The Art of Letting Go: Trend Sets Paintings Free, Randomly

Drew Trachtenberg/AOLTwo women at a highway rest stop claim two of Leonard Zatz's paintings. The art was free, given away as part of the Art Abandonment movement.
My wife and I drove last month from our home in New Jersey to Illinois for our son's college graduation (it was wonderful, thank you). We tried to pack very light, leaving plenty of room in our Toyota Camry for our son and his clothes and other junk we'd bring back on the return trip. But we did put seven original acrylic paintings in the trunk to give away to people we didn't know and probably would never even see.

By doing so, we'd be taking part in the fast-growing Art Abandonment movement, which allows people with little or no money for art to acquire original works, while artists (and their friends and relatives) can let their art live.

Here's the backstory of how we joined the movement: Our friend Eleni Zatz Litt lost her father, Leonard, last year at the age of 87. After dealing with all of the legal and financial issues, she tackled a much bigger project -- what to do with nearly 600 paintings he had created and stacked up in his Philadelphia home.

Drew Trachtenberg/AOLEleni Litt shows off one of her father's nearly 600 pieces of art that she's been giving away.
She didn't want to throw them out, but there was no way she and husband, Neil, could keep them in their home in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.

"We had all of this wonderful art," Litt said, "but didn't know what to do with it." So they decided to give it away. One painting at a time.

The first one, she left at the commuter train station less than a mile from her home. Attached was a sheet of paper informing passersby: "It's your lucky day!! You have found FREE ART!!!" along with a description of the Art Abandonment movement and a link to its website. When she went back the next day, it was gone. And she was hooked.

On the Road With Art

So now, back to our trip to the Midwest. We wanted to help our friend out by leaving some of those paintings at highway rest stops along the way.

We placed the first piece near the entrance to a rest stop along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We were about to do the same at the Blue Mountain stop in central Pennsylvania, but before we could even set it down, two 20-something women came running over, gushing about how much they loved the work.

Drew Trachtenberg/AOLThe last of our seven abandoned paintings, left at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, Illinois.
This was indeed one woman's lucky day. She couldn't believe that we were just giving it away. One said she was studying painting but didn't have enough money to buy anything. She was literally jumping up and down with excitement as though she had just won the lottery. Her friend said she loved the art as well, so the four of us went back to the car and pulled out another piece to give away.

My wife and I thought: This is exactly how this is supposed to work. Let the art find a home where it's valued, where the new owner can revel in owning an original piece of art, even if they don't have the money to buy it.

This Art Abandonment project isn't about the value of art, but rather the love of art. You can spend spectacular sums on art (the "Balloon Dog [Orange]" by Jeff Koons recently sold at a Christie's auction for $142.4 million), or you can find paintings at a highway rest stop. In addition to the Art Abandonment project, other peer-to-peer art swaps and art meet-ups are popping up across the country.

We left other pieces in Ohio, Indiana and at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston.

So far since March, Litt has abandoned about 250 of her father's paintings. She has a Facebook page and an email account so that people who pick up the paintings can tell their stories. One young woman wrote to say that she had just moved to this country and had only bare walls in her first apartment -- until she found one of the paintings.

"My dad so wanted his art to go out in the world," says Litt. "It's his love letter to the world."

Leonard Zatz was a dabbler in art during his careers in education and business. Then later in life, especially after illness limited his ability to get around, his art output became prolific.

Litt describes her father's style as whimsical -- a little bit of German expressionism meshed with influences of Gauguin and Matisse -- what she calls "delicatessen style, with vibrant energy and bold colors." She says her effort to redistribute the art is "like a letter in a bottle. You don't know where it's going to go. That's the whimsy of it."

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WOW ... that's quite a story. What a wonderful thing for Eleni to do in memory of her father. She not only is making so many people so happy, but keeping her dad's memory alive ... I Love It!! What a great article Drew ... thanks for sharing ...

July 17 2014 at 2:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Artists need to eat and pay the rent, too!

July 15 2014 at 9:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You just gave me a great Idea. My husband was an artist and quite prolific and I had offered his work to his family but they were unable to accept as tthey have a lot already so I am going to start giving some of it away so that I will know that there will be people out there who will enjoy his work. I too am an artist and so I hope that my family will do the same although I have already given away a lot. What good is art if can't be enjoyed by everyone. .

July 15 2014 at 6:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply