“Really, I am an anthropologist of the small meaningful moment.”—Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas (1922-2019) was a filmmaker, poet, critic, and early proponent of avant-garde film. This exhibition presents eighty images, divided into two groups, each representing Mekas’ friends and family in fleeting moments captured. In the first half of the exhibition we find images that often contain Mekas himself as well as his immediate family; in the second we the find the family of friends that he made throughout his lifetime. Some feature recognizable figures who were important collaborators—including John Lennon, Andy Warhol, and Jackie Kennedy—while others images are more anonymous, occasionally even becoming unrecognizable as they slip into moving abstractions of light and color or catch fragments of text. Likewise, many of the sites and scenes in these images can no longer be located, shot in a city that has continued to experience drastic shifts in the time since. This group of photographs was last seen ten years ago, installed during Mekas’ survey at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2012. This exhibition marks the decade since. The first US museum survey of Mekas' prolific career can also be encountered in person at the Jewish Museum from February 18–June 5, 2022.
The composition of the photographs on view maintain the distinct form of the film strip, each containing two or three horizontal images within a vertical film strip that continues well past the immediate borders of the printed image. The effect is one of subtle change, with the sense of movement ultimately found in the momentary gap between each frame. Born in Lithuania, Mekas fled the country during the second world war, surviving and escaping a labor camp before living for two years in a displaced persons’ camp. In 1949 he arrived to Williamsburg, New York. It was here that he began making films with his first Bolex camera, after spending years the previous recent years absorbing films to pass the time, and having joined experimental film clubs in New York. In 1955 he moved to Manhattan, where his practice of filming the people he met in daily life really gained momentum. Mekas reflected on this moment: "That's really when my new life began.” Today, this body of eighty images made over the years speaks to the highly personal and subtle documentary sensibility of Mekas’ filmmaking, and its central place within his life as one, always, “driven by necessity.”
Jonas Mekas has featured in solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, New York; MoMA PS1, New York; the Serpentine Galleries, London; Documenta 11; the 2005 Venice Biennale; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Baltic Art Center, Sweden; the Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo; and Palazzo della Ragione in Bergamo, Italy. Mekas founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962 and Anthology Film Archives in 1970. He was The Village Voice’s first film critic and co-founded Film Culture magazine. A collection of Mekas’ critical writing appears in Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971, first published in 1972 and reissued in 2016 by Columbia University Press. The visual autobiography, A Dance with Fred Astaire, was published in 2017 by Anthology Editions.