From the day he first sailed into New York Harbor as a World War II refugee to his death 70 years later, at the age of 96, Jonas Mekas worked ceaselessly to promote and protect the avant-garde film movement he dubbed New American Cinema. Through his work as a critic for The Village Voice, editor of Film Culture, and director and programmer of a traveling showcase that eventually became Anthology Film Archives, Mekas is best known today for his tireless advocacy for and boundary pushing of the aesthetic possibilities of the motion picture. He also practiced what he preached, producing hundreds of films, which range in length from mere seconds to five-hour epics, and which subsume his relentless practice of recording daily activity and observations into a cinematic form he basically invented: the film diary. The Jewish Museum’s Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, the first United States museum survey organized around his many miles of footage, offers much to wade through, but the water is warm.

The show is excellent, foremost for its emphasis on Mekas as a filmmaker. For far too long, his work has been more discussed than seen. With an inspired design by Ivi Diamantopoulou and Jaffer Kolb, the Jewish Museum presents each of Mekas’s major film works, split by their reels across multiple screens, and presented chronologically in an immersive staging area. Eye-catching snippets of his extraordinary life, shot mostly on 16mm and early digital formats, pour out across the room in a condensed, impactful evocation of his diaristic mode.

One of the essential contributions of The Camera Was Always Running is its demonstration of Mekas’s works as exercises in rhythm and continuity — placing sustained presence over climactic revelation. In its concentration, the museum’s multiscreen redux demonstrates this fact to even a cursory viewer; it would be difficult for anyone to spend more than five minutes inside the sumptuous, half-lit space and not come away with images both indelible and fleeting. Mekas called such moments “glimpses,” and worked painstakingly, with his camera always in hand, to not only capture and preserve what he saw but also how he felt while seeing it.

Jonas Mekas, grid of stills from “Self Portrait” (1980), analog video on digital video, color, sound, 20 minutes (courtesy the Estate of Jonas Mekas)

The show contains little more than this screening room and a small case of ephemera concerning Mekas’s refugee status and emigration to New York. While he was not Jewish, Mekas worked to disseminate BBC radio broadcasts to an underground resistance in his native Lithuania during the Second World War, and was briefly interned at a Nazi labor camp after trying to flee to Vienna. His movements during the war are complex and fascinating, but uninitiated visitors to the museum will learn little about his career as a critic and evangelist for the New York avant-garde outside of some glancing references onscreen.

Those interested in the artist’s life should turn instead to The Camera Was Always Running’s exhibition monograph, produced cooperatively with a concurrent retrospective at the Lithuanian National Museum of Art in Vilnius, and recently published by Yale University Press. Previous Mekas scholarship has been limited to To Free the Cinema, a collection of essays on him and his milieu edited by David E. James, and published in 1992, well before some of Mekas’s major cinematic works were complete. This new compendium builds on those essays, and offers a look at its formidably multifaceted subject that is at once a comprehensive introduction to him and a fresh bounty of insights on the implications of his life and work.

Jonas Mekas, grid of stills from “As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty” (2000), 16mm film, color, black and white, sound. 288 minutes

Curator Kelly Taxter provides an extensive, deeply researched, and conspicuously passionate essay on Mekas’s tragic personal history and compulsive filmmaking, connecting the two to convincingly psychologize pathways around his traumas of exile. Art historians Melissa Ragona and Andrew V. Uroskie connect Mekas’s work as both a filmmaker and counterculture impresario to the artistic milieux of other mediums developing simultaneously around him: Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theater, for instance, which operated as both foil and inspiration to Mekas’s fugitive organizing, and supplied him with the subject for his early cinematic breakthrough, The Brig (1964); and the process-based sonic experiments of John Cage, John Cale, and LaMonte Young, whose techniques of emergence and chance Mekas embraced wholeheartedly as key dynamics for his film editing.

Though he once constructed a cinema so intent on a non-interruptive experience that you could not see other members of the audience, Mekas was never fussy with the presentation of his own work. In his hard-edged ministration for the avant-garde, he often neglected to promote himself. Because he owned and operated movie houses, it has usually been assumed that his work is best suited to the theatrical format — making for a difficult balance of tedium and majesty in a film like his nearly five-hour As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). For the opening week of The Camera Was Always Running, Film at Lincoln Center held a theatrical retrospective of Mekas’s works in their original 16mm format, a rare and special cinematic occasion. I saw it, and still prefer the Jewish Museum’s condensed and immersive installation for many of his films. Not only is it more palatable, but it’s more evocative of the force contained in Mekas’s glimpses, the compounded experience of an entire life unspooling from the reel.

Jonas Mekas, grid of stills from “Requiem” (2019), analog, digital, and high-definition video, color, sound. 84 minutes

Requiem, 2019, the final in the Jewish Museum’s rotation of Mekas’s films, is composed vertiginously of pastoral shots of flowers, trees, and sunlight intercut with footage of the 2011 Japan tsunami, a fire in Queens, and images of torture and starvation culled from war reports. The visuals stand in stark contrast to the moving and melodramatic score, deliberately avoiding moments of coordinated effort. The film was originally commissioned for a live performance of Verdi’s Messa de Requiem, conducted by Teodor Currentzis in 2019 as part of The Shed’s inaugural season; Mekas was editing his video late into the evening on the night before he died. Ragona’s essay includes a close reading of the film’s intentional ambiguity, but in the Jewish Museum’s space you’re sure to feel it for yourself.

As Mekas’s final artistic product, this is the work that has been the least encountered thus far, and seems to be the most suited to the museum’s multiscreen reinvention. In the ambient space of the screening room, Requiem becomes nothing less than a salvo of the terrifying beauty of nature, the hapless recurrence of human folly, the chaos of life, and the glories born out of it almost by accident. Mekas gives equal weight to flowers and violence, but the way he probes each with the lens of his camera, entering a proximity far beyond the typically distanced comfort of the gaze, is staggering. Under Verdi’s swells, it seems to equate a desire to see with a desire to live. Ragona notes that it is effectively the closest Mekas ever came to a dream he once recorded in his diaries, for an avant-garde newsreel: “footage that many of us pick up every day at demonstrations and protests and, sometimes, at some more quiet moments. […] Something is happening [there], and I think it should be seen across the country.”

Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 5. The exhibition was curated by guest curator Kelly Taxter and Kristina Parsons, Leon Levy Curatorial Assistant.

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Nolan Kelly

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn.