New York

Archie Rand, Therefore, God exists., 2017, acrylic on canvas, 24 × 18". From “The Cherry-Blossom Proof” series, 2017.

Archie Rand, Therefore, God exists., 2017, acrylic on canvas, 24 × 18". From “The Cherry-Blossom Proof” series, 2017.

Archie Rand

Although Archie Rand’s long career as a painter has shown many—and sometimes seemingly incompatible—aspects, he has become best known (or perhaps, best underknown) for presenting Jewish themes on a sometimes extravagant scale and in his own highly idiosyncratic way. Among his noteworthy projects is “The 613,” 2008, a series of, yes, 613 paintings (that’s 1,700 feet of wall space to you!), each of which is meant to correspond to one of the mitzvoth, the commandments or rules for behavior scripturally required of all Jews. Other ensembles are more manageable, e.g., the ten paintings of “Had Gadya,” 2006, one for each verse of the titular song sung on Passover. “Misfits,” Rand’s previous New York show, at Totah gallery in 2019, presented a group of thirty-six portrait-like works, which I took as representations of the Lamed Vavniks, the thirty-six righteous people for whose sake, according to a mystical tradition, God refrains from destroying a corrupt world.

The thing is, you’d probably have to be at least as steeped in Jewish learning as Rand himself to see the connections between his raucously demotic, ferocious, and sometimes horror-soaked tableaux—indebted to EC Comics, WPA murals, pulp-paperback art, and Color Field painting—and his sacrosanct subject matter, the fruit of a possibly heretical (or at least transgressive) desire “to put the visual in a place of primacy and to depose the textual,” as he has said. Perhaps surprisingly, these textual depositions feel gentler and less irreverent when the artist is dealing with secular literature, as he did in this show. The exhibition featured twenty Motets (After Eugenio Montale), all 2013, and two series from 2017 titled after a pair of short poems by David Shapiro: “Truth but Slant” (with six paintings for the poem’s six lines) and “The Cherry-Blossom Proof” (four panels for four lines).

In the Motets in particular, Rand tamps down his usual urge to razz; he reaches instead for more orthodox reference points—Rembrandt’s Bathsheba in panel two, the crucifixion of Christ in number eight, the Three Graces of panel nine, and so on—albeit these are surrounded by cartoonier imagery, like the marginalia in a medieval manuscript. Any relation to the poems’ imagery seems whimsical—yes, the depiction of Saint George killing the dragon, seen in panel two, corresponds to a reference in Montale’s second “Motet,” but that’s an exception. The most recurrent motif in the paintings, seen in nearly half the canvases, is a horse, but the animal is mentioned only in passing in the poet’s verses. They must be a homage to Giorgio de Chirico, whose paintings’ “frozen hysteria,” Rand says, gave him a foil for responding to Montale. Rand’s art presents a sharp contrast to the dry and reticent quality of the text, which forces its eloquence out of taciturnity. Yet the strangely somber mood of the Motet paintings—warmed by the reds that dominate them, yet somehow muffled by the odd textures produced by the folds of the fabric affixed to the canvases—matches the gloomy intensity of Montale’s desolate poetry.

By contrast, Shapiro’s two little lyrics highlight the poet’s wit and sweetness of tone. Each line appears as a speech bubble in one of the paintings, which in their own cockeyed way correspond more closely to the text than do the Montale-inspired works. “Truth but Slant” plays on a famous line from Emily Dickinson—“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”—which is often taken to encapsulate her oblique poetics. Shapiro translates Dickinson’s “truth” by turning it into a dagger, which gets driven into the poet’s back by his beloved. He helpfully advises her on technique: “Never / plunge it straight in. / always do it at an angle.” Rand renders this sideways doom in a series of comic-book struggles featuring a lion, a bug-eyed alien, and the grim reaper himself, among others, while the elegiac consolation of Shapiro’s “The Cherry-Blossom Proof”—“You send me longish letters. / therefore, god exists.”—inspires imagery worthy of the world’s most profound children’s book. After all, why shouldn’t a fuzzy toy panda on the floor in the panel bearing the poem’s last line testify to the deity being with us?