Close Talker: Alexander and Archie Rand

Below is an in depth interview between Asylum Artist and grant recipient Alexander Nemser with artist Archie Rand:

Archie Rand, born 1949, is an artist from Brooklyn, New York. Rand’s work as a painter and muralist is displayed in collections around the world, including those of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His graphic works and books are held in over 400 worldwide collections including those of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute Of Chicago, The Brooklyn Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and The New York Public Library; and are owned by many institutions among which are, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, and Johns Hopkins Universities. There have been over 100 solo exhibitions of his work. He has done work after the works of many published poets and has created collaborative work with poets Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Clark Coolidge, David Plante, John Yau, David Lehman, Jim Cummins, Bill Berkson, Lewis Warsh, Bob Holman, Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro. He was awarded, among numerous honors, the Achievement Medal For Contributions to the Visual Arts by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and he received the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Columbia University he is currently the Presidential Professor of Art at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His home and studio are located in Brooklyn.

Alexander Nemser is a writer, poet, and performer based in Brooklyn. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. He has performed internationally, from the Bowery Poetry Club to the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka. His book The Sacrifice of Abraham was published in collaboration with Nino Biniashvili in 2014 with the support of Asylum Arts. He was recently commissioned by Big Breakfast Productions to compose an original comedy pilot for TV.

“I first met Archie Rand while performing in a poetry reading to mark the closing of a paintings show by Yevgeniya Baras. Months later, Archie’s interview with Barry Schwabsky in The Brooklyn Rail provoked me to investigate The 613, a momentous series of paintings in dialog with the 613 Talmudic mitzvot. I was puzzled and dazzled by the raucousness, intractability, and distressing beauty of the images, and reached out to Archie to start a conversation. The text below is a transcription of part of our rich discussion which took place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on December 15, 2016.” -AN

AN: Do you have some peers in the struggle?

AR: For self-evident reasons there are very few painters. Irving Petlin’s work has been inspiring and, although not a painter, Helen Aylon’s work is bracing. I’d like to include Joan Snyder’s and Mark Greenwold’s work as “Jewishly flavored”, as was Kitaj’s, but musicians like Steve Reich and John Zorn and many novelists have been pecking deeper at this for a while.  It’s harder for painters.  I recently met this interesting guy, Rabbi Dan Ain, who’s a rabbi without a synagogue, who runs an organization called “Because Jewish,” and he introduced me to a guitarist named Jeremiah Lockwood. So, we made a film together, produced by Bill McGarvey and the film just got into the Lincoln Center Jewish Film Festival. Lockwood’s a formidable fellow. He’s out in California now getting a PhD in Yiddish.  His grandfather was a famous cantor and Jeremiah spent ten years on the subways with Carolina Slim.  So he’s singing liturgy as alpine blues in Yiddish. And he’s an amazing guitarist, and the movie we made is four minutes of “Kol Nidre” played with bottleneck guitar.

AN: What was your part?

AR: They took images from The 613 and the director Tatiana McCabe cross-faded them. And, frankly, the film is horrifying. When I saw it I realized, “This is a true collaboration.” The pictures are the pictures, and I’m proud of them, and I know the power that they have: it’s an insular power, that is, the power resides within your ability and desire to engage the book and the pictures. Jeremiah’s music’s the same thing: it’s extraordinary, but one has to be focused with horse-blinders on the music, and you receive nutrition back. And what Tatiana McCabe did, whom I’ve never met — it’s just the three of us — and what she did was, she took the music, she picked out the images, and she moved the images around in such a way that it works with the music. And the result is gravely moving. I can’t take credit for it. And Jeremiah can’t take credit for it, and neither can she. The three of us did something. It’s frightening, because it’s “Kol Nidre.”

AN: That’s frightening by itself.

AR: Yeah, go figure. Exactly.

AN: And other painters?

AR: There are other painters who are earnest but they’re not doing what I’m doing.   And that’s ok. But this is the problem. The problem is, I started out very young. In retrospect, I’ve been called a prodigy. You know the poet David Shapiro? David and I discussed this. David had a contract with The New Yorker in the 60s, I think he was like 16 or 18 years old. Prodigies aren’t any smarter than anybody else. It’s just, as the circle turns, at a certain age they get it, and other people get it when they’re seventy, and some people never get it, you know? So, if you get it when you’re that age… I understood the current visual aesthetic that I was supposed to engage and it wasn’t one thing. It was the historical complexities, but I was just in the right place at the right time, as was David.  So, by the time you get to your mid-twenties, you’re bored. You don’t want to do that the rest of your life: you’ve figured it out.

And David and I have talked about this: he did the same thing. So, what outsiders think is that you’ve disappeared, that you ran out of steam, you know, you lost your inspiration, you’re not on the scene…You see this happen, you see this said about people who are called prodigies all the time. It ain’t so. You just want to go someplace else that you haven’t seen before. And because of that, you’re out of the discourse.  So, because I was already an artist in the visible market I wasn’t somebody who was trying to manifest my Jewishness as a cause.  I just wanted to see what it looked like. There’s a whole bunch of Jewish artists, and they’re making either Scriptural illustrations, or using available symbols to show their identification, or they’re using a generic abstraction, which, frankly, can be annealed to anything. You know, you could take the same compositional, wallpaper abstractions and put Wagnerian Fascism onto them, and they’d work.

So, what I was trying to do was invent, unasked-for and unwanted, a Jewish iconography. I was going to force it into the system simply by producing its physical existence because we’d missed two thousand years of visual development. And there are reasons for that. So, although I have colleagues with whom I’m friendly, other painters whom I respect, who openly identify as people doing Jewish kind of work, I feel little relationship to them. Judaism has exiled the visual for very cogent reasons. I don’t know how much you want to get into this, because I could talk about this for a long time.

