Film-maker Jonas Mekas, a figure who loomed large in the New York cinematic landscape, and an artist widely considered the godfather of underground cinema, has died at the age of 96. A founder of both the famed Film Culture magazine and the still operating Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, his energetic engagement with all aspects of filmmaking helped to nurture the careers of filmmakers like John Waters and Jim Jarmusch, among others. “Jonas passed away quietly and peacefully early this morning,” the Film Archives wrote online. “He was at home with family. He will be greatly missed but his light shines on.”
Born in Lithuania, Mekas fled the Nazis, and ultimately settled in New York City, where he would find a fertile artistic underground mingling with Allen Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and more. Embracing a wide range of techniques and an inventive, diaristic take towards documenting his daily life, Mekas turned filmmaking into a more boundless, exploratory medium of practice, and his works turned many young filmmakers and artists on to their own paths of creative exploration. Establishing Anthology and Film Culture, Mekas would then turn this experiment between art and life outwards, writing and supporting a range of independent filmmakers that would help develop a closely knit network of filmmakers for many years afterwards.
Mekas has been celebrated by a number of major exhibtions, including shows at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, in 2002 and 2017, as well as the Venice Biennale in 2003 and 2005, often exploring his act of relentless documentation and cataloging through film as an extreme creative act. “I’m spending all my energy on doing something constructive and positive,” he said in 2017. “Everyone is destroying libraries and I’m building one.”
— D. Creahan