When Leonard Zatz, 87, died in his Philadelphia home in April 2013, he left 600 paintings to his daughter, Eleni Zatz Litt, and her niece and nephew. A businessman-turned-educator educator – Zatz taught at Frankford High School for 20 years — he loved making art for as long as anyone can remember. Zatz took classes in printmaking at the University of Pennsylvania and painting at Tyler School of the Arts, and after his retirement in the 1980s devoted himself full time to painting. Housebound in the last five years of his life, painting was all he could do.
The dining room of the house Litt grew up in had become her father’s studio. When she went to visit him, he wouldn’t let her leave without taking a painting.
Zatz’s style could be described as Chagall meets Matisse, with some Gauguin, Modigliani and German Expressionism thrown in. He would paint from pictures in art history books, creating his own image as a sum of the parts.
Litt, an assistant provost at the New School in New York City who lives in Princeton Junction, also paints – her father taught her to use oils — and she had a solo exhibition at the Jewish Center of Princeton several years ago. Her mother’s mother was an artist, and an uncle performed in Yiddish theater.
When Zatz died, Litt distributed all his possessions but left the artwork for last. Several friends offered basements, attics and garages for storage. Litt and her niece and nephew agreed they wanted to give the work away, but to whom?
In the year following his death, Litt said Kaddish – a prayer to the Jewish god that is a mourning ritual. She lit a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of the death. Then, through a friend, she discovered the Abandoned Art movement. “I was a year older, spring was coming after a horrible winter, and I realized I have all this art,” she says.
She found the Art Abandonment website, and learned it is considered a Random Act of Kindness. Soon she was abandoning her father’s paintings in public venues, attaching notes to them explaining that this is a gift to the finder – they may take the painting home and hang it, they may give it to someone else, or they may re-abandon it. They are given the url for the Art Abandonment website, where they can post pictures of the painting in its new home and write a comment.
Litt, in turn, photographs the abandoned painting – alongside a DVD drop box, or a ticket kiosk — then posts it on her Facebook page. Sometimes friends will see the artwork, or follow a link to a Flickr site, and choose artwork they’d like.
She considers what she’s doing a kind of performance art, and has abandoned canvases at the Princeton Junction train station, the West Windsor Library, shopping malls, yoga studios, the wedding of a friend, the D&R Canal towpath, the Princeton University boat house, New York Penn Station, Union Square Park, even rest stops on the turnpike en route to Washington, D.C.
Sometimes she’ll step back and watch to see who takes it, and sometimes she may come back later and find it gone. She has observed some people cry at the gift they’ve received, and one truck driver, who took a canvas from the road, sent her a photo of the painting hanging above his fireplace. “I was so touched – I grew up with that painting,” she says.
Another taker had just moved to the area from Mexico and was so please to have artwork for her new apartment.
“I’m collecting stories now,” says Litt, who has a PhD in anthropology.
What if someone wants to pay for a painting? Litt encourages them to make a donation to Combat Paper Project that helps veterans cope with their war experiences by making paper out of uniforms and rendering it into art. “My father was a World War II veteran and was traumatized by the war.”
She feels her father is looking down at her. “He always wanted his work to be seen – he’d be happy. It’s even better than being in a gallery or a museum, where the work might be in storage. His is really out there.”
Litt admits to having hundreds of her own paintings. “I may start to abandon them. There’s something very precious about giving it away. It’s like a love letter to the world. Would you like a painting?”
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.