AN: I’m still with you.

AR: I know that we had it, visual culture, because we have the Dura-Europas murals. Painting, unlike any other art form, unlike music, theater, cinema, poetry, dance, food, unlike any other cultural expression, is the only one that’s not time-based. So, you spend an evening doing a lot of totally Jewish things: you daven in the afternoon, eat a kosher meal, you watch “Fiddler on the Roof,” you read a Philip Roth book. If you get up at three in the morning, you can still have a ham sandwich.

If you have a Jewish painting on the wall, you have a Chagall rabbi on the wall in tefillin, that’s going to broadcast 24/7, and not only to you, that these are the values that you feel comfortable having continually attacking, or addressing, or comforting you, but anyone who walks into your house will be expected to acknowledge that that image affixed to the wall is the broadcaster of the gas that identifies the space.

So, because of that, because paintings transmit continually and can’t be shut off, if you tattoo a synagogue, by naming this as a Jewish space, with murals, you do two things: the first is, you antagonize the people who expect you to be in diaspora. That is, the host culture reasons, “You’re OK now, but we’re going to kill you tomorrow, and you’re going to leave.” You know? “And this building is going to be turned into a market or a garbage dump or another house of worship.” So, there’s a kind of advertising of arrogance to have permanent Jewish art in a synagogue that resides in potentially unwelcome territory. It’s a red cape in front of a bull.

And the second thing is, because Judaism is not a hierarchical religion — in Catholicism, you’ve got a pyramidal religion. So, if you have imagery in Christianity – if you’re praying in a church, and you go to the priest, and you say to the priest, “I notice that Mary is wearing a blue veil. Does that mean that Mary actually lives in the sky, which is blue? And because she’s in the sky, if I talk to Mary through this painting, she’ll talk to Jesus, and maybe Jesus will talk to God the Father and grant my wish?” And the priest will say, “Sure. Now say three Hail Marys ”. Because paintings in the Christian culture encourage belief, because the belief is static, the belief is inflexible and therefore reliable.  Which is a great strength of Christianity.

Judaism is positively argumentative by nature. The Talmud will have fifteen conflicting decisions, and nothing is resolved. They just argue, which keeps it very fluid. So, to have a Jewish painting, in a literate society, which has no need of illustrations as the rabbis have 2,000 years of oral argument from legalistic texts from which they can draw myriad conclusions, and somebody comes to a rabbi and says, “There’s a painting of Mordechai and Esther, and Mordechai has a purple turban. Purple is Judah’s color of royalty. Does that mean that Mordechai is the scion of King David, and therefore when the “mashiach” comes, it’s going to be the Mashiach Ben Mordechai?” And the rabbi’s going to go, “It’s a painting, idiot!”  “But”, the viewer argues, “the painting just told me this, isn’t this true?” And the rabbis don’t need this as in Judaism interpretation is extrapolated solely from the text and later the evolving oral tradition, which was the necessary, portable, Diaspora tool.  So, from both interior and exterior agreement, the visual’s been kept out of Judaism, and it continues to be kept out of Judaism because it continues to pose that problem of viewer interference with the rabbinic right of educative proclamation.

Literacy is no longer a Jewish exclusive.  So pictures of instruction and reflection have become universally devalued and their qualities transferred to the entertainments. So, when I did The 613, I thought, like, Alexander and the Gordian knot, I figured, “Fuck this shit.” I said, “We haven’t got time to develop the keys of St. Peter, we haven’t got time to develop all of these centuries of iconographical language. Let me go back to Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Will Elder, you know, MAD Magazine, EC Comics, which is at least a vestige of this disgusting trash pile that Jewish artists scurried under while fine art was going on all around us, and claim that as a base of legitimate Jewish iconography.” And just invent it, haphazardly, knowing that when we look at pictures, we are umbilically, genetically connected to the supposition that if we’re seeing a picture, there’s an inherent narrative that we’re supposed to align with that picture, that the picture illustrates.

And that goes back to prehistory. I think recognizing and believing images, even imaginary ones like “the face in the rock”, is a hard-wired function of the brain. I don’t think it’s acculturated. I think we do that. Pictures are magic. I know that when a dog comes on a television set, frequently dogs will go over and look at it, and that’s pixelated! There’s even a dog TV station! So, if dogs believe in the reality of images then we certainly do. This is not a learned, sociological trait, that is, the use of art is as genetically necessary as food. It’s not as highly placed in the discussion channel, but there isn’t a college dorm room in the country that doesn’t have a poster on the wall. What does that mean? What kind of dialog is going on there visually? Spiritually?

So, I figured, let me take these commandments, which are the only really Jewish thing we have, because these commandments are the very commandments that St. Paul says that Jesus says that gentiles don’t have to follow. So they stink of their own Jewishness. Not only aren’t they of use to anybody other than Jews, they are antithetical to the construct of the other monotheistic religions – they’re actually thrown out. And I wanted to do something that just — you know the Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern?

AN: Only a pinch.

