Robert Janz: Mountain Man

In the last roundup of street art, I included several mountainscapes by the same artist, and I asked if anyone knew who was responsible for them. A Tribeca artist, Judith S. Miller—whose work is gorgeous, by the way, and you should spend some time on her website—commented that they were by a longtime Tribeca resident, artist Robert Janz. She pointed out his Mountain Mode blog and offered to put me in touch. Then I started seeing his creations all over, both the mountains and the animals that often incorporate existing graffiti.

I got his email address from Judith, and Robert and I agreed to meet at Laughing Man for a coffee. In the meantime, he added me to his email list.

One email, which he forwarded from an exchange with an Australian critic, anticipated questions I had about the ethics of street art: “I do not approve of graffiti, seems to me disrespectful. But it is a fact of city life and my adding black dogs vivifies the scrawls, and also comments. The city is our environment, I would like to walk the streets without inundation by ads. But posters are a fact of life here and posters get torn. My transparent Mountains really do transform the stupid mess into a strange dream landscape, an idea of distant horizons. Transformative. On y va!”

Another email, about a run-in with the police on September 9, answered the question of what the authorities think: “Yesterday walking back thru Chinatown I stopped and added couple of my wild animals to mess of graffiti on an old door. Suddenly surrounded by police cars. They had me sit on ground, while they loomed over asking endless questions. ‘You came over from Tribeca to vandalize in Chinatown? We are booking you for defacing private property.’ I said the graffiti is on the door and illegal because it vandalizes private property. But my drawing is not on the door, it is on the graffiti, and graffiti is public property and I am the public. We were not getting anywhere. Sitting there I noticed rain water in the gutter. I said the graffiti is spray paint, will not come off. I use poster paint, it will wash off. The biggest cop said, ‘If you can wash it off we won’t book you.’ I took paper I found in the gutter and went up to my drawing. I had no real idea what would happen, never having tested the paint. The drawing looked very permanent. The first stroke swiped it all away. They were astonished. I was too. The crime had disappeared. It was like an ancient Han tale of mystery and magic. 9.9. was China’s Mountain Day. Mine too. On!”

Janz, who has lived on Duane since 1979, upends the street artist stereotype in that he’s 80 years old. Born in Ireland, he moved to the Midwest at a very young age. The fact that his street art is destined to be painted (or papered) over is intentional, for he has long been interested in transience—his preferred word for the impermanent nature of his work. In the 1960s, he began drawing in the sand on Venice Beach, letting the waves erase his efforts. Other similarly temporary works followed: “shadow sculptures,” arrangements of six sticks (à la the I Ching), “water paintings” (with water as paint) in southern California and New Mexico…. (As a side note, I encourage you to visit his corps des chaises blog about making patterns of the chairs at the Court de Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Janz says he tried it in Bogardus Plaza, but it didn’t have the same effect. Also worth a peek is his Blue Mountain blog about surreptitiously drawing with tape on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago last year.) At some point, while making water paintings in the city, he dared himself to use paint instead. The animals are intentionally reminiscent of cave drawings, while the mountains achieve a calm purity that calls to mind Japanese landscapes—even, or perhaps especially, when in the context of torn advertising posters and graffiti.

We went up to his apartment, where I admired his work—in fact, I bought four drawings on watercolor paper. Janz’s wife, Jennifer Kotter, pointed out that even when he uses paint, he draws. One of my purchases:

Then we walked over to Chambers, where he had spied a wall of torn posters that was crying out for some mountains. The sun was too bright—the photos would suffer—so we agreed to meet the next day at 10 a.m. Alas, the sun had just peeked over the buildings. We decided to go for it anyway. “Watch for anyone in a uniform,” said Janz. He took maybe 10 minutes to do the mountainscape, and it would’ve been quicker if he didn’t have to stop to make the paint wetter and to switch to white paint for the “wings” on either side.

In the subsequent days, I kept an eye on that patch of Chambers, to see when (and if) the art would be removed. The plans for the lot appear to be stalled, but there’s a crazy guy who consistently puts up flyers about how the government is out to get him. For now, the mountains remain—and even if they do get erased, no matter. Janz will come back and do it again. On!