Jonas Mekas, the Lithuanian-born filmmaker, writer, curator and artist whose work shaped American avant-garde cinema, died Wednesday morning at age 96. A central figure in the New York film community, Mekas’s contributions revolutionized the landscape of experimental and independent cinema.
In 1954, five years after moving to New York from Europe with his brother, Adolfas, as a refugee, Mekas co-founded the influential publication Film Culture. When Mekas became the first film critic at a nascent Village Voice in 1958, he rose as an indispensable part of New York’s underground film scene, which he covered in his column “Movie Journal,” until 1975.
Beyond his critical writing, Mekas played an instrumental role in the development, creation and showcasing of non-commercial film. In 1962, he co-founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, an artist-run organization that helped filmmakers distribute avant-garde films and experimental films.
By 1964, Mekas expanded his efforts to co-found the Film-Maker’s Cinematheque, which eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives in 1970.
Mekas’s Essential Cinema Collection, assembled between 1970 and 1975 by Anthology’s Film Selection Committee (which included Mekas, along with James Broughton, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka and P. Adams Sitney), is among one of the first attempts to establish a living, critical canon of avant-garde film and remains a testament to the efforts of Mekas and his contemporaries to document and contend with cinematic history.
“Dear Friends, Jonas passed away quietly and peacefully early this morning,” said Anthology Film Archives in a statement posted today on Instagram. “He was at home with family. He will be greatly missed but his light shines on.”
Top Image: Jonas Mekas at SUNY Buffalo conference, March 1973. Photo by Robert Haller. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.