AR: One of my favorites. Nasty, bitter, disillusioned. The title of his book is “A Jew in New York”. He gets off the boat, Ellis Island, turn of the century, and he speaks Yiddish in the Lower East Side. And he’s totally, “What the hell am I doing here? Everything is horrible. It’s worse back there, but I’m on another planet here.” And he wrote a poem called, “Go Throw Them Out.” I read this poem when I was about seventeen, and unlike most things that I digest and evacuate from my life, I’ve held this poem in my head. He says, “When someone comes into your house, with their big, muddy boots stomping on the floor, you have no problem taking the whip” — I’m summarizing — “But what do you do when there’s a knock on your door in the morning, and you open the door, and there’s a six-year-old girl in a pinafore who walks in and dabbles her feet in your heart’s blood?” Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, you know? So, what I’m thinking is, “We’re the people with the big, muddy boots, we’re the people who wipe their noses on their sleeve, we’re the disgusting Jews. We’ve been put there. If I own that, rather than argue about it, I can move on.” And The 613 owns it. It says, “OK, is that what you think we are? Fine. In fact, we are. And because of that, we’re able to do things. At least we have intellectual freedom”.

There’s a book that I bought in high school on quantum physics. I know nothing about quantum physics. And the book is full of calibrations and all those equations I don’t understand with infinity symbols and so on. But I bought it because, in between that, there are anecdotes about how the scientific conclusions came about. And one of them is Einstein and Niels Bohr, and this exchange of letters, it goes on for about twenty pages. And Niels Bohr says to Einstein, “This theory of relativity’s really great, how’d you come up with it?” And Einstein says, “Well, it was intuitive.” And he says, “I mean like, whose work did you look at that you could build on their work and then extrapolate?” Then Einstein says, “You know, when I fed the math in, none of the preceding stuff worked. Theoretically, it was pretty, but the figures didn’t work.” And Bohr says, “Yes, but your thinking had to come from somewhere.” That is, Bohr has this absolute belief in the evolution of a creative idea. Like, when I went to school, they said, “First you learn to draw, then you can be an abstractionist.” Which, of course, is bullshit. But that’s what we were told: “There’s an order to this.”  And Einstein finally writes to him, lovingly, but he’s desperately trying to get rid of his question, and, in the middle of a paragraph, he drops this sentence: he says, “My dear Bohr, blah blah blah blah blah,” then this: “I simply chose to ignore an axiom.” And I thought, “ Wow, that’s Jewish.”

You know, all of Lenny Bruce, all of Marc Chagall — who’s continually put down by people, and invariably I have painter friends say to me, “One day, you’ll convince me about Chagall.” I figure, “Fuck you. A six-foot tall rabbi with tefillin after the Dreyfus case in Paris in the midst of all that anti-Semitism? What balls. Nobody touches my Chagall. Fuck you.” Nobody gets it. I mean, I have yet to meet a Chagall fan. Aside from the ladies in Scarsdale, who get it. The ladies in Scarsdale are the shtetl. For whatever his reasons, in the 1950’s ,Picasso called Chagall the greatest colorist of the century. What’s your problem?

So, if you have any questions go ahead, but that’s the nutshell version. The more isolated I become, the more empowered I feel through nothing other than the euphoria of desperation. And I was unfortunate or fortunate that I actually saw this as a kid, so it didn’t come new to me. People say to me, “Oh this is so radical, blah blah blah.” When I was twenty-five years old, and I was doing the B’nai Yosef murals, I was put down by my friends who were young painters. The older painters were cool and supportive: Frankenthaler, Olitski, Guston. The younger painters were disgusted by the religion and the figuration. I mean, disgusted, angered.

I was working on the B’nai Yosef murals, and I became friends with Philip Guston. And Philip had already been into his thing for like, eight years. So, I had the experience of watching somebody throw the whole thing out the window and not look back. And to me, it was inspiring but absorbed as instructional behavior. That’s what I meant about the prodigy thing.  I was very, very lucky. That is, all of Philip’s friends were poets. No painters would talk to him, except De Kooning and Jim Brooks. Everyone else hated his guts. He had a bunch of acolyte students who painted just like him, and then there was me. So, I was actually the only painter who stayed with him the last five years of his life, with my friend, the writer Ross Feld, and I saw this race towards invented, diaristic narrative and it became like normal: “Oh, this is Philip Guston, this is the great Philip Guston, this is what he does and this is how it’s done.”  Otherwise, I’d be just another one of those painters, and New York’s filled with them. There’s thousands of them, and then I’d be another one. I think about this all the time.

AN: As I’m listening to you, some things come to my mind. First of all, I’ve been having a blast looking at The 613, I mean, I’m really digging it, and it soothes the part of me that craves some kind of definition for the way that I feel Jewish. Like, when I see the images in the book, I know it’s Jewish in the same way as me, which is a relief. Because it’s not something that you see that much. And, truthfully, in terms of imagery the only place where I was able to bliss out in that way previously was with Guston, who was probably one of the biggest influences on me artistically.

AR: Philip was about to change his name back to Goldstein when he died.

AN: One thing that comes up for me is that the choice to — “First of all, let’s have a Jewish iconography” — that’s one proposition. And a lot of people, I think, could have made such a proposition. But, to say that we will compose the Jewish iconography out of the garbage heap of comics and detritus and ruin and the proletariat, that to me, that’s where it really starts getting good. And I have this feeling that part of Judaism’s project maybe as a civilization is conceptualizing the redemption of garbage. And it’s interesting, because there’s a couple of pitfalls to be avoided: one is you can you get into just plain materialism, where you think, “OK, we’re going to elevate the material world.” And clearly, any time in history when Jews have become simply materialists, they’re at their worst.

Another place where my literary imagination goes as some kind of context for me, is like, when I was first reading those Hasidic stories from Buber, what I apprehended in it that I cherished was the sense of radical honesty about imperfection, verging on what I think I would now call comedy. And looking at something of which, with a capital “S” we “Should” be ashamed, and instead bearing it in a kind of raw, non-judgmental, perhaps a little compassionate light as, in a way, maybe the true offering back, the true gratitude offering, saying, “This is the worthy thing, what’s all around us, the crap of reality. When God says, ‘It was good,’ that’s what he was talking about, the crap. It has to include that.”

