I met Jan Kotik when he was just 17 years old. Eleven years older, I was a musician and record label owner who fell in love with Jan’s band, the Mommyheads. Like their name, the Mommyheads were irreverent, their fittingly juvenile sense of humor camouflaging an obvious deep intelligence. Late ’80s New York was a hodge-podge of artistic conventionality and utter creative rebellion. Interested in the latter, I was drawn to the Mommyheads before all other bands.
The group was absolutely original. Someone hearing it for the first time now would still experience it as unlike anything they’d heard before. The other fascinating part was simply the group’s youth – that three such young men could produce such impressively mature concepts in sound. They were literally child geniuses.
While band mates Adam Cohen and Matt Patrick are credited for most of the compositions, Jan was the one who drove the group’s stunningly sophisticated aesthetic. He pushed his band mates further than either would have gone without him. Jan was the youngest, and was often treated as such. But when it came time to play, no one commanded more respect (and awe) from musicians and audiences alike than Jan.
His formidable talents were always accessible to those around him, thanks to his humility and sweetness. Jan didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He looked up to older artists while expanding the horizons of their work, by either contributing directly to it (like mine) or simply broadening others’ perception of what was possible. He was a community-oriented artist who valued personal relationships as much as any work he ever made with others.
Jan was hilarious. He always appreciated silliness, which he understood had nothing to do with the depth of one’s intellect. He was generous with his time and abilities, always available for an intriguing project. When the other Mommyheads moved to California in 1990, Jan stayed in New York, joining my group Church of Betty. He later played with 101 Crustaceans, Beekeeper, Johnny Society, and many other local groups.
Making art was as natural to Jan as breathing. The son of composer Peter and curator Charlotta, he grew up surrounded by art. He took to it like a fish to water, never derailing his endeavors with pretense or self-importance.
In his New York days, Jan was a musician first and visual artist second, in part because his musical skills were in such demand. When he moved to Prague, his focus clearly shifted to the visual – a marvelous development for all, since we can now enjoy Jan’s creativity in two distinct media.
Without question, the humor and incisive intelligence we see in Jan’s visual work comes from the same delightful teen musical phenom I knew in New York. During the Prague years, I enjoyed from afar watching his mind and personality forge such radically different content.
Nonetheless, Jan’s art functions like his music: teasing us with ideas, luring us to profound perspectives while easing the way with clever charm, never an unkind note.