Jonas Mekas, a Patron Saint of New York’s Avant-Garde Film Scene, Has Died at 96

Mekas is remembered not only for his film, but for his role as a binding agent for the New York avant-garde.

Artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

Jonas Mekas, the fabled Lithuanian-born artist and experimental filmmaker who was widely regarded as the father of underground cinema, and whose New York loft was a nexus of the 1960s avant-garde, died at his home in Brooklyn on Wednesday, aged 96. 

James Fuentes, his dealer, confirmed the death and said Mekas had been suffering unspecified health problems for about six months.

Mekas was born in December 1922 in the village of Semeniskiai. He was 16 when the Second World War began, and later wrote that his brother, Adolfas, and he were imprisoned in a labor camp by the Nazis. At the end of the war, after studying in Mainz, the brothers were resettled to America by the International Refugee Organization. Although they originally meant to go to Chicago, they wound up in New York.

In 1954, they founded Film Culture magazine, which celebrated experimental, non-commercial films and offered discussions of avant-garde ideas. Four years later, Mekas found another audience as the first film critic for the Village Voice, and soon began hosting film screenings at his home for artists and luminaries such as Robert Frank, Salvador Dalí, Yoko Ono.

The Velvet Underground rehearsed in the space, and Mekas reportedly introduced lead singer Loud Reed to Andy Warhol, who went on to produce the band’s debut album. In 1969, Mekas co-founded the Anthology Film Archives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which quickly became a mecca for rare and experimental films. It continues to preserve and screen films today.

Mekas’s own films were flickery, diaristic, and lacking in obvious narrative, so that mystery and intimacy were elevated above all else. He was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival for his 1965 film The Brig, which he made with Adolfas, and which was based on a play about a Marine Corps prison. Another film, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania from 1972, was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Mekas enjoyed numerous museum surveys in Europe, including at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Serpentine in London, and the Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels. But Fuentes says he never received the attention he deserved in the US during his life. “I’m eager and hopeful that American audiences will have the opportunity to access his work in a way that that they weren’t able to in his lifetime,” he says.

“It’s kind of a strange to feel shocked that he’s passed because he was 96 years old,” Fuentes told artnet News. “He had this life force and energy that very, very few people have, and it made everyone around him think he was immortal. He’ll be dearly, dearly missed by me and all of us [at the gallery]. I feel like I’ve lost a family member today. Jonas’ legacy will clearly live on through his writing and his films in an incredible way.”

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