maybe this is starting to bring us more specifically to the The 613, which is the book whose publication is the occasion for this conversation—it seems that you’ve always operated by trying to exhaustively work your way through the text that you are, in a sense, betraying (if I can call it that). In the Catholic iconography that we’re all familiar with from the whole history of European painting, there are many, many, many different strands, but fundamentally there are a few basic images that are the kind of essential images that artists have painted over and over and over again—Christ on the cross, the Madonna and child, certain popular saints, and so forth. There are canonical images that each artist had to interpret and reinterpret. By contrast, vast amounts of the Christian Bible, and vast portions of the lives of the saints were hardly ever treated by any painter. In a sense, with a book like The 613, you’re not choosing the commandments that are the most picturable, the ones that are going to be emblematic of an idea that can live with us forever. No, every single one has equality, in your view, and each one has to be represented. Each has to have its own page.
Rand: What I wanted to do was make the visual image so inherently iconographic that one would be attracted primarily to the visual, and then as an afterthought, sort of, pick up on what the text was. You used the word “betrayal”—it’s not a betrayal. There’s a difference between being subversive and being transgressive. It might be transgressive but it’s not really subversive. That is, the culture actually needs this kind of thing, but it can’t exist if the textual is going to insist on its dominance. So the iconography, basically, has to be invented. Now—and I get this from working with poets—you know, when I do collaborative work with poets, I realize that the image and text have to have a counterbalance so evenly weighted that you bounce back and forth and it all becomes a song.
Rail: How different it would have been if you had chosen, say, the twenty that could make us think, “Ah, how relevant and wonderful is our religious tradition.” I was going through and I read, I think it was number 490: “Designate refuge cities and prepare routes of access.” Well, what would be more relevant to the situation of the world today that’s full of refugees who need routes of access, and need cities of refuge, than for people to think that they should follow this commandment? But then you read another page—and I don’t remember which one this was—but, fundamentally, it says, “Destroy the cities of the idolaters,” and then the next one is, “Don’t ever let the cities be rebuilt.” And suddenly you think, oh, so the Bible’s telling us to do what ISIS does now.
Rand: Yes. My point is simply to highlight this. And the fact is, I don’t know whether it’s because Jews are such a minority, or whether it’s because we’re on center stage in the world, or maybe we just don’t have any guns—we have the same rules that other crazy religions have. I wanted to beam a spotlight on that, that’s why I picked the 613; the 613 is something that’s at the armature of observance, it’s something that’s only used by the orthodox. Frequently Jews who have seen that I was working on this project would say to me, “I didn’t know that there were 613 mitzvahs.” So I didn’t want to keep doing something like the Psalms, or the Ten Commandments. I wanted to do something that was so stinkingly Jewish, that it had to be identified as something that was claiming iconographic territory in a specifically Jewish way.
Rail: Let’s talk about how the iconography works, in relation to the text. In a few of the paintings, there seems to be a very clear relationship between the image and the text, but much more often the relationship appears very oblique, if not almost arbitrary. How did that come about, and why?
Rand: Well, I realized that I did not want to be textually obedient. And I also realize that as humans we are hardwired to assume that the magic in paintings—and I do believe paintings are magic machines—makes us assume that there is a narrative that the picture represents. And I thought that if I cleave too closely to what the text says, it will end up being illustrational—and, as a double negative, neutralize its own value. But if I don’t dutifully replicate the word, and if the image is strong enough, people will remember that particular image and it either will conjure up the specifics of a text or it will allow people, suddenly, to daydream and ignore the text. But, my point isn’t to get people to be religious. I was simply using this as a skeleton on which to slather something that would proclaim itself as being almost arbitrarily Jewish, knowing that we are, as I said, programmed to unite some kind of absolute narrative meaning to any picture that we see. That’s not belligerence, that’s a kind of generosity as far as I can see. What I want to have happen is for the 613 to be enumerated textually as equally available sentences, equally available spores for study, or for mad-libs, or whatever one wants to do with them. But to give them the respect of knowing that I invested each of these with an equal labor. They’re not illustrations. They’re not supposed to make sense. They’re supposed to interact the way almost any good collaborative work with any poetic text would work. I’m treating these as if they were lines of poetry rather than scary things from the rabbis.
