Digitized Homage to Rembrandt

Excerpt from The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, pp. 118-127.

Mel Alexenberg

I walked across Amsterdam along the canals from the house on Joodenbreestraat (Jewish Broadway) where Rembrandt had lived to Westerkerk (West Church) where he was buried.  There was no tombstone in the church courtyard marking his grave.  No sign in or around the church indicated that it was the final resting place of the great master.  On the sidewalk in front of the church, however, a bronze life-size statue of Anne Frank stood watch.  She had been hiding in a room overlooking the church courtyard until the Nazis discovered her and carted her off to Bergen-Belsen to die.  A postcard reproduction of a Rembrandt painting of an old Jewish man that she had tacked to the wall remained behind.

From Westerkerk, I took a tram back to my mother-in-law’s apartment.  I had traveled with my wife, Miriam, to Holland to be with her family during the shiva, the seven-day period of mourning for her father.  He had suddenly died of a heart attack in Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America where Miriam was born.  It was the first time I had been outside of the United States.  People who came to pay their respects told Miriam how lucky she was that her father had died a natural death, unlike her grandfather and her grandmother and her aunts and her uncles and her cousins.  The Nazis murdered them all.  Not one family member that stayed in Holland survived.

I was fortunate to have been born in Brooklyn in 1937, the year the aspiring artist Hitler launched the most virulent attack ever mounted against modern art by opening the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in Munich.  This show was aimed at the defamation and derision of new directions in art that he called Jewish art even when Gentiles made it.  His aesthetic solution for restoring the health of European folk was to rid the world of Jews and degenerate modern art.  He almost succeeded.  It is symbolic of the moral bankruptcy of Europe that the French and German Nazis herded the Jews of Paris into courtyard of the Louvre.  From that shrine to European culture, they shipped them to gas chambers and crematoria.  Perhaps Duchamp deeply understood some of the darker messages of premodern European art when he drew a mustache on Mona Lisa and exhibited a urinal as a work of art.

My childhood memories of first seeing Rembrandt paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were tied to horrific images of a Jew being murdered.  The dread of being lost in the maze of rooms leading to the Rembrandts made my heart beat in fear.  Each room was filled with frightening pictures of a young Jewish man suffering, a wreath of thorns crowning his bloodied head, gangrenous hands pierced with spikes, Roman soldiers nailing him to a cross for the crime of being called King of the Jews.  Mixed with execution scenes were the pietas, paintings of an anguished Jewish mother holding her dead son.  The varnished umbers cast a dark and dreadful glow.  I sensed in horror that these pictures were visual lessons instructing people to torture and kill Jews.  They screamed out, “Kill him!  Kill Mel Alexenberg, Menahem ben Avraham ben Mordecai ben Elhanan, the Jew!”  I raced through the museum like a gazelle fleeing a hungry lion until I fell into the welcoming arms of Tahitian women.  Out of breath, I was comforted by their soft bronze breasts and the fragrance of the flower petals in the baskets they held out to me.  The room with Gaugin’s paintings was my hideout, my sanctuary.  I felt the serenity of Gaugin’s tropical colors wash over me, cleansing me, reviving me.

I relived my childhood terror four decades later as I walked through the Met to the printroom to select images of Rembrandt’s angels to digitize.  What I sensed as a child was true.  From the Crusades to the Inquisition to the pogroms to the Holocaust, Europeans learned their lessons well.  They drenched their continent with Jewish blood.  The South Pacific light in Gaugin’s paintings saved me from the European darkness.  I recalled reading how Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of National Enlightenment and Propaganda, led Hitler through a warehouse of “degenerate art” to convince him to sell off the “garbage” rather than burn it.  An auction was arranged in Switzerland.  Among the fifteen paintings bought by the Belgians was Paul Gaugin’s From Tahiti.  Gaugin’s “deranged vision” was traded for Nazi guns.

When I reached the printroom, I was seated at a large oak table.  In a quiet ritual, one Rembrandt at a time was placed on a delicate easel in front of me as the tissue paper protecting the picture was slowly removed.  As his etching Abraham Entertaining the Angels was uncovered, I saw that only two of the angels had wings.  The figure facing Abraham had no wings.  Perhaps Rembrandt wanted to show that although they looked like men to Abraham, they were really angels in disguise. 

