Letter and Form, Figure and Ground
The Alef-Bet Series, by Michael Hafftka
The 22 Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, Conceived as Original Drawings on Handmade Paper, on Permanent Display at Kiddie Korner Preschool, 166 Montague Street, Brooklyn, NY

Alef-Bet 2009 marks one of those rare moments when the religious and the personal seamlessly merge in a work of visual art. Arriving in the wake of New York-based artist Michael Hafftka's three-decade-long struggle with figuration—and heralding his newfound commitment to the study of Jewish mysticism— these simple works on paper are at once a revelation and destination. Each letter has a "voice," if you will: a personality it would not otherwise have had before, had not Hafftka had the courage and the insight to bring it out.

Though the individual drawings are small (a scant 4" x 6"), they run the gamut of markmaking techniques and conceptual approaches: There are water-based pigment washes, and charcoal smudges; autographic marks (handprints, finger prints), and dense, nest-like swirls of graphite. Yet throughout these diverse media, Hafftka always stays true to the unique qualities of the letters themselves. "Raish" (the letter mystically associated with Thought and Speech) emerges from a box in which it seems to have been formerly confined, surrounded by washes of rosy coral and pink; "Lamed" (associated with Teaching and Learning—and as the tallest letter, with the connection between Man and The Heavens) has playful, zebra-like stripes of white and black, its body shaped like a meandering periscope, pointing who-knows-where; "Hey" is comprised of little more than crisp lines of black ink that stand their ground in a void of spatters and drips (an allusion, perhaps, to the letter's signifying the primordial Silence from which all Creation emerged); while "Yud" (literally, the flame of the soul) simply glows, suffused by sunny auras of cadmium oranges, naples yellow and gold. It isn't easy to invest such universal forms—literally, the building blocks of all Creation as conceived by the Jewish mind—with cathartic, emotional energy without veering into the trite, but Hafftka succeeds. One senses that Alef-Bet 2009 is at once a learning tool for artist and viewer alike. One that speaks with form as much as with language.

All the works are mixed-media on hand-made paper and are archival. Each is unique, and signed by the artist.

Hafftka's work is represented in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, and has been exhibited both in the U.S. and abroad. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn.


Written by by Sarah Schmerler, a writer, journalist, and art critic. Mrs. Schmerler's articles appeared in The New York Times, TimeOut New York, Art in America, The Village Voice and more. www.sarahschmerler.com

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