Robert Janz, who painted the streets and sidewalks of the neighborhood, has died

Photo by Noah David Smith

Tribecan Robert Janz, whose street art covered billboards across the city with iconographic symbols, animal glyphs and hidden messages and whose brushes created evaporating art across the building facades and sidewalks of the neighborhood, died in late October. He was 88 and had lived on Duane Park since the ’70s and in recent years made the park not just his home but his studio and gallery as well.

Robert kept in touch with me — as he did many — almost to the end, since his mind was always moving even after his body had failed him. I heard from him throughout the pandemic in stanzas — crafty, clever, onomatopoetic poems — since by March 2020 he was confined to his studio, he told me — a challenge since the world was his canvas. His wife, the artist Jennifer Kotter, was his partner of 27 years and his caretaker until his death on Oct. 26.

In the last months he was ready for what was coming, she said, and the connection of his decline to his current work was no accident. “Everything is transient, nothing lasts forever, we and the stars are all time based,” Robert said in a recent Q&A with Third Rail. “These drawings are as original as they are accurate.”

Photo by Valentine Rothmaler 1994

Robert Janz was born on Christmas Day 1932 in Belfast, Ireland, to American parents. His father was in the diplomatic corps and he and his sister travelled with their parents to postings across the globe — Israel, the Canary Islands, Panama, Brazil. He started at the University of Chicago at the age of 16, studying literature. (“He was one of those people who could recite whole poems,” Jennifer recalled. “It’s spellbinding if you’re on a date with someone and their opening line is to recite a poem. That’s a winner.”)

He later attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and after graduation, worked for the sculptor George Rickey who served as a mentor and, it seems, as a father figure. They grew quite close and he was part of the family, Jennifer said.

Robert at that point was primarily a painter, but he drew with anything at hand — sticks, steel, torn up posters, water. “Everything was drawing material for him,” Jennifer said. He travelled extensively, taking on dozens of residencies around the world and was especially popular in Ireland, where he showed often. He was always interested in the fleeting, the impermanent, and once drew a clenched fist in charcoal on the Berlin Wall only to return to it over the course of 20 days, drawing over it gradually until the fist unclenched.

He had a Fulbright in Spain, where he lived for many years, and there would regularly reassemble what he called Six Sticks — six 2 x 4s. It was this piece that Jennifer saw as a teenager in LA at a show at the LACMA. It was coincidence that they would meet at a coffeeshop here in the neighborhood decades later in 1994. They married in 2009.

For many years, folks around here followed his witty, scrappy, spontaneous reimaginings of billboards — part painting and part collage. He would tear at the layers of bills, then reassemble them using just water and a brush, sometimes applying paint. “I discovered that the commercial posters have so much glue on them that all I need to do is get everything wet. Pieces I cut out with my blade simply reglue themselves.” After following Robert for two years, Joanna Kiernan made a documentary about his work, “JANZ In the Moment.

And then he dropped the billboards altogether, using just water to paint. Tribecan Noah David Smith met him by chance on the street and was so charmed that he and his wife, Elizabeth Smith, decided to make a short film about his water paintings. If you do nothing else today, watch it. It is 4 minutes you will not regret.

Jennifer said that in the last months she felt so supported by the neighborhood, leaning on the places and the people that Robert loved, down to the rainbow ring dings from Duane Park Patisserie that she would cut “like sushi” so he could enjoy the colors. And Noah’s film, which she watched after his death again, made her realize: “Robert knew what was coming and he was basically saying he was ready.”

These are his words in the Smiths’ film:

“I am interested in art that is self erasing and is self fulfilling. The whole process takes place in a few minutes, but so what? We come and go. Everything does. As my health entwined with my age, it imprisons me in a body that is disappearing. My beat has shifted. I am shrinking into this area. I never foresaw that. On the other hand, I am marinating — I am what they call ‘reducing’ in cooking. I am becoming more and more special and tasty as far as I’m concerned. It certainly is my hope that the essential of what I am doing does somehow contribute and encourage values that I believe humanity needs. We have enough greed, we have enough egotism, we have enough corruption and hypocrisy. How about trying self-respect and respect of others and respect of the planet and being good gardeners instead of exploiters?

“The final cloudy remnants of the drawing are as special and as interesting as what I originally drew.”

 

10 Comments

  1. These are really wonderful paintings. I love what he had to say about his paintings and about himself. Thank you for this article and for Jennifer’s comments.

  2. Truly we have lost a wonderful artist, poet and raconteur.He will be greatly missed by his many friends. Thanks for posting this wonderful article about him.

  3. He was the real deal and will be so missed. Thank you Mr. Janz for making our neighborhood a gallery. Rest easy.

  4. I will miss seeing him on the streets of Tribeca. He was a master of the arts. I loved speaking with him, he made me smile, laugh and now he makes me cry. RIP.

  5. I didn’t know him well but anytime I saw him on the streets he was warm and friendly. Loved seeing his art. He will be missed.

  6. Such a beautiful and poignant film. I didn’t know him or his art but love what he embodied and left behind. I’m going to listen to Duane Park next time I’m there

  7. What a wonderful tribute! Meeting Robert, getting to know and love both him and Jennifer was a highlight of my chapter living in NYC. It was so powerful roaming the streets with him filming him in the snowstorms making art. He would always direct me telling me how to get certain buildings in for context. RIParadise Janz I will enjoy your work and your spirit with me in Cali!

  8. thank you for the heartfelt honest article about our marvelous genius gardener friend.

  9. I have known Robert for many years and often travelled the streets with him as he transformed our walls with his magic and wit. He will be missed.

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