And I think, with Guston, I felt — and now also that I’ve seen your work — that trying to go into the nooks and crannies of the crapola, and not elevate it, not say it’s something other than it is, but say that, “Exactly so, by our attention, care, and slyness, our defiant willingness to embrace it, we’re kind of doing the thing that God is looking for from prayer. That’s what He actually wants to hear. That’s why He built the whole place.” And because we actually in our daily life, we live so much closer to the refuse than to the angels, it’s a huge democratic relief to feel that that baseline is where we most appropriately meet God.

AR: Yeah. See, one of the problems, among many, is the self-perception, and the exterior perception, of the exclusivity of Judaism. Judaism is full of stories of Rabbi Akiva or So-and-So hanging out with Aristotle, Rashi being a wine merchant to the duke, and Maimonides being doctor to the king or caliph, and all of these stories of how you can be a perfectly observant Jew, and live in the goyish world comfortably and under the protection of God’s mercy and goodness, is denied by the experience and consequent behavior of persecution. So, the thing about Jewish art is that it’s irrefutably a mixed marriage, because the visual has been kept alive for two millennia in the west by the Christian cultures, the “image-embracing cultures” as I said in the book. Anyone who identifies consciously as Jewish and picks up a paintbrush is inherently, at best, using parve cream or turkey bacon to begin with, if not eventually going right to bacon and barbecue. Not understanding that fact is what’s keeping interest in formulating Jewish expression down to a low simmer. That is, when I said I had colleagues that don’t get it: you know, they’ll be doing something, and they’ll be talking about Giotto or Kandinsky or the history of western art, as validator, and what I’m saying is, “Now, once you do that, you’re colluding with the oppressor.” Many feminist artists have argued this.

One of the things that I did in B’nai Yosef is I realized that if you belong to an image-embracing culture and you have a holy wall, be it the Ajanta Caves, or Aztec murals, or the Brancacci Chapel or whatever it is, you’re dealing with a hierarchical, non-disaporic religion, whatever that religion is. And as such, you not only have stylistic unity, but excellence and perfection within that concept of that stylistic unity, so you can have an evolution. Early Renaissance to High Renaissance, etc. That’s a language.

In Judaism, since we’re so farkakte [messed up, full of shit], I made it a point in B’nai Yosef to predate postmodernism by ten years. Every wall is not only different, but contradictory, both in style, technique, narrative, literary source, everything.   And my feeling at the time was, I wanted to make at least one wall available to each facet of community entrance so that everybody could find an atmosphere which they could attend. That there would be no uniform philosophical or behavioral movements to which I was appealing. I turned myself inside-out. I even made one wall consciously unfinished, which is still annoying to look at. Because I figured, “That’s a message, too.” What artists would want to put themselves in a place of deliberate aesthetic rejection? What’s the point? Now, I had a charge to do that, because I had no precedent and had to record the condition as I saw it.

Again, this is all incredibly fortunate, if you think of this as being fortunate. Not that I could have been, you know, one of Mary Boone’s people because I didn’t have the self-possession to promote myself that way and, frankly, the work had none of the earmarks of currency.  And all of this work was in a place, a synagogue, that discouraged visitors…invisible. I have no regrets. At least in what I’m doing, for better or worse, I’m the only one doing it. I get nice letters from amateurs all the time, which is comforting: it beats not getting them. But I’m not going to start a movement, until the societal and political considerations of how Jews are viewed changes, and experience and history shows us that’s never going to happen. So, this is work basically without a clientele, just a hypothetical audience.

And that’s the problem with having seen Philip when you’re 24 years old. Philip didn’t care. He knew that he needed to manifest something, and in a funny way, the generation of this stuff all ties together. This comes out of, of all people, Ezra Pound. When Pound says that the serious artist’s job is to observe as accurately as possible, and transcribe it as accurately as possible, and any aesthetic concessions is as criminal as a doctor falsifying medical reports, and the punishment for that should be execution, I thought, “You know, that’s basically what Philip was doing.” Philip was recording as accurately as possible what a fat, old failed Jew, whose friends walked out on him, drinking vodka when the doctor told him not to, eating french fries and smoking when the doctor told him not to, and in fact had four heart attacks before he finally went under in one, doing just that. He says, “Here I am, a big, fat, stupid slob.” And my personal research has shown me, although I can’t validate this I’ll believe it until I die, that the person he was looking at, was Francis Bacon. Because Bacon showed at Marlborough. And nobody was any more marginalized than — I mean, homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967. And Bacon has the bare hanging light bulbs, and the black backgrounds and could fearlessly portray the horror of his own banishment.

AN: Wow.

AR: And Philip knew everything. He was just wonderful to be around. Who are you going to look at as a Jew? You’re gonna look at somebody else who’s despised, and despite that, who comes to a self-concretization in knowingly stupid defiance. The first article I wrote on Philip, I wrote for Figura, a Spanish magazine, like a year or two after he died, and I called the article, “The Victory of the Futile.” And I think I’ve stuck by that ever since, although it’s gotten more and more complex, to the point where I began with, “Well, if you do 54 chapters from the Bible, that’s still within the rabbinical approval index. If you do 613 mitzvahs, you’re crazy.” And that alone, that perception of craziness, gives you enough distance where the insolent enormity of the project makes it incapable of being seen as just a joke. You know, you can do, as I did, the 39 forbidden labors of the Sabbath, and they can be kind of funny. You do 613 mitzvahs, and it’s not a New Yorker cartoon. There’s something really scary about somebody devoting his time to that. And I’m aware of that, and that’s — I didn’t consciously think, “That’s why I want to do it,” but I knew I had to do something that made me feel that. I mean, I wasn’t aware of the articulation of that until very recently, because I started this like 15 years ago, but in retrospect, I’m basically saying what it was that needed to be done. Because you’re not going to dick around with this stuff: “You got one life: You’re gonna do it, just do it.”

