Archie Rand paints a lot, paints big, and paints complex. Since his first gallery exhibition in 1966—when he was only 16—he has been recognized as a prodigiously talented artist. Over three and half decades he has turned himself into one of the most important Jewish painters in America. For all that, he has found it increasingly difficult to show.
Part of Rand’s problem is that he has tended to paint large series of large works. In the last 20 years, he has produced, among other things, Sixty Paintings From the Bible, The Eighteen (based on the Amidah prayer), and The Seven Days of Creation. His most insanely impressive performance was The 613, 1,700 square feet of contiguous, raucously painted panels, each one devoted to a single mitzvah. The work is too big to exhibit in any conventional space, so he showed it in a warehouse in Brooklyn for exactly four hours in 2008.
His 2006 series Had Gadya, on view at Borowsky Gallery at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia through May 5, is more tractable. Ten sizable paintings illustrate the 10 verses of the song that traditionally finishes the Passover Seder. They show Rand at his best. They also demonstrate why he occupies such an odd position in American art. He is just too religious to be secular and too secular to be religious. Whereas most Jewish painters have been interested in abstract spirituality, candied nostalgia, or a kind of documentary accounting for Jewish life, Rand has recognized that Judaism turns on the Law and on ritual observance. So, he paints pictures devoted to the mitzvot and to prayers. But he is neither pious nor blatantly ironic, which is what gives his work its tension and its energy.
As a song, “Had Gadya” is something of an enigma. On the surface, it is a cumulative tune for children, similar to “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.” A father buys a kid; the kid is eaten by a cat; the cat by a dog and so on up the food chain until the Holy One kills the Angel of Death. What it means and why it was included in the Seder is a matter of debate. Its apparent simplicity and its prominence scream for interpretation. Most people take it as an allegory about the various empires that have persecuted the Jews.
Rand’s Had Gadya offers layers of reference, meaning, and plausible interpretations. The pictures stand as midrashim on the song. Painted on vinyl, they stand over five feet tall and are very, very red—not entirely surprising for a ditty about death. At the same time, their brightness is fitting for such a jaunty tune. The pictures are figurative, and what they show is cobbled together from centuries of Jewish art and painting about Jews. With their dark outlines and word bubbles, they also look like comics.
As such, they should be straightforward, but the most striking thing about these paintings is that they are so elliptical. What should be central is pushed to the side. The animals and objects that serve as the main actors of the song—the kid, the cat, the dog, the ox, the stick, and the water—turn out to be nothing more than decorative features. In their place, Rand shows us scenes of instruction and of everyday life. The paintings depict 18th-century women in the kitchen; a 19th-century man with his grandson; an early 20th-century man hanging around in the street. If the song retells a story about our collective past, then these pictures contend that history takes place while we are going about our business. They reverse our usual emphasis on trauma by highlighting the ordinary.
This contention is most striking in the last of the series, the painting that goes along with the verse, “And the Holy One (Blessed be He) slew the Angel of Death.” An image of our final reward, the messianic cessation of history and death, it is just a picture of a woman lighting candles for the Sabbath. Nothing apocalyptic. Nothing more than that foretaste of redemption, the weekly invocation of universal peace. It is a quiet painting in which the Messiah is still hoped for. He has not yet arrived.
Rand’s pacification of “Had Gadya,” his translation of a song about killing and being killed into pictures of everyday life, would feel too placid were it not for the jarring, second-to-last painting, the one devoted to the destruction of the butcher by the Angel of Death. Here, Rand lifts an image from a Nazi poster, a vicious fantasy of anti-Semitic vengeance. An accusatory finger descends from the sky to point at a caricature of a rich Jew, top hat, hook nose, and all. This is a hard picture to take, in part because it is a hard picture to read.
On its simplest level, the painting restores the song to its allegorical intent. It invokes the Third Reich, the most deadly instance in a long tradition of Jew-hating empires, by reproducing one of its more hateful images. At the same time, a winged skull—an uncomfortable, if traditional, bit of Christian iconography—seems to promise salvation after death. But that skull, canted at the same angle as the avenging hand, is reminiscent of the insignia of an elite SS brigade. And furthermore, although an expression of hope, a winged skull is a specifically Christian symbol. It changes the argument of the song. Salvation after death isn’t really the issue. For Rand, “Had Gadya” becomes a song about salvation from death.
Rand’s play of ambiguities—an unsettling image that unsettles a whole series of images—lies at the heart of his work as a whole. Rand’s paintings are about the mixture of fatality, hope, and adherence to tradition that makes Judaism distinct. Rand knows a lot about Jewish texts and seems to know almost everything about the history of Jewish (and non-Jewish) art. He lets this knowledge jostle around. He pits incongruities against each other. His paintings argue and question.
And so here’s the rub. Rand’s paintings take Judaism seriously without falling into old-world kitsch or unexamined faith. In their range of reference and their demanding juxtapositions, they are postmodern but are never dismissive. Rand’s pictures just won’t fit. This is his distinction. It is also the reason why you rarely get the chance to see his work.