Rail: I also feel like you’re collaborating, not only with the text, but with whole realms of art history and, not only high art history, but image histories from outside art, from hard-boiled detective movies, and—
Rand: Well, the main diet of these pictures was my fascination with the artists of the EC Comics. And those were people who were either working for or were strongly influenced by Will Eisner. Drawings are seen in Western culture as preparatory notions for larger oil paintings. Therefore, drawings were never taken seriously. Only cartoons were made on the assumption that they had to be believed as drawings. And, in fact, they were. Jews who went to art school found that they were never allowed full membership into the higher discourse of fine art, so a large number of artists of that generation fell into whatever categories of art-making were available to them as Jews. There was the famous duo of Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine. Will Eisner had this little subcutaneous dynasty going over in the comic book place, and it comes to a head in the late ’40s, and early ’50s when they’re doing all these incredibly morbid in-jokes—and garishness is something that belongs to the Eastern European Jew. There’s this kind stomping on the ground with muddy boots and wiping your mouth with your sleeve; Eisner is very aware of that, and he courts that in the outrageousness of his style and the snarky improbability of his stories. These guys from EC Comics were making the most gory, horrible stuff. Finally, when Congress puts an end to it with the comics code, these very same artists and writers put out Mad Magazine. And I don’t know of an artist my age—never met one—who wasn’t strongly influenced by Mad Magazine. Those Mad magazines in the 1950s were just damn brilliant; they keep getting reprinted because they’re incredible. A large percentage of those artists were Jewish. That’s, in fact, where the Jewish artist could go, to this fringe thing of Ernie Kovacs’s type of nutsiness, Marx Brothers-type nutsiness. It was the kind of vulgar extreme that you see in people like Mel Brooks. I related to that as one of the few threads of Jewish visual language that I could grasp onto.
Rail: How does Cézanne get into this? Is that because those guys can just take up Cézanne like they can take up anybody?
Rand: Despite Cézanne’s anti-Semitism, he was a household god because of the democracy of his approach to art, which is why a lot of marginalized people, I’m thinking of Gorky here, gravitate towards him despite his political leanings. Cézanne makes every element in his picture equal. There is no object in Cézanne. He is a kind of socialist. It’s funny that you caught that. There’s only one Cézanne in the whole damn book. You know, Cézanne was an extremely religious person. He never missed a mass, and that means a lot to me. I figured, he’s religious and he works in these atomic brushstrokes, which, as I mention in the introduction, act to express nature as egalitarian—sort of atomizing all elements to an equality in the universe. We see that continue as a format in the civic consciousness of some religious people. In Judaism there is a fad for “Tikkun Olam” or “repairing the world.” Despite the fact that he didn’t work serially, because of his brushstroke, and the influence it had, Cézanne is sort of the father of serialism or even of the grid. Pissarro taught him that with each brushstroke he should change the color, giving each brushstroke its own nationhood. Picasso said Cézanne was his papa, which I find heartwarming when you realize that Cubist space doesn’t really have a beginning or end. You can take any painting by Picasso or Braque and simply extend it, put it in Photoshop, keep repeating it and the space would continue. It’s wonderful in a way, a very equalizing, non-Western space. That’s why I say it’s funny that I’ve got 614 paintings and you pick the one Cézanne. That’s why Cézanne is in there. Who doesn’t love Cézanne? Cézanne wrote a letter in 1905 to Maurice Denis. I actually hadn’t thought about this in a while, but the quote you learn in art school is that you should learn to look at all objects in nature as cones, spheres, and cylinders. That’s half of the sentence he wrote to Maurice Denis. The complete sentence is, “you should look at nature as if it’s all cones, spheres, and cylinders, and whatever God the omnipotent Father of us all has graced to put before our eyes.” It’s a religious, ecological sentence. It makes sense in that context, talking about God’s plan. Out of that context it’s simply theoretical, a piece of arbitrary Cambiaso-type structural advice that doesn’t have any gravitas, doesn’t have any meaning. The meaning is that God has made everything equal and interlocking. The air is equal to the tree—it’s made of the same stuff. That makes a lot more sense.
Rail: For those of us, like me and you, who are not religious, how do you attain that gravitas? Or is it more a question of how do we learn to live without it?
Rand: What I’m interested in is the human need to believe in meaning, and as such, the concept of the Divine is simply a receptacle for gratitude. That’s what Coltrane’s liner notes in A Love Supreme refer to. It’s a lot more logical, if not organically healthy, than not believing—or hoping. It takes a lot of effort to be an agnostic. You can’t hope. Cornel West talks about his trading in faith for hope. There’s no such thing as a coincidence unless you’re, in a sense, religious. Otherwise it’s simply an unremarkable random occurrence, without meaning or the glimmer of consequence. I think all of us, unless we work very, very hard at it, have to place our faith in something. Wallace Stevens says that poetry is where we put our faith when religion loses its force. At this point, I, along with every other artist alive in any field, am grasping for, and am fascinated by, some belief system. Not only what is important but why? Unanswerable. So I’m interested in the fact that beings need to believe, and that alone is enough to give a certain kind of gravitas. What else is a dog’s faithfulness if not belief?
