Film-maker, artist and poet

Born: December 24, 1922;

Died: January 23, 2019

JONAS Mekas, who has died aged 96, was both a pioneer and a provocateur of avant-garde film. His own works were essentially visual poems, with their deeply personal narrative-free fragments in part defining New York’s mid-20th century bohemian underground. Beyond this, his championing of peers such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Shirley Clarke was evangelical.

This was certainly the case in print, both in Film Culture, the influential quarterly publication he founded in 1955 and which ran until 1996, as well as through his column for the then fledgling underground newspaper Village Voice. Both gave a vital forum for a wave of film-makers who would otherwise have been isolated. He did this too at the vanguard of the various co-operatives and collectives he set up which gave his art form legitimacy. While the Film-makers Co-op provided a much-needed distribution network, Anthology Film Archives, opened in 1970, remains a vast and essential collection of experimental film.

Mekas found himself in the thick of a surge of activity in experimental film he helped give voice to during the 1950s and 1960s, dubbing it New American Cinema. However disparate those under its catch-all umbrella may have been, it nevertheless gave them a collective credibility in the face of scorn from mainstream critics. As a counterblast to the latter, Mekas could be ferocious in his writing about what he saw as the banality of commercial cinema. Not for nothing was Mekas dubbed the godfather of American avant-garde film.

Mekas made 60 films that more than justified such iconic status. His first film, Guns of the Trees (1961), took a fictional trawl through the existential ennui of four characters cast adrift from society among New York’s Beat generation. Mekas soon ditched any notion of traditional narrative for even more personal works, including Walden (1969) Lost, Lost, Lost (1975), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). Mekas curated screenings in Greenwich Village, his statement that “we don’t want rosy films, we want them the colour of blood,” summing up the spirit of the new wave.

Mekas kept company with the likes of Yoko Ono, Salvador Dali, John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground rehearsed in his apartment, and the footage of the band playing that was shot by him evokes a fly-on-the-wall light and shade which for a while would go on to define the group. Mekas was arrested on obscenity charges for showing Jack Smith’s piece of flamboyant camp, Flaming Creatures (1963) in a double bill with Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour (1950). This set him in fierce opposition to the censorship board in a way that never went away.

Perhaps it was Mekas’s driven sense of rebellion that caused him to be feted by film-makers as disparate as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Harmony Korine. In different ways, it’s not difficult to spot elements of Mekas’s influence in the works of all three. His films also arguably pre-dated Dogme decades before the term was invented.

Jonas Mekas was born in Lithuania, in the village of Semeniskiai. Growing up in a country occupied during the Second World War, first by Russia, then by Germany, Mekas was a teenage rebel from early on. He wrote book reviews, essays and poems for underground newspaper, The New Birzai News, before he and his brother Adolfas were interned in a labour camp in Hamburg before escaping to Denmark.

Once the war ended, Mekas and Adolfas lived in a camp for displaced persons, and studied philosophy at the University of Mainz, as well as writing poetry. Reading a book called Dramaturgy of Film opened up the Mekas brothers’ eyes to expressing themselves beyond words, and on being sent to the United States by the International Refugee Organisation saw them land in New York. This was supposed to be a stop-off en route to Chicago, but the brothers were so taken with it they decided to stay.

New York was a whirl of life in restless motion, and a hotbed of artistic activity was on their doorstep, which the Mekas boys fell into with relish. Inbetween getting by through menial jobs while living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the brothers lapped up all the poetry and art and film they could. Within a fortnight, Mekas borrowed money to buy a Bolex 16mm movie camera, and began filming his daily activities in a way one might keep a diary.

So began a rolling autobiographical meditation that would last the rest of his life. Mekas’s focus on the self was an aesthetic that chimed with a time of self-reflection and influenced a younger generation of film-makers to focus on the minutiae of the everyday. Mekas didn’t direct as such, but simply kept the camera running, so the poetry of these home movies came through by allowing each moment to breathe. This was augmented by a dozen volumes of poetry, a book of anecdotes, diaries and a dream journal, all of which formed a body of work that blurred the boundaries between life and art.

Mekas won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Lithuanian National Prize. His poetry, originally written in Lithuanian, has been translated extensively into English. In 1974, Mekas married Hollis Melton, and the couple had two children, Oona and Sebastian. This added a new dimension to his film-making, and while the marriage ended in divorce, the family appeared extensively in Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012).

Latterly, Mekas adapted his work for gallery screenings, where he introduced multiple-channel editions that gave viewers a new experience of old work shown in gallery spaces. His work has been shown at the 51st Venice Biennial, PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, the Ludwig Museum, the Serpentine Gallery, and the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Centre, which opened in Vilnius 2007. In 2016, Turner Prize winning artist Douglas Gordon made I Had Nowhere to Go, an impressionistic documentary portrait of Mekas that focused on his childhood.

Mekas’s own near-Proustian sense of archiving himself arguably reached its zenith in 2007, when he embarked on The 365 Project, in which he released a daily video of himself on his website. The ongoing result was seen at the Venice Biennale. After more than ten years of filming, this vast archive of a life lived is an evocative document of how art and the everyday can meet as fragmented poems that cross borders of a cinematic language Mekas helped bridge.

Mekas is survived by his daughter Oona, his son Sebastian, and a grand-daughter.