The Irreverence of Art and the Contemporary Jewish Perspective

20 Sep

A background on the blog art of Mel Alexenberg
By Yehudis Barmats/Harris

“Art today,” Mel Alexenberg says, “must think Jewish.”

When Mel Alexenberg had the image of an angel fly around the world using AT&T satellites and fax machines (AT&T Circumglobal Angel Flight, Oct. 4 and 5 1989) he was celebrating the angel of Rembrandt’s print works and making it ephemeral. He took the angel into the depths of the subways (Subway Angel series, 1987), sent it to Tokyo and had it return a day earlier to Los Angeles using AT&T communication satellites, spreading its name through Television publicity to homes throughout America. Angel is “malakh” in Hebrew. The Hebrew letters spell m’a’l’a’kh’-angel, as well as m’a’l’a’kh’a- work, and m’a’a’kh’a’l- food. The idea of merging angel with work and food inspired Mel’s decision to turn the angel of Rembrandt into a computer angel. He reinterpreted the biblical words for art, “mala’khet ma’khshevet” or “thoughtful craft,” as “mala’kh ma’khshev” “computer angel.”

Ori Z. Soltes, former director of the National Jewish Museum in Washington, describes the series of digital angels in his book “Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century” (Brandeis University Press, 2003). He calls Mel’s act of digitizing a sacred Rembrandt image as irreverent. Instead of allowing the image of the angel to exist only in books and archives, Mel Alexenberg flew it out of the frame around the world. Soltis writes, “Alexenberg appropriates an iconic image: 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.”

Mel cannot “honor” the European art. It reminds him of the two dimensional perspective that propelled the Holocaust and two millennium of anti Semitism. The influence of the Masters is charged by a necessity not to revere them. The Lubavicher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a big supporter of Mel’s angel artwork shown at the Chassidic Art Gallery in Crown Heights. The Lubavicher Rebbe stated that sanctity is acquired by bringing the holy out of the mundane.

Mel describes the art viewing ceremony in museums as a form of worship. People approach a framed artwork; bend down to read the label, then step back to gaze in silent homage. Mel’s idea of art is not to sanctify and elevate the object but rather to bring it down to the people as Rembrandt did with his prints in the seventeenth century. Paint on canvas and printmaking in Rembrandt’s time were artistic advances in technology. It took art off sanctuary walls and brought it into people’s homes. Through computers, Mel continued this technological revolution by involving the people and bringing the artwork into their lives as the home computer was emerging.

Mel began creating artworks using computers in the 1960’s when he was a doctoral student at NYU. This journey continued when in 2004 he sent his painting Aesthetic Peace by immaterial digital image, instead of using material shipment , to the Robert Guttman Gallery of the Jewish Museum of Prague for Alexenberg’s solo show “Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East”.

Torah Tweets Artwork

Today Mel Alexenberg’s work leaves the concrete object entirely, entering the cyberspace with his non-copyright, often collaborative, Blog Art. This kind of art, like prints in Rembrandt’s day, becomes accessible to anyone. The concept of Blog Art is explored in his blog and in his new book “The Future of Art in a Postdigital age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Conciousness” (Intellect Books/ University of Chicago Press, 2011).

In Febuary 2010, the exhibition “Searching for God” at the Wayne and Geraldine Kuhn Fine Arts Gallery at Ohio State University- Marion Campus showed Mel Alexenberg’s blog called “Photograph God” (, naming it The Fifth Wall. For this exhibit, Mel did not have to ship any work. The curators accessed the entire work on the internet and became part of the collaboration by arranging a display of the blog in the gallery. The mobility and accessibility of Blog Art changes and challenges the official roles of the art world: artist as audience, curator as collaborator, viewer as artist. The boundaries of the frame are lost. This is the forward thinking of the Postdigital age, a term coined by Mel Alexenberg on Wikipedia to describe the humanization of digital technologies.
He is currently working with his wife, artist Miriam Benjamin, on their blogart project “Torah Tweets” that celebrates their 52 years of marriage. See it at

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