Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas (Lithuanian: [ˈjonɐs ˈmækɐs]; December 24,[1] 1922 – January 23, 2019)[2] was a Lithuanian-American filmmaker, poet, and artist who has often been called "the godfather of American avant-garde cinema". His work has been exhibited in museums and at festivals worldwide.[3]

Jonas Mekas
Mekas in 2008
Born(1922-12-24)December 24, 1922
Semeniškiai, Lithuania
DiedJanuary 23, 2019(2019-01-23) (aged 96)
Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S.
OccupationPoet, filmmaker, artist
Alma materUniversity of Mainz
Literary movementAvant-garde cinema
Notable awardsLithuanian National Prize (1995)
SpouseHollis Melton


Life and career

Mekas was born in Semeniškiai, the son of Elžbieta (Jašinskaitė) and Povilas Mekas.[4] In 1944, Mekas left Lithuania to escape the advancing Red Army. En route, his train was stopped in Germany where he and his brother, Adolfas Mekas (1925–2011), were imprisoned in a labor camp in Elmshorn, a suburb of Hamburg, for eight months. The brothers escaped to hide on a farm near the Danish border two months until the end of the war. After the war, Mekas lived in displaced persons' camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel. From 1946 to 1948, he studied philosophy at the University of Mainz and at the end of 1949 he emigrated with his brother to the U.S., settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Two weeks after his arrival, he borrowed money to buy his first Bolex 16mm camera and began recording moments of his life. He discovered avant-garde film at venues such as Amos Vogel's pioneering Cinema 16, and he began curating avant-garde film screenings at Gallery East on Avenue A and Houston Street and at the Film Forum series at Carl Fisher Auditorium on 57th Street.[5]

In 1954, together with his brother Adolfas Mekas, he founded Film Culture, and in 1958 he began writing his "Movie Journal" column for The Village Voice. In 1962, he co-founded Film-Makers' Cooperative and the Filmmakers' Cinematheque in 1964, which eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives, one of the world's largest and most important repositories of avant-garde film. Along with Lionel Rogosin, he was part of the New American Cinema movement. He was a close collaborator with artists such as Andy Warhol,[6] Nico, Allen Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, John Lennon,[7] Salvador Dalí, and fellow Lithuanian George Maciunas.

In 1964, Mekas was arrested on obscenity charges for showing Flaming Creatures (1963) and Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour (1950). He launched a campaign against the censorship board, and for the next few years continued to exhibit films at the Film-makers' Cinemathèque, the Jewish Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art. From 1964 to 1967, he organized the New American Cinema Expositions, which toured Europe and South America, and in 1966 joined 80 Wooster Fluxhouse Coop.

In 1970, Anthology Film Archives opened on 425 Lafayette Street as a film museum, screening space, and a library, with Mekas as its director. Mekas, along with Stan Brakhage, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, James Broughton, and P. Adams Sitney, began the ambitious Essential Cinema project at Anthology Film Archives to establish a canon of important cinematic works.

In 1971 Mekas's legs appeared in John Lennon and Yoko Ono's experimental film Up Your Legs Forever.[8]

As a filmmaker, Mekas' own output ranged from his early narrative film (Guns of the Trees, 1961) to "diary films" such as Walden (1969); Lost, Lost, Lost (1975); Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Zefiro Torna (1992), and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, which have been screened extensively at festivals and museums around the world.

Mekas expanded the scope of his practice with his later works of multi-monitor installations, sound immersion pieces and "frozen-film" prints. Together they offer a new experience of his classic films and a novel presentation of his more recent video work. His work has been exhibited at the 51st Venice Biennial, PS1 Contemporary Art Center, the Ludwig Museum, the Serpentine Gallery, and the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center.

In the year 2007, Mekas released one film every day on his website, a project he entitled "The 365 Day Project."[9] The online diary is still ongoing on Jonas Mekas' official website. It was celebrated in 2015 with a show titled "The Internet Saga" which was curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi at Palazzo Foscari Contarini on the occasion of the 56th Venice Biennale of Visual Arts.

Beginning in the 1970s, Mekas taught film courses at the New School for Social Research, MIT, Cooper Union, and New York University.

Mekas is also a well-known Lithuanian language poet and published his poems and prose in Lithuanian, French, German, and English. His work has been translated into English by the Lithuanian-American poet Vyt Bakaitis in such collections as Daybooks: 1970-1972 (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs: 2013) and the major anthology (bilingual) of modern Lithuanian verse: Gyvas atodūsis/Breathing Free, poems Lietuvos: Vilnius, 2001. Mekas published many of his journals and diaries, including I Had Nowhere to Go: Diaries, 1944–1954 and Letters from Nowhere, as well as articles on film criticism, theory, and technique. On November 10, 2007, the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center was opened in Vilnius.

Mekas died at his home in New York City on January 23, 2019 at the age of 96.[10][11] One of his last exhibitions, "Notes from Downtown," took place at James Fuentes Gallery in the summer of 2018 on the Lower East Side.[12]

Jonas Mekas in culture

The German filmmaker Peter Sempel has made three films about Mekas' works and life, Jonas in the Desert (1991), Jonas at the Ocean (2004), and Jonas in the Jungle (2013).