Now I’m working with poets, because nobody likes that either. I’m working with a slew of poets, doing all kinds of work that few people, at least in my lifetime, will accept because it’s dual-authorship work, indicating a “lesser” partner is involved for reasons other than the artistic imperative. And people don’t know what to do with that, because we live in a Trumpian country, where we have this xenophobic notion of the isolate hero, so even the works that Picasso and Braque did together are not sought after, “Is it a Picasso, or a Braque? What do I own?” So, I’m interested in more unmarketable stuff. And I have the luxury of doing that, because I’ve had a lot of exhibitions and I don’t really need another solo show; I don’t need, or more precisely, expect, anymore validation; I don’t need, or more truthfully, expect, anyone to pat me on the head; I don’t need, or am not optimistic about, another Times review. I’m not angry at anybody, I just want to do my work. I want to do what needs to be made tangible. Of course I’d really, really like all those things to happen, but I’m not gunning for them and I’ve put my work out of serious consideration, at least in this intellectual climate. It’s ok.

Also, in retrospect, I’m thinking, it was a perfect child of its times. I am a close friend of the pianist Cecil Taylor, who’d go on for like, five hours. And then re-arrange whole blocks of composition with each new performance, the way Spiegelman describes moving around same-sized comic book panels. And on LP you could hear Lester Young do umpteen choruses on the same changes. It was the folk generation: I’d look at the “Child Ballads,” and they’d go on for like 30 pages, each one of those units an individually contained stanza. Jack Kerouac’s scroll writing. So, by the time I met somebody like John Ashbery, I was already prepared for that, even though I was brought up in the kind of Olson-Creeley school, and I was ignored when I would mention Ashbery’s name, I mean my friends would puke. But, not being a poet, I understood that and accepted it, because I’d already been through this stuff with Philip. So, puking artists didn’t bother me. (Laughs) But, it’s all very consistent, you know? When Bob Dylan comes out, “Get sick, get well, run around –” whatever it is, it was all the more. I hear a relentlessness. Cynicism is expedient unless tempered with love. We’re all sentimental but I have no appetite for stance:  Billy Joel’s Dion DiMucci cum Fonzi routine.  Character acting.  Unlike the amazing McCartney who’s a genuine carney crooner.

AN: So, as I’ve been going through The 613 —

AR: This is making sense to you?

AN: — Total sense. I mean, the whole thing is extremely liberating, for me at least. And there’s a whole — I can even tell you a whole other thing — I wrote this book of poems about Isaac and Abraham —

AR: Excellent book.

AN: — and people —

AR: That’s one of the reasons I’ve been talking to you.

AN: Because of the book?

AR: Yeah, I think you’re really interesting. I wonder where the hell you came from. And I’m glad to hear you’re writing a TV comedy pilot, that’s cool.

AN: Funnily enough, when I wrote that book, and everybody saw that I was obsessing over this Jewish stuff —

AR: — Which is what we all call it, “The Jewish stuff.” David Shapiro is marinated in “Jewish stuff”.

AN: — Right, “The Jewish stuff.” I don’t come from a religious background at all.

AR: Me either.

AN: And my friends who were also Jewish, everybody was like, “What the hell is this?” It was very —

AR: I kind of see this as the Warsaw Ghetto mentality. That is, “I know I’m gonna die, but I’m gonna take a couple of you with me. And I’d rather die on my feet than on my knees. Fuck you.” I know that’s not marketplace speak.

AN: Except — clearly there’s no market in the big sense, but there’s some profound, smaller group of interconnected creative spiritual Jewish beings whose lifeblood is being nourished by these explorations. I mean, at least that’s my experience having these encounters. I was thinking, one thing I want to ask about The 613. As I was reading it, I was trying to ask myself, “Why is this so funny? Why do I think this is so funny? I’m really enjoying the humor of this.” And I’m thinking, “What is going on?” Because, I don’t find the commandments totally humorous on their own, on the contrary, some of them are pretty horrifying.

AR: Right, it’s the ISIS handbook.

AN: But something is going on that I experience as inherently comic, and I thought about it and I came to a conclusion. Which is that: so, classically, in a lot of comedy routines, if you have a two-hander —

AR: A two-hander?

AN: Two guys, doing a routine. You’ve got a straight man, and a fool. Or a straight man, and a wild man. You’ve got Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks; Steve Martin and John Candy. And the fool has this kind of animal, “id,” childlike, wild energy that just does its own thing over and over and over again, and the straight man is always like, “You’re driving me crazy, I’m trying to — !” You know, and he’s trying to control, or trying to corral, or trying to get the fool in line in some way, and all the shame, all the embarrassment, the straight man is expressing it. And I realized that, what I was getting reading The 613, is that Leviticus is the straight man, and Archie’s the fool. And not just Archie, but the whole wild galaxy of colorful, garish humanity in the images, that’s the wild man, and Leviticus, in every instance, is Carl Reiner being like, “This guy’s driving me crazy!”

AR: That’s very cool.

AN: It’s actually a timeless comic dynamic, and I was thrilled to realize that. So, that’s also a theological insight, which is that, on some level, the laws are an impossibility.