Rail: I always think of a statement of Matisse, who’s also an atheist: “in order to express my so-to-speak religious feeling toward life, I paint the figure.” I like that “so-to-speak,” because it was an acknowledgement of how his feeling was and wasn’t religious. Looking at the art world, or the art of the art world, from this perch that you made for yourself, slightly at a tangent to it, do you see other people working today with whom you can find an affinity?
Rand: Matisse also says something else. Few people read the text of Jazz. They know the cut-outs. He says very clearly: “Do I believe in God? Yes I do. When I’m working.” In other words, I don’t understand where this stuff is coming from, and I give credit and gratitude to that which feeds me. When I’m out of the studio, he says, I don’t believe in God because it seems like I’m watching a magician whose sleight-of-hand is something I just can’t figure out.
I figured that this gap, this confusion, is where belief comes from. I look towards anyone that shows the capacity at this point—and this only has to do with my particular affectation for beliefs—for relentlessness. Relentlessness is the symptom of an unspoken belief. It manifests necessity. Having been steeped in the birthright of Williams and Pound I look conversely at people like John Ashbery and Cecil Taylor. Marginalized artists. I’ve known Cecil Taylor since I was fifteen years old. I get enormous nutrition out of the fact that he could play for five hours and make it sound beautifully composed. Cecil needs to do this. He’s taught me everything. He said that if the music is true, the form takes care of itself. I visited Malcolm Morley a couple of weeks ago. Malcolm is like a child discovering a new toy, and he needs to invest his belief that something he’s working on is filling that appetite for importance. The fact of his own interest validates its importance—it is not his bailiwick to prove it by argument. Those are the kind of artists that I look at. They are few.
What the MFA programs have done for the past forty-five years is destroy the capacity for that kind of ruthless, recklessly unaccountable imagination. Fantasy has to pass review as a recognized fairy tale. We are thick in the drool of academy. They’ve relegated everything to a kind of sophistry, which is why the Whitney Biennial hasn’t changed in forty-five years. I look for people who are absolutely driven—that to me is the costuming of belief. Simple relentlessness: if a poet needs to write continually, if a musician needs to play continually, if an artist needs to paint continually.
When I first started to be involved in the art world, when I was a teenager, some older painters would say I painted too much. And I remember a quote from Leontyne Price when she said—it was a contemporary article and I recall reading it at the time—“I’m a singer, and people tell me I sing too much. When I’m not singing, I’m not only just like everybody else, but even less so, because all I have is my singing. I’m nobody if I’m not singing. At least I recognize myself when I’m singing.” I read that with clarity and I understood what she was saying. When I’m not painting, I’m an asshole. I’m just another schmuck. When I’m working, I’m working in conjunction with this God apparatus. I’m that clichéd, sophomoric, naïvely repulsive thing that hippie art schoolteachers call “the vessel.” I’m inert. I let things come through me. I’m passive and grateful for it. When I’m through with it, I’m sometimes horrified by, or giggle at, what I see but I don’t care. Because it’s not really mine. It came through me. The religious or spiritual aspect of that is only apparent to me after the fact.
Rail: Is there any possibility for editing when you work that way?
Rand: No, because you’re transcribing a dictation. The whole concept of whether something is good or bad is not only irrelevant, but nonexistent to me. Once you relieve yourself of aligning yourself with the larger dialogue, the notion of quality is irrelevant, because your job is to take dictation as clearly as possible. Now, that, oddly, is a Poundian notion. Does that mean you turn out a lot of bad work? I don’t know. I don’t know what bad is, I just turn out a lot of stuff.
Rail: With a work like The 613, is it all one work?
Rand: It’s one painting. I read an interview with Richard Price for the Lush Life show on the Lower East Side. He wrote this great Lush Life book, and it was maybe three, four years ago that nine galleries decided to have a Lush Life show. Richard Price went, and the New Yorker wrote about it. The journalist walked around with Price, and asked did these paintings reflect something about the book? He said, “No, they have nothing to do with it. It would be a mistake for me to fault them on that, because just like you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, you don’t bring a book to an art show.” That’s a really cool comment. I’m a big Richard Price fan.
Rail: That’s a great line. But you brought an art show to a book.
BARRY SCHWABSKY is the art critic of The Nation.