Awards and honors


  • Guns of the Trees (1962)
  • Film Magazine of the Arts (1963)
  • The Brig (1964) - 65 minutes
  • Empire (1964)
  • Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (1964)
  • Report from Millbrook (1964–65)
  • Hare Krishna (1966)
  • Notes on the Circus (1966)
  • Cassis (1966)
  • The Italian Notebook (1967)
  • Time and Fortune Vietnam Newsreel (1968)
  • Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches) (1969) - 3 hours
  • Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971–72)
  • Lost, Lost, Lost (1976)
  • In Between: 1964–8 (1978)
  • Notes for Jerome (1978)
  • Paradise Not Yet Lost (also known as Oona's Third Year) (1979)
  • Street Songs (1966/1983)
  • Cups/Saucers/Dancers/Radio (1965/1983)
  • Erik Hawkins: Excerpts from "Here and Now with Watchers"/Lucia Dlugoszewski Performs (1983)
  • He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life (1969/1985)
  • Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1990)
  • Mob of Angels/The Baptism (1991)
  • Dr. Carl G. Jung or Lapis Philosophorum (1991)
  • Quartet Number One (1991)
  • Mob of Angels at St. Ann (1992)
  • Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (1992)
  • The Education of Sebastian or Egypt Regained (1992)
  • He Travels. In Search of... (1994)
  • Imperfect 3-Image Films (1995)
  • On My Way to Fujiyama I Met… (1995)
  • Happy Birthday to John (1996) - 34 minutes
  • Memories of Frankenstein (1996)
  • Birth of a Nation (1997)
  • Scenes from Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit (1997)
  • Letter from Nowhere – Laiskas is Niekur N.1 (1997)
  • Symphony of Joy (1997)
  • Song of Avignon (1998)
  • Laboratorium (1999)
  • Autobiography of a Man Who Carried His Memory in His Eyes (2000)
  • This Side of Paradise (1999) - 35 minutes
  • Notes on Andy's Factory (1999)
  • Mysteries (1966–2001)
  • As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) - 285 minutes
  • Remedy for Melancholy (2000)
  • Ein Maerchen (2001)
  • Williamsburg, Brooklyn (1950–2003)
  • Mozart & Wien and Elvis (2000)
  • Travel Songs (1967–1981)
  • Dedication to Leger (2003)
  • Notes on Utopia (2003) 30 min
  • Letter from Greenpoint (2004)
  • The Definition of Insanity (film) (2004) (as Dr. Mekas)
  • 365 Day Project (2007), 30 hours in total
  • Notes on American Film Director: Martin Scorsese (2007), 80 minutes.
  • Lithuania and the Collapse of USSR (2008), 4 hours 50 minutes.
  • I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009), 4 minutes
  • Sleepless Nights Stories (Premiere at the Berlinale 2011) - 114 minutes
  • My Mars Bar Movie (2011)
  • Correspondences: José Luis Guerin and Jonas Mekas (2011)
  • Reminiszenzen aus Deutschland (2012)
  • Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012) - 68 minutes[15]

Personal life

Mekas married Hollis Melton in 1974. They had two children, a daughter, Oona, and a son, Sebastian.[16] His family is featured in Jonas's films, including Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man.

See also


  1. Mekas' passport shows December 23, 1922, the date sometimes listed as his "official" date of birth; however, he was actually born on December 24, 1922, as he confirms in this video interview.
  2. Needham, Alex (23 January 2019). "Jonas Mekas, titan of underground filmmaking, dies aged 96". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 April 2019.
  3. "Interview: Jonas Mekas by Modestas Mankus". Our Culture Mag. Our Culture Mag.
  4. "Parodos - Maironio lietuvių literatūros muziejus".
  5. Jonas Mekas, Champion of the "Poetic" Cinema by Richard Brody in The NewYorker, April 21, 2016
  6. "Jonas Mekas, Serpentine Gallery, London". The Independent. Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  7. "The private world of '60s legends". CNN Style. 2017-11-14. Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  8. Jonathan Cott (16 July 2013). Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time With John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Omnibus Press. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-78323-048-8.
  9. Short Films Coming Soon to an iPod Near You, All Things Considered, November 5, 2006. Producer Ben Shapiro reports on a plan by filmmaker Jonas Mekas to make short films available as a podcast.
  10. "Jonas Mekas, avant-garde filmmaker and iconic New Yorker, dies at 96". BrooklynVegan.
  11. "Jonas Mekas, ‘godfather’ of avant-garde, dies at 96". Detroit News.
  12. Bloch, Mark. "Jonas Mekas: Notes from Downtown". The Brooklyn Rail.
  13. "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Jonas Mekas".
  14. "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 1879. Retrieved 27 November 2012.
  15. "Scenes from the Life of a Happy Man... The Films of Jonas Mekas". Harvard Film Archive. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  16. "Jonas Mekas Film and Videography". Retrieved 12 February 2017.


  • Hans-Jürgen Tast (Hrsg.) "As I Was Moving. Kunst und Leben" (Schellerten/Germany 2004) (z.m.a.K.), ISBN 3-88842-026-1.
  • Efren Cuevas, "The Immigrant Experience in Jonas Mekas's Diary Films: A Chronotopic Análisis of Lost, Lost, Lost", Biography, vol. 29, n. 1, winter 2006, pp. 55–73, .
  • Fashion Film Festival presents "The Internet Saga",
  • Roslyn Bernstein & Shael Shapiro, Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo, published by the Jonas Mekas Foundation.
  • Steven Watson, "Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties" Pantheon Books, 2003

Further reading

  • Ivanov, Maksim. Jonas Mekas' Diary Films in: Lithuanian Cinema: Special Edition for Lithuanian Film Days in Poland 2015, Auksė Kancerevičiūtė [ed.]. Vilnius: Lithuanian Film Centre, 2015. ISBN 6099574409.
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