AR: Well, that’s what Kafka says. There’s that old Jewish joke, about the two Jews sitting in the Cafe Royale, and one says to the other, “You know, life is like a cup of tea.” You know this joke?

AN: I think so, but I want to hear you tell it.

AR: And the other one goes, “How is life like a cup of tea?” And the first one goes, “You mean, life isn’t like a cup of tea?”

AN: I’ve heard a variation on it.

AR: I love that.

AN: The rabbi in the village is dying, and all of his acolytes have lined up to hear the wisdom of his deathbed, which is the best wisdom. And he starts to murmur, and the prize disciple, who’s the nearest to the bed, leans his ear down, and the rabbi says, “Life is like a cup of tea.” And this murmur goes all the way down the line of all the disciples, “Life is like a cup of tea, life is like a cup of tea,” and then goes all the way down to the last disciple who goes, “Life is like a cup of tea,” and then it goes all the way back down the line, back to the rabbi. And then, in his dying breath, he says, “So, maybe life is not like a cup of tea.”

AR: That’s the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. One big Jewish joke. It’s comforting to know that there are generations of us, in this particular configuration of the matrix that we’re in, that relate to this. This is comforting.

AN: Mutually.

AR: I subscribe to all these Jewish blogs like “Tablet,” and “Kveller.” One of them, I think it was Kveller, had Regina Spektor who said, “The reason I’m Jewish is because of persecution.”

AN: I also wanted to ask something about working in series. Because, when I was starting to look into the prohibitions against imagery, and also certain kinds of behaviors like reciting repetitive prayers, that type of thing, what I get out of it is: if you were to take the list of the things that you’re not supposed to do, and then do all of them, you would actually also have a list of ways that people have always suggested as a mode of accessing your right brain, of accessing the non-logical side of your consciousness, the image-making, intuitive, maybe feminine, side of the brain.

So, it was interesting to realize that the whole apparatus is to kind of prevent a certain type of explosive cross-hemisphere cross-pollination, that other cultures spiritually are on purpose seeking. You know, it’d be crazy for a Zen master to refrain from doing all the things that you can’t do in Judaism, because then they would have no Zen practice. So, it was interesting that, especially with a series that’s so quixotic like the one you made, where there’s so many, where that kind of space is being repeated so much, that somehow the project gravitated to this kind of non-Western type of image space, that you didn’t set it up — there’s something about the Western space that wasn’t going to work.

AR: No. Actually, The 613 was conceived as a single wall painting, which is what the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum is going to be installing it as this June. What I wanted to do was invoke a Jewish visual primacy over the text, which was about as sacrilegious as I could get and still be observant to my notion that I was doing it for the sake of the community. And in order to derail the text from primacy, I had to find out the visual language in a conflicting discourse. So, all those images are contiguous.

There’s a picture in the back of The 613, taken by my friend Richard McBee, that shows the original warehouse installation of the painting. And when they’re all up, it gives off this glow, and when you investigate the glow, each of those individual components is arguing with everything around it. It’s continual chatter, but it all stays put because each panel has this varnished gold around it that reflects to make a bigger light. I wanted to remanifest, a la Dura-Europas, a legitimacy for primary Jewish visualizations. Again, you’re not going to find any support within the religion for that, but the book breaks up the images and gives them the availability of specific scrutiny, which is a whole other project, which is disturbingly funny.

The painting as a complete unit isn’t profound in that specific respect, because it can’t be analyzed with the particularization with which each single unit can be analyzed: it’s one big thing. The book The 613 is kind of like an exegesis on the Talmud. You know, there’s the Talmud, and then there’s millions of conversations about it. The 613 is the millions of conversations. What I was thinking, and this is one of things I was aware of, was what the Mexican muralists trying to do the same thing in the 20s and 30s, to reinstigate the visual primacy of the culture that was taken over by colonialism, which is an imposed theory — are you familiar with these guys, Dr. Atl, Siquieros, Orozco, Rivera? —

AN: Yeah.

AR: I realized that the mural, the wall-sized painting, was a public declaration. That is, a painting is something that’s individually meditated. A mural is a banner of philosophical consensus: “We all believe this”, so Pollock proposes the shared Jungian subconscious as if it were a publicly acknowledged recognition. And I was thinking — bear with me on this, because this is Archie’s mind — I’m a jazz freak, I’ve been collected jazz records since I was a kid. And most of the early LPs were compilations of 78s that were put into an LP. So, like Stan Getz and Horace Silver would be there with like 2 or 3-minute songs on them, and they’re great, catchy tunes, great improvisation, and then sometime in the mid-50s, they started to use the LP as a form in itself. I remember specifically I was listening to Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins, and I was thinking, “Instead of playing the one two-minute and fifty-eight-second solo after stating the theme that you could put on one side of the record, Sonny’s blowing for twenty minutes, and he’s taking the same format, and he’s re-playing it, re-inventing it, over and over and over again, like in a club, and what’s happening is that, rather than having the defining solo, by continually embroidering on the chord structure and playing it differently each time, he’s building this kind of negative space around what ideally could be the melody, but the melody is never there, but we understand the melody because all of this stuff has been built around it.”

And the idea of the extended solo in jazz was consonant with the other things I was telling you about, that is, there was this constant pileup in the 50s in culture, in cultural product that, like in Ginsberg’s Howl or Rauschenberg’s work — Warhol is the most famous example of that, but he didn’t invent that, but that was very influential on me. I mean, everyone I knew hated Pop Art, as they were all leftover Abstract Expressionists or Color Field Greenbergian painters. They’d say: “Just repeating stuff over and over again?” and it was like, “What does it mean to repeat something over again?”