The Torah (Genesis 18:1-8) relates how three angels disguised as men appeared to the Abraham while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  When he looked up and saw them a short distance from him, he ran to greet them and invited them to stay to eat with him.  He rushed to his wife, Sarah, and asked her to bake cakes for their guests. Then Abraham ran to the cattle to choose a tender, choice calf.  The Midrash19 questions why Abraham ran after the calf.  The calf ran away from him into a cave.  When inside, he discovered that he had entered the burial place of Adam and Eve.  He saw intense light emanating from an opening at the end of the cave.  He was drawn to the light.  As he approached, he saw the Garden of Eden through the opening.  This deeply spiritual person, the patriarch Abraham, found himself standing at the entrance to Paradise.  About to cross over the threshold into the pristine garden, he remembered that his wife and three guests were waiting for lunch back at the tent.  What should he do?  Should he trade Paradise for a barbeque?  The Torah tells us that he chose to return to the tent and join his wife in making a lunch for the three strangers.  They sat together in the shade of a tree and enjoyed the barbeque.  We learn from this legend that we ourselves create heaven or hell in our relationships with our spouses, children, friends, neighbors, and strangers.  Visions of Paradise far off at the end of a cave or in some heavenly realm above are mere mirages or fraudulent lies.  Abraham knew that he and Sarah had the power to create heaven together in their tent.

The museum supplied photographs of etchings and drawings of winged people that Rembrandt had made to represent angels.  I digitized them and began to manipulate them with computer graphics programs with the intention of using them in paintings and prints.  My sudden interest in computer angels came at a time when I was involved in making a series of paintings of storefronts.  I got into storefronts as a result of a discussion with Louise Nevelson on the ugliness of Brooklyn.  After living for seven years in the bright light of the Negev mountains, finding myself in Brooklyn gave me aesthetic blues.  The Brooklyn sky looked sidewalk gray.  The sidewalks were dirty, the buildings drab.  I missed the flowers that bloomed beside the Negev streams after the first winter rain: red anemones, poppies with paper-thin petals, black irises with sun-yellow cores, and clusters of bell-shaped flowers named iyrit, my daughter’s name.

I met Louise Nevelson in her elegantly furnished home on Mott Street, where SoHo meets Chinatown and Little Italy.  As head of the art department at Pratt Institute, I had come to invite her to speak at commencement.  While complaining about my unsightly neighborhood, she pointed to a rocking chair across from where I was sitting.  She told me about an art critic who had come to interview her for ARTnews and had the chutzpah to ask her why she owned such an ugly, kitsch rocking chair.  Louise lectured me in her deep voice, “ I told him that he should see the amazing shadows that the rocker casts each morning when the sun streams in.  Mel, you need to be receptive of subtle bits of beauty, and they will jump out at you even on Brooklyn streets.” 

They didn’t quite jump out at me.  They floated towards me in slow motion as in a dream.  Maybe more like the after-image formed when you stare at a green, black and orange American flag and see a red, white, and blue one when you look away.  It happened early one Sunday morning while I was out on Avenue J buying fresh-baked bagels and the Sunday paper.  For some reason, I turned around as I left the bagel shop.  I stopped and stared at the storefront as if I had seen it for the first time.  Neon Hebrew words danced above the food-filled windows.

I rushed home, ate breakfast, and returned to Avenue J with my camera to photograph the food stores.  Next to the bagel shop was Isaac’s kosher bakery topped with the words chalav yisrael (milk under rabbinical supervision all the way from cow to cake).  In the three blocks between the train tracks and Coney Island Avenue, there were more bagel shops, kosher meat markets, kosher fish markets, kosher cheese stores, kosher take-out food places, kosher doughnut shops, and fruit and vegetable stands run by Jewish immigrants from Odessa.  I photographed two kosher Chinese restaurants with oriental-sounding names: Glatt Chow and Shulchan Low (shulchan means table in Hebrew, glatt is a Yiddish word referring to “unblemished lungs,” a sign of especially kosher meat).  I finished my roll of film on three kosher pizza parlors each named for a different city in Israel: Netanya Pizza, Jerusalem Pizza, and Haifa Pizza.

After I finished Avenue J, I went kosher-store hopping throughout Flatbush, Boro Park, and Crown Heights.  I photographed more than one hundred storefronts.  It would seem that Judaism was about food.  Kosher food stores were far more conspicuous than synagogues tucked away in what appeared to be private homes.  These stores, crowned with Hebrew neon, seemed to me to be strangely out of place.  They looked as if they had been plucked up from a street in Israel and plopped down in America by a band of mischievous angels.

I enlarged some of the storefront photographs on a copy machine and then repeated enlarging the enlargements until they were three feet high.  Since people do not usually stop and stare at storefronts but walk by them, I cut the images of a row of storefronts in strips, repeated the images to give the feeling of movement, and glued them onto a Masonite panel.  I painted over the fragmented storefronts with layers of acrylic paint creating tension between the hand-made quality of the textured surface and images generated by a copy machine.  I also made oversized Kodaliths (high-contrast negatives) of other storefronts and silk-screened printed alternating images of negatives and positives on canvas.  Two rows of storefronts were printed stacked horizontally as if the viewer was hovering over the street and could see both sides of the street at the same time.  I painted over the black printing ink with bright acrylic colors.  Although the paintings looked finished, subconscious nagging told me that something was missing, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was.  I wrapped them and stored them away.

