Sunday, June 21, 2015

Philip Glass, Robert Janz, and the Painting Chimp

Robert Janz, sometime in the 21st century, in front of some of his NYC street art


Friend of Art & Argument Robert Janz makes a heartfelt and humorous appearance in composer Philip Glass's new, very well received memoir, Words Without Music. As it turns out, Glass and Janz were friends when they were quite young, and the nineteen-year-old Janz educated the slightly younger Glass in the art of painting. Of his friend, whom he calls Bob, Glass says: "I suppose he was largely self-taught, but he was able to talk about paintings -- their structure, content, and history -- in a most articulate way." Glass also calls Janz an "accomplished and sensitive painter," which is certainly true. The two friends were based in Baltimore then (it was the 50s), and they would visit the Phillips Collection in DC, where they could view modern masters like O'Keeffe, Klee, Dove, Noland, and above all, Mark Rothko, whom Glass found "a revelation."

Glass concludes his recollections of their friendship with a telling anecdote: 
Philip Glass
About that time the Baltimore Sun had gotten wind of Pollock's revolutionary painting techniques, dripping and squeezing oil paint over an entire canvas. The art critic of the paper, like many people in those days, was shocked and outraged by this latest affront to Art. He went to the Baltimore Zoo and somehow got permission to work with one of the chimpanzees in the monkey house. The chimp was given a large canvas and tubes of oil paint. It didn't take long for him to squeeze the paint onto the canvas. This was photographed and put onto the front page of the newspaper with a headline that read something like "Baltimore's own Jackson Pollock is Alive and Well and Is a Chimpanzee in Our Own Zoo." This kind of thing was going on all over the country, especially among art lovers. Usually it was left as a simple claim such as "My two-year-old daughter can paint better than Pollock."
I rushed over to Janz's studio to show him this latest attack on Art -- on the front page of my hometown newspaper, no less. He studied the newspaper photo for a while. Then in a calm and dismissive manner he said, "The trouble with the paintings is that the chimp is not a very talented painter." The humor of the moment calmed me down.
Robert's response was non-ideological, ironic, and, I would guess, accurate. This sounds right to me since Robert is authentically Zen and Buddhist in thought and practice, unlike today's "That's So Zen!" crowd. I think Glass included this story to show how Robert helped him develop the thick skin and self-confidence needed to attempt and develop his own revolutionary music. A nice tribute to an old friend.

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