Yeah, the idea of not having a annotated Judaism as let’s say, Catholicism has, where you had specifics, but being able to build enough aura that the intention was extracted, didn’t violate the spirit of the culture, and made something that was actually useful for the culture and bestowed the visual, and then was successfully visual on its own terms. It could be argued that Sol Lewitt’s co-opting repetition makes a metaphor of Talmudic egalitarianism.

My problem with when you say, “Do I have peers and colleagues?” is that the terms by which most, if not all Jewish artists — with the exception of Philip, R.B. Kitaj, and here’s a handful of people who are really interesting to me, Barney Newman, the effrontery of Carolee Schneeman, Jack Levine and Hyman Bloom, the contrariness of Eva Hesse, it all seems very “Jewish”. And here in New York there are many good artists connected to The Jewish Art Salon. But popularly, the criteria for the aesthetic appreciation of the work is not just your ability to retrieve the Jewishness of the picture, but your ability to complement it within the frame of the received aesthetic, which is not only un-Jewish, it’s anti-Jewish. That is, the compositions and configurations of Greek-derived Christian culture are political extractions, that is, almost everything in our culture is laid out in Greek and Roman Vitruvian proportions, to this day: magazines, everything, notebooks. Matisse understood this very well and it drove Picasso nuts. It’s a happenstance that’s not our legitimate inheritance, and if we accept that, we’re accepting, or nominating ourselves, for the end spot in the trajectory of the political agenda of that visual culture, which deplores the diverse. It’s the art of the militarily victorious subsuming, eradicating,  the conquered ‘s visual legacy and potential.  And people who go to art school learn that stuff and don’t question it. And it’s like, “I’m not doing that.”

So, things like aura, repetition to the point of not being able to hold the thread anymore, which is why I kind of — I wouldn’t say something as vapid as “I like Ashbery”, but I empathize with him, because with Ashbery, you can open up on any page, read three lines and think, “That was a good line – it took me somewhere,” and close it. Or read it all the way through and find, rather than a moral ideology, you’re left with the aroma of ozone or mold or chocolate or grass and somehow the unshakeable, silly vision of bright rushing brook water.  It’s like having a Lifesaver that takes forever to melt in your head.

Now, academic poets find that trivial. But the guys I was hanging out with were doing something that Christian-based artists were doing, or aesthetically, academically trained artists. The Olsonian guys I was hanging out with at St. Marks, had their own arc: when they wrote a poem, at the end, not unlike comedy, they would end with a wisdom: you know, “Blah blah blah, so why don’t you kill me?” Or, “Blah blah blah, and so I went home.” And I thought, “You know, that’s nice, but…”

Being Jewish, I read everything. You know who Whittaker Chambers was? Whittaker Chambers was a former Communist who became a converted right-wing mentor for William Buckley and was a friend of Roy Cohn’s and Richard Nixon. He testified against Alger Hiss, and said they were both in the same Communist unit. So, he became anathema to liberalism, and a kind of hero to neocons. I read his autobiography when I was in college. When you’re in college, you can do things like that. And he said, “You know,” — he was very much like Nixon’s My Six Crises as these guys always see themselves like zealot martyrs left out in the wilderness to die like Jesus. Very Mel Gibson. And, in that tradition, he portrays himself like Oedipus, being up on the mountain with his eyeballs in his hands, and everyone hates him, and his family’s left him, and the whole town despises him, he’s up on top of the mountain, blind, bleeding – the end. And Chambers writes something like: “What people don’t understand is that after the curtain comes down, Oedipus has to come down from the mountain and keep living his life. Then what happens?”

And that stuck with me. I thought, “OK, after all of my poet friends or painter friends, make the great expressionist splash or stymied mess and then the chisel out the revelation – after that, now what? You’re not dead. So, the masked man has rode off into sunset. When does the Lone Ranger and Tonto take a shit after eating beans? Does he ever, like, stand behind the saloon and have a smoke?” It strikes me as Christian. That is, the whole Persus and Andromeda and St. George and the Dragon thing. There is not one woman in Judaism who is a distressed damsel, not one. It was a kind of Greco-Roman Christian thing. It’s not Jewish. What happens if you don’t come up with any answer, and life just keeps going on?

And that’s where the feminine comes in. That is, it’s kind of like, “What do you do if, unlike a man, you want to start out and walk to California and every 28 days you’ve got to stop and sit still for three days and start all over again?” They’re very different views of the rhythm of life. So, it’s kind of like the menstruating male is a more Jewish position: you build up an empire, an acceptance, an accommodation, you build up a discussion – and so, you’re friends with Alexander the Great, and then in the 4th century, they kill you all. So, you’re friends with the Persian king, and then they kill you all. So, you’re becoming the landlord’s best friend in Poland, and then they kill you all.  You eat schlag in Vienna to Strauss waltzes and….So there’s this relationship to what is feminine, of stopping, re-forming and continuance, which isn’t simply philosophical, it’s historically ingrained, which also gives you the freedom to be a Guston or a Lenny Bruce, and when you’re somebody like Francis Bacon, you’ve had a similar thing: “Let’s burn the faggots.”

AN: So, one question I have as I listen is —

AR: Is my hour up, Doctor?

AN: There’s many more hours where that one came from. Not maybe fellow artists, but what would the community of just normal Jews, normal on-the-street Jews, what would that community look like, where would they meet, what would they do? In the synagogue of Archie Rand?

