Paint by Numbers

On View:

September 8, 2016 – June 30, 2017

Paint by NumbersNumbers are integral to Jewish rituals, beliefs, significant historical dates, and daily life. Numbers and numerology have been at the core of Biblical understanding since the Bible was codified and possibly before. Inescapable, numbers are the global language of humanity. In this new exhibition, more than fifty contemporary artists explore the meaning of numbers and their symbolism through a broad range of artistic media.

Curator Laura Kruger says, “This exhibition illuminates how numbering creates a scaffold of order and continuity – virtually everything we are, do, and interface with is a number. Dates of disruption, disaster, triumph, or success are commemorated. Numbers underpin measurements of worth, marriage contracts, mathematical equations, diary date entries, lottery tickets, house numbers, and the counting of time itself.  The power of numbers as a source of inspiration and meaning is manifest in these works.”

The prevalence and symbolism of numbers in the Bible are described by Richard McBee’s “Ten Trials of Abraham,” Sandra Bowden’s “Aaron’s Breastplate,” Joelle Dautricourt’s “Broken Tablets,” and Dorit Jordan Dotan’s “Noah’s Ark.” David Wander’s “Herzl and the Twelve Spies,” imagines 20th-century notables as part of this biblical story. Judy Sirota Rosenthal’s tree-limb installation of “The Tribes of Israel” reunites Jacob’s offspring by including siblings Dina, Levi, and Joseph with their 12 brothers, after whom the biblical tribes are named.

Personal and historical milestones are recorded in Japanese artist Tetsuya Noda’s daily illustrated diary recording the date of his conversion to Judaism, Barbara Green’s recollection of the 1492 expulsion of her family from Spain, and Riva Bell’s folk art painting expressing her joy on May 14, 1948, the day the State of Israel was established.

The numerology of the Holocaust is commemorated in seering works, including Judy Glickman Lauder’s photograph of confiscated, numbered suitcases at Auschwitz, Donald Woodman’s tribute to a Dachau survivor who reveals his tattooed arm, and the stolpersteine (stumbling stones) by Gunter Demnig and Peter Hess that are installed in front of buildings throughout Germany and Europe to document the dates of birth and deportation to the death camps of the Jewish victims who once lived there.

The numerical basis for Jewish rituals is revealed in Tobi Kahn’s abstract bas relief sculpture for counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot; Trix Rosen’s poignant drawing of mother and daughter binding their arm tefillin seven times; Peachy Levy’s textile work “Many Paths to 613 Mitzvot,” and Jeffrey Schrier’s monumental Hanukkah lamp constructed of Israeli metal gasoline nozzles.

The consequence of numbers is interpreted by Bunny Burson’s installation of “hanging chads,” to remind us of the importance of every single election vote in light of the 537 votes in the Florida polls that changed history in the 2008 Bush-Gore election.  On a lighter note, John Hirsch’s collage of discarded lottery tickets wittily recalls his unlucky numbers and Larry Frankel’s “Kabbalah Bingo: The Winning Card,” includes numbers from “2” (the Tablets) to “304, 805,” the total number of letters in the Torah.

The plight of the contemporary world is expressed in Grace Graupe Pillard’s “Departures,” where the Amtrak digital timetable is juxtaposed with images of a homeland security soldier and the homeless. John Lawson’s “Exodus – Diminishing Numbers” alludes to the extinction of species and our responsibility to the environment.  Paul Weissman reflects on the explosive periodic table element 55, Caesium, an essential ingredient of the atomic clock, while Italian surrealist Tobia Rava’s silk tapestries express a Kabbalistic evocation of infinity through a spellbinding labyrinth of Hebrew letters and numbers.

Rabbi David Adelson, D.Min., Dean of HUC-JIR’s New York Campus, explains, “Numbers are like any technology. They are, themselves, morally neutral. Using them does not automatically support life, or destroy it. The result depends on the intention we bring.”  These intentions are depicted in works of profound insight and meaning.


The artists in the exhibition are:

Marlene Adler • DL Alvarez • Debra Band • Ed Baynard • Riva Bell • Henry Bismuth • Matt Blackwell • Sandra Bowden • Ariel Burge • Bunny Burson • Melanie Dankowicz • Damon Davis • Dorit Jordan Dotan • Joelle Dautricourt • Gunter Demnig & Peter Hess • Simon Donaldson • Freeman Dyson • Leonard Everett Fisher • Larry Frankel • Saara Gallin • Grace Graupe-Pillard • Barbara Green • Laurie Gross • Carol Hamoy • John Hirsch • Tamar Hirschl • Tobi Khan • Judy Glickman Lauder • John Lawson • Andrew Paul Leonard • Peachy Levy • Margalit Mannor • Suzi Matthews • Richard McBee • David Mumford • Jacqueline Nichols • Tetsuya Noda • Mark Podwal • Archie Rand • Tobia Rava • Trix Rosen • Judy Sirota Rosenthal • Jeffrey Schrier • Stephen Smale • Fred Spinowitz • Uri Shulevitz • Arthur Szyk • Meryl Taradash • David Wander • Paul Weissman • Joyce Ellen Weinstein • Ruth Weisberg • Donald Woodman • Estelle Kessler Yarinsky

This exhibition is accompanied by the illustrated catalog, Paint By Numbers, featuring essays by Rabbi David Adelson, D. Min., Curator Laura Kruger, and members of the HUC-JIR faculty: bible scholar Dr. Adriane Leveen, and literature and feminist studies scholar Dr. Wendy Zierler.

The phrase ‘Paint by Number’ recognizes the commercial production in the early 1950s of pre-printed artist canvas craft sets that encouraged people to become artists. Acknowledged and collected by the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, the phrase, ‘Paint by Number’ has entered American vernacular speech.

Read the Catalogue:

PDF or ADA Text

Presented by the Irma L. and Abram S. Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, with the support of George, z”l, and Mildred Weissman.