Jonas Mekas’s Profound Film Legacy Comes to Light with Stills of Warhol, Lennon, and The Kennedys

In the work of the great Lithuanian-American filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas—known as “the godfather of avant-garde cinema”—there’s profound artistry in both the moving picture and the single frame. The latter is the subject of a new exhibition at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. 

“Frozen Film Frames: Portraits of Filmmakers by Jonas Mekas” highlights Mekas’s signature single-frame filming style in a series of images drawn from adjoining frames. Given the famous faces of Mekas’ subjects—Andy Warhol, JFK Jr., John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Elia Kazan, to name a few—it’s easy to be distracted, at least initially, from the brilliance of Mekas’s style and technique. Look closer: there’s a good reason these works have been shown at the Venice Biennale and at MoMA PS1, and why the fashion designer Agnès B once described him as “not just an artist, but a scribe and the keeper of memories.”

Mekas’s masterful ability to capture the moment is rooted in the dramatic story of his past. As a young man, he was seized by German forces while fleeing Lithuania during World War II and imprisoned in a labor camp; with his brother, he escaped eight months later, and they spent the whole of 1945 in hiding or in displaced persons’ camps. Mekas emigrated to the US in 1949 and purchased his first Bolex 16mm camera. And the rest, as they say, is history. As Mekas later told The Guardian, “I was 27 and I had to make up for all the lost time in the displaced persons’ camp, so I started absorbing everything...I was so hungry for culture, for stimulation. It was all about grabbing the time, doing something after so many years of doing nothing. And, when my eyes were opened to what others were doing, it was only a small step to start filming.” 

Co-curated by Deborah Colton of  Deborah Colton Gallery, “Frozen Film Frames” and the accompanying film screenings are presented in collaboration with the Cinema Pacific film festival, and mark the gallery’s 10 years of involvement with Mekas. Deborah Colton Gallery first showed the filmmaker’s work in a solo exhibition in 2005. Today, the filmmaker, now in his nineties, is widely considered a pioneer and a virtuoso, known for his experimental diaristic films as much as his promotion of avant-garde cinema and his founding role with New York film institutions Filmmakers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.

Bridget Gleeson
“Frozen Film Frames: Portraits of Filmmakers by Jonas Mekas” is on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Eugene, Apr. 1 - Jun. 7, 2015.
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