It was a few weeks later, while hearing the Torah reading in Rabbi Rutner’s modest synagogue on the ground floor of his home around the corner from Avenue J, that the hokhmah flash of insight revealed to me that “computer angel” was the masculine form of the biblical term for “art.”  Having abandoned my storefront paintings, I began working with digitized images of Rembrandt’s angels.  I created the Subway Angel series and lithographs, serigraphs, etchings and other paintings of angelic activities. 

On simkhat torah, the holiday celebrating the ending and beginning of the annual Torah-reading cycle, Miriam and our youngest son, Moshe, spent the celebration in Crown Heights with the Hasidic community of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  After the evening prayers, Torah scrolls dressed in velvet mantels and capped with silver crowns where removed from the ark.  A scroll in a royal blue mantle embroidered with golden lions was placed in my arms.  Moshe petted the lions and latched on to the bottom of the mantle as we danced away together.  The floor rumbled, as the dancing grew swifter and the singing louder.  We were swept away into a line of dancers flowing from the feverish air of the synagogue out into the chill of a Brooklyn night.  Meandering through the crowded street, we soon found ourselves back in the synagogue.  Moshe and I kissed the Torah as I handed it to a young man who danced away with it in his arms.

As I sat down to rest, a man with an unruly beard and ruddy tan complexion greeted me in Hebrew.  He had come from Afula in Israel to be with the Rebbe for the holiday.  He asked me what I did.  I told him I was an angel maker, an artist who created spiritual messages. I explained that term for art in the Torah, MeLAekHeT MaHSheVeT, is the feminine form of computer angel, MaLAkH MaHSheV. He added that the word MAakHL (food) has the same letters as MaLAkH (angel).  The biblical words for “angel” and “food” are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.

I immediately knew what was missing in my paintings of food store facades – angels!  My new Wisdom-Hokhmah insight linked two disparate realms in what Arthur Koestler calls “bisociation” in his book on the creative process, The Act of Creation. He makes the distinction between routine skills of thinking on a single plane and the creative act culminating in a new relationship formed at the intersection of two different planes of thought. 

The man from Afula continued to explain that the gematriah of the Hebrew words for “angel” and “artist” both equal 91, mystically uniting them.  Artists can be vessels to receive angels (divine inspirations).  Artists can also be angel-makers, creating artworks that release new angels (spiritual messages) into the world for others to receive.  He pointed out that the Hebrew word for “spiritual” is essentially the same word as “material” spelled backwards. If we shift our perspective, we can transform our encounters with the material world into spiritual ones.  Judaism’s goal is to make all aspects of our lives holy and our everyday world a dwelling place for God.  “Wine, women, and song” is an expression for crass materialism among English speakers.  In Jewish life, kiddush (sanctification) is the blessing made on drinking wine, kiddushin (holy vows of matrimony) is the basis for intimacy with a woman, and Song of Songs is called kodesh kodeshim (holy of holies), traditionally regarded as the most sacred book in the Bible.  Judaism strives to transform the grossest materialism into the most refined spirituality.

Returning home from our holiday in Crown Heights, I pulled my abandoned storefront paintings out of storage.  I understood that bringing computer angels into these paintings would raise them to a new level of significance.  They would express Hebrew linguistic connections between food and angel, between artist and angel, and between the material and spiritual realms.  I glued printouts of digitized images of angels flying out of the storefronts in my paintings.  I cut out large computer angels that had been lithographed on fine hand-made paper and pasted them onto the screen-printed canvases.  They appeared to be hovering over the street between the two rows of stores.  The paintings moved beyond being mere illustrations to becoming works of art that evoked fresh relationships between material and spiritual worlds.  In addition, the playful juxtaposition of the mundane with the holy in Western art, kosher food stores in Brooklyn with Rembrandt drawings, created ambivalence between homage and contempt for art made by the hand of a master on the continent that created the culture of Auschwitz.  In Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century, with my painting of a cyberangel emerging from a storefront on Coney Island Avenue reproduced as the cover of the book, Ori Soltes writes: “Alexenberg appropriates an iconic image from the Christian artistic tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, who wrestles with Jacob.  But he transforms and distorts it, digitalizing and dismembering it, transforming the normative Western tradition within which he works as he rebels against it.”