Jonas Mekas, Influential Avant-Garde Filmmaker, Dies at 96

Jonas Mekas, Influential Avant-Garde Filmmaker, Dies at 96

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.

Anthology Film Archives Essential Cinema Committee: Ken Kelman, James Broughton, P. Adams Sitney, Jonas Mekas and Peter Kubelka. Photo by Stephen Shore. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

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.

Jonas Mekas outside future home of Anthology Film Archives, 2nd Ave and 2nd Street. Photo by Hollis Melton. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

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.”

Hollis Frampton, unknown, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and Flo Jacobs at Anthology Film Archives oepning, November 1970. Photo by Gretchen Berg. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.
Still from the film “Scenes from the life of Andy Warhol” (1990) by Jonas Mekas. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
P. Adams Sitney, Jonas Mekas, and Peter Kubelka at the Invisible Cinema, Anthology Film Archives, 1970. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
Still from the film “Newsreel: Jonas in the Brig” (1964) by Storm de Hirsch. Here, Mekas is shooting “The Brig” (1964) by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
Jonas Mekas, 1995. Photo by Peter Sempel. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Top Image: Jonas Mekas at SUNY Buffalo conference, March 1973. Photo by Robert Haller. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.