Letters On Fire


The Torah is full of holy fire, according to Midrash Tanhuma, which goes on to say that the text was written with black fire upon white fire.

The 14 artists whose work is beautifully showcased in “As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts” at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) find the fire in the letters of the text, and turn it into art. Some create new pages or scrolls, reinterpreting what is written with layers of paint, pen, cut paper, threads and sometimes gold leaf.

The results are not only original and important works of art, but they urge the viewer toward new ways of seeing and understanding the text. The show is well worth a visit and maybe a return.

David Wander’s “Book of Lamentations” (2011) is most literally connected to this midrash. On a long paper scroll, he writes and illustrates the biblical text known as Eicha, read on Tisha b’Av, with its descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people. He first wrote the letters in white ink on black paper, burnt several passages, and then rewrote the destroyed letters in black ink on white paper. In a very different graphic novel style, Wander has also illustrated the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, “Book of Ruth” (2010), with Boaz as a businessman and Ruth wearing heels and a short skirt, making the text appear contemporary.

Adrianne Rubin of MOBIA co-curated the show with Matthew Baigell, a professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University and the author of many books on art. In the exhibition catalog, Baigell writes that the selected works “can be considered post-post modern in that the artists avoided post-modernism’s interest in irony, dissembling, ambiguous meaning, and indeterminate completion of individual works. Rather they openly reveal their religious and spiritual values and want to communicate them to their viewers.”

Most, but not all of the featured artists are Jewish. Andi Arnovitz is an American-born artist who moved to Israel in 1999. Her three pieces are based on deep respect for sacred pages. In piles of discarded books she discovered in Jerusalem, she found pages of the Talmud, prayer books and books of Psalms. For “Thoughts are Precious, Ideas Even More So” (2009), she rolled up the discarded pages of the Talmud and wrapped them in Japanese rice paper and rebound them with silk threads, turning them into “something new, tall, and proud” that reflected their journey from Lithuania, where they were printed, to Jerusalem. She also created a vest made of rolled-up scrolls of pages of discarded prayer books, “Vest of Prayers” (2009) — a prayerful alternative to the suicide vests worn too often in Jerusalem.

In his three pieces, Jacob El Hanani rewrites the traditional texts in the “Song of Moses” (2013), “Song of Deborah” (2013) and “The Song of Songs” (2013) in micrography, forming dense squares of handwriting. The very small letters, sparks of fire, are legible when seen through a nearby magnifying glass. At the opening of the exhibition earlier this summer, El Hanani recalled being asked, as a schoolboy in Casablanca, to write the Song of Moses 40 times as punishment for misbehaving in class. He completed the assignment on one piece of paper in his tiny letters, while his classmates handed in 40 sheets. He has continued to work in and renew micrography, which was an ancient art form.

Two artists interpret the story of Noah and the flood: Ellen Holtzblatt, in “Hamabul, The Flood” (2006), uses woodcuts printed on Japanese paper to look inward and tell a personal story of rebirth. The texts from Genesis that she is interpreting hang on the wall, to the side of her artwork. John Shorb’s “Disaster Scroll” (2007) presents images of a coming environmental catastrophe on our planet.

Mark Podwal has created 12 panels interpreting the Book of Ezekiel, “Ezekiel’s Vision” (2012-13), that feature his signature simple but powerful line illustrations — in red — superimposed on the pages of the text where they are mentioned. For the line “The city has fallen,” he shows the city of Jerusalem aflame, within the letter yod.

The pages of Archie Granot’s “Illustrated Hagaddah” are illustrated with intricate papercuts, some with nine layers of different papers. His page for Hallel is full of bright colors and exuberant shapes.

Siona Benjamin retells the story of Purim in “Esther Megillah” (2010), illuminating the large-format scroll with colorful paintings in the style of Indian and Persian miniatures. Her Esther is a graceful beauty.

The works are behind glass; a viewer might otherwise want to turn the pages, and in the case of Lynn Avadenka’s book art, to pick them up, turn them over and read the texts. Her piece “By A Thread” (2006) imagines a conversation between Queen Esther with the character Scheherazade from “One Thousand and One Nights,” who, through her stories, prevented the king from murdering one thousand women. Avadenka, who has five stunning examples of her book art in the show, chose the title to refer to the tradition of splendid tapestries and rugs from that part of the world, and to reflect how each woman’s life hung by a thread.

The curators solve the challenge of showing all the pages of Robbin Ann Silverberg’s “Emandulo Re-Creation” (1997) with an Ipad placed next to the case. Silverberg created the book as a collaborative project, inviting South African artists to contribute a print on the subject of the creation story. All of them created figures of men and women facing each other. The project was a variation on the Surrealist tradition known as “Exquisite Corpse,” when artists collaborate, but are unaware of the contributions of others. The pages were then trisected horizontally and bound, so that to open this book, one turns the pages in layers, creating different combinations of human figures (which can be seen on the Ipad). Baigell points out that Silverberg’s is among the most socially concerned works in the exhibition.

Deborah Ugoretz also deals with the subject of creation in her three pieces, which include an intriguing accordion book, “Six Days of Creation” (2013), which uses a color to represent each day, with images of nature visible from two sides.

Also included in the exhibition are elegant works by Ellen Frank, Carole P. Kunstadt and Robert Kirschbaum. Each of the 14 artists’ works merit contemplation. Their passionate engagement with the text brings together sacred words and images — and the black and white fire of the letters — in altogether new ways.

“As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts” is on view at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), 1865 Broadway at 61st Street through Sept. 29. On Sept. 29, the show’s final day, artist Archie Granot, whose work is featured in the show, will offer a tour of the exhibition, discuss his paper cutting techniques and show some of his latest work.

MOBIA is a free museum dedicated to exploring art inspired by the Bible; it opened in 2005. Originally founded in 1998 as the Gallery of the American Bible Society, MOBIA is now an independent museum, with the American Bible Society as one its donors. Its exhibits examine the cultural and artistic legacy of the Bible, in Jewish and Christian traditions.