AR: The nature of your construct is incorrect. If you’re talking about the Leviticus as straight man, the clown is, by nature, not community-situated. So there is no shul that accommodates us.

AN: How about a circus?

AR: Well, we’re not the first artists to think of themselves as clowns. Philip did it, Picasso did it, Cezanne did it, Domenico Tiepolo. This is the community. The community of Jews, people who keep Judaism, are the people who have social and familial connections and those are people that you or I hardly ever talk to. Those are the people I meet when I do a book tour. That’s the Hadassah, the Jewish book club, the Congregation Ladies Auxiliary, that’s why I refer to them, fondly, as “the shtetl.” That’s actually Jews. You and I are afforded the urbanite’s knowledge of the subcutaneous stasis of the unseen, undisturbed, unentered, Jewish bedrock from which we have limitless tether from where we taunt and wander, without community responsibility. We luxuriate as elitist, self-imposed outcasts. We’re not representative of too much other than our own egos, and we have a fine analytical sense of this, we can talk about it, but by nature there is no community because we’re all Groucho Marx. You know, there is no community. We stand apart, and have the sophisticate’s option to relate AT the community.

Somebody once told me something interesting, I wish I could remember who. They said, “Artists aren’t ahead of their times, they’re of their times, and everybody else is behind.” I’m glad to know that there’s always a healthy handful of us. And in this, I can very broadly include a lot of people. You know, you can include the most visible, the Bob Dylans and the Seinfelds. There’s something self-referential, and the need to find what coordinate on the graph you actually are in to keep yourself from floating around in space, and that’s the function of not only all of this conversation, but all of the work that we do, is to give us a place to sit, and that’s it. And if it’s of use to other people that find themselves in similar experiential, psychological, social conditions, then we’ve done a good job of providing nutrition. And that’s where Pound comes in, if you don’t tell it like it is, as best you can, you’re not providing nutrition, you’re providing filler, which is immoral. And most of the people we know who are cultural people, out of fear of not looking like their peers are involved in, for a large part, immoral activity. Now I sound like Edward Dahlberg. They’re making artworks that look like art. It’s not a secret, you know, Chuck Close said, “If you’re making art that looks like art, it must be somebody else’s art.” I figure that chances are, if what you’re doing looks good, it’s probably mediocre, because it’s acceding to a preexisting aesthetic.

So, the trick is, can you come up with an aesthetic that feels most comfortable, actually uncomfortable, and natural to you that isn’t strategically forced, but in fact is an inevitable gasp that is pulled out of you? I’ve often thought that people who turn out a cultural product is what they do right before they commit suicide. Not a joke. We’ve all had a number of friends — I’m assuming — that have offed themselves. And it’s an occupational hazard, because we’re trying to wring out the last marble of what’s meaningful in this existence, and I can sit here and talk about it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t go back to the studio, or back to your desk and think to yourself, “What the fuck is this all about and is this worth it?” Not that every artist doesn’t do that, but the lesser artists give up or pride themselves on their own frustration, and the better artists do something anyway, because whatever you do is going to be the result of your having processed and distributed that information anyhow.

Rilke said, “Does the outer space into which we dissolve taste of us at all?” And all we need to do is to hopefully have something in our work that communicates that taste, and that’s as good as you can get, I think. Artists who are able to do that over generations are amazing. That’s why Rembrandt is great and Frans Hals isn’t. I look at a Frans Hals and I think, “Whoa, that paint handling’s fabulous. It’s just incredible, but I don’t know why the cavalier is laughing.” I look at Rembrandt and I think, “What a lovely boy you are, how old are you, what’s your name?”  Very different way of absorbing visual information. In our lifetime, we never know if we’ve done that or not. One of the things I like about collaboration — and in this case, I have God as a collaborator — is, I was reading McCartney’s autobiography, and he says, “You know, you can have a song that sells hundreds of millions of copies, and everyone says you’re the greatest songwriter on earth, or the greatest performer,” and he says, “You’re never going to know if that’s any good, you go to your grave not knowing.” And he says, “The only time you know if you’re doing anything good, really, is when you collaborate, because then you do something, and you hand it over to another person, and if they can’t work with it they hand it back to you. But if they can work with it, you know that it’s a viable language. If only one other person gets it. In that case, that’s when you know you can do something good.” I wonder if Van Gogh didn’t have Theo’s support whether he would have stopped painting?

It’s one of the reasons I like the work I’m doing now. I’ve worked with about 20 poets and I continue to collaborate with them. I’m not going to do any better than that, I just want to work with poets who supply me with the narrative armature. Last year when I was working with the late Bill Berkson he said: “I want to work with this text, what do you think of that?” And I said, “Well, that text isn’t for me, but how about this series of works?” And he said, “No,” he said, “They convey something too far off the mark,” and I said, “Well, I wanted to stretch it so there’d be a synapse like there was in The 613.” He said, “I understand, but the synapse is too great, it doesn’t connect.” And I respected that, and I thought, “OK, that’s a collaborative thing.” We picked a text and I sent him two other series, and I said, “Any of these closer?” And he said, “I like both of them.” So we did the same poem two times, in two different series. Interesting. I assume that, since God gave me this text, that God approves of what we did in The 613.  God’s my cohort. Everything else is going to be a step down after that. I’ve done a couple of pieces with God as my collaborator.

AN: Do you ever have the suspicion that this kind of thing is actually what God really likes?

AR: I never make that presumption. How the hell would I know?

AN: Just with your guts.

AR: Well, my guts know clearly that when I die, I turn into dust and there’s no afterlife. But while I’m alive, God is a receptacle for my gratitude. It doesn’t exist, it’s irrational, but it’s an address.

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