Imagery of the Unconscious:
The Fantastic Dark and Unsettling Light of Michael Hafftka
(the Zohar Book of Concealment Series)

To encounter Michael Hafftka's Book of Concealment series is to grapple with art as an embodied spiritual practice. Despite his exposure to life’s hardships, Hafftka remains committed to seeking communion with God and the world through art; he's just supplemented traditional devotional activity with painting.  His artwork itself reconciles his search for redemption with a bodily activity, and he hopes that his viewers can also connect to the work on an emotional and physical level.

After three decades of increasing art-world reknown (including representation in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and more), Hafftka has turned his attention to the 13th century Jewish mystical text called the Zohar (which loosely translates as “radiance”). The Zohar, which has been traced to medieval Spain, is a commentary on the Torah written in Aramaic; the Book of Concealment is the fifth book of the Zohar in the Pritzker Edition. A foundational text for Kabbalistic practice (a mystical offshoot of Judaism) the Zohar, unlike the Talmud or other canonical Biblical interpretations, does not seek to better understand the rules, codes, and historical significance of the Torah, but rather uses the Bible as a point of departure for an imaginative, spiritual quest towards meaning.  Because of its fanciful aims, the Zohar serves as an appealing subject matter for an artist similarly seeking a mystical connection to the word of God that transcends law and practice. 

Known for the religious wanderlust that informs his work, Hafftka was contacted by the translator of the Zohar, Daniel Chanan Matt, who thought Hafftka would respond to the text’s elegant if cryptic lyricism. Hafftka uses the text to mine the universal themes and struggles evoked indirectly by the Bible, and by centuries of Jewish self-exploration. Although Hafftka has selected specific passages to correspond to the eighteen works in the Book of Concealment series (eighteen being a mystical number related to “chai” or “life”) he paints in response to the text as a whole, lingering on particularly evocative passages.  He displays the work alongside the text in exhibitions, hoping that the words and images will activate each other, and propel the viewer towards greater spiritual immersion; ultimately, though, Hafftka does not consider the text essential to the experience of the painting.  In a neat meta-critical gesture, the Zohar is a commentary on the Bible, and the paintings on the Zohar, so the works’ poetic remove is also an aesthetic response to the book itself.

Hafftka is marked by the Holocaust and the attempt to rebuild faith in its wake.  The son of two survivors who met in a displaced persons camp after the war, Hafftka uses art to access a spiritual world and connect to Judaism.  This longing and sense of duty to rebuild the world led Hafftka to Yeshiva and to a Kibbutz in Israel in 1973, at the start of the Yom Kippur War, where he spent a year painting in a studio in a water tower; the experience instilled in him the connection between ritual and spirituality in art.  For Hafftka, painting combines ritual and emotion, and through his synthesis of figuration and abstraction he hopes to create a visual language for religious devotion.  Interested in the work of Francisco Goya, Francis Bacon, and Egon Shiele, Hafftka seeks to similarly confront human agony through the figure.  In an interview with Hafftka in his Brooklyn studio, he said that he creates “with total faith in the moment of creation.” His paintings sustain the contradictions that mark Jewish faith and Hafftka’s worldview—they are depictions of tortured figures, sinewy, inky bodies stretched to the breaking point, drained of color, but these bleak abstractions are also splashed with deep oranges, soft watercolors, and peopled with the Hebrew Alphabet, which plays a large role in the Book of Concealment series.

The mystical side of Judaism transcends rules and law, and similarly for Hafftka, painting offers revelation, however fleeting. “Art offered me a way to practice devotion and faith, not as idolatry, but as a form of prayer—and as a dialogue with the unknown,” he writes.   The Zohar immerses the painter in the Biblical imagination, and through his work Hafftka offers a kind of open-ended exegesis, that he hopes includes the spectator in his quest for transcendence. He says, “Pictures are the experience of the meaning [of the Zohar].”

Hafftka has worked through Genesis and the story of Noah (both previously exhibited at Yeshiva University) and the Book of Concealment represents his most recent engagement with the text.  Made with watercolor, crayon, and ink, the works vary in size and feel.  A careful reader can imagine connections between “the appearance of a long serpent, extending here and there” in the third citation, and the snake emerging from the figure’s mouth amidst a swirl of splayed ink.   Other works are more elegiac, such as the twelfth image, in which the figures’ bodies take on the form and shape of the Hebrew letter “hey,” obstructed only by a smeared, gray hand.  “Hebrew letters are as pliable as human figures,” Hafftka writes about the work.   “The letters provide me with a visual springboard, which is at once verbal, human, archetypal and Jewish.”   Hebrew letters populate many of the paintings, even spelling out the name of God in the sixth of the series, which is traditionally forbidden to be pronounced or written.  The Hebrew letters and the figures in the paintings perform a similar kind of work, standing in for a complicated but beautiful relationship between language and the Jewish people.

Hafftka emphasizes the mystical belief that the world was created by God through letters, and uses this theory to inform his work. He also seeks the devotional relationship to God dictated by Jewish religious practice through his experience of the text.  Many of the works in fact bear the mark of his body—the inkblots are blown, containing the trace of his breath, an important theme in Judaism, as the word for breath and soul are the same (“neshama”).  Other works, like the fifth image, contain a visible handprint in mottled black ink.  For Hafftka, painting involves full bodily engagement. “I experience the Zohar as a conversation about the Scriptures that suggests traces of a hidden, supernal truth—a truth that may be explored with visual exegesis of a non-literal kind,” he writes.

Hafftka’s dark palette, messy lines, and abstract, hurried paint application is a progression of his previous aesthetic practice, as is Hafftka’s interest in figures and letters.  His studio contains portraits of his family, which he considers realistic in that they convey the spirit of their sitters, although the figures are distorted by thick lines of yellows and blacks. Hafftka says that he “attempted to reclaim the lost humanity through figurative art, painting the human figure and its emotional universe.”  He previously worked on a series of the “Aleph Bet,” the Hebrew alphabet, which takes the personification of the letters and their aesthetic as well as literary and historical significance even farther.  These works also accompany a text in the publication Aleph-Bet, An Alphabet For The Perplexed (2007) which he collaborated on with writer Joshua Cohen.  Hafftka’s interest in the books transcends his religious interest in the Bible and the Zohar, as he publishes books and illustrates books for Six Gallery Press, a labor of love undertaken with writer Che Elias.

His books, his twisted, elegiac paintings, and his frenetic enthusiasm all work to move beyond the horrors his family and the Jewish people endured during the Holocaust, and the perpetual Jewish challenge to reconcile a history of persecution with faith.  It is not enough to try to believe or to behave according to ritual—Hafftka wants to have a mystical engagement with the world.  He immerses himself in spiritual texts through his art and likewise hopes to provide an experience for viewers that allows them to move beyond bleak reality and retain a similar hope in the potential for redemption.

LORI COLE is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University.  Her research focuses on the artistic exchange between the European and Latin American avant-garde. She is also a translator and art critic, writing for and Flash Art, among other publications.