Jonas Mekas: Notes from Downtown
JAMES FUENTES | JULY 27 – SEPTEMBER 5, 2018
The understated exhibition, Notes From Downtown is a victory lap around the tail end of a divine comedy for Jonas Mekas. His 1990 video, A Walk, takes us from SoHo to the Williamsburg Bridge; then, Williamsburg, 2018 is a set of twelve C-Print film-still compositions originally shot in 1949 – 50; and finally in six 1971 Polaroid portraits, Mekas and his close Lithuanian compatriot, Fluxus founder George Maciunas, are captured by their peer, John Lennon.
At age 95, Jonas Mekas has been called an artist, critic, poet, and a progenitor of experimental filmmaking but never does he use the term “artist” to describe himself. He also qualifies the label “filmmaker,” seeing himself not as someone who necessarily makes finished films but is a maker of diaristic (“personal” or “poetic”) film or video footage which he then shares with the world.
In a chat about the show, Mekas referenced three works not included in the exhibit. The earliest footage of him and his brother messing around with a new camera is in Lost Lost Lost (1976) before he “knew anyone” or crossed the river out of Brooklyn and from which images in the show were made. When I asked about his native land before back-to-back Nazi and Soviet takeovers, he referred me to his Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008) and on a lighter note, told me his work George’s Dumpling Party, (1971) documents the night the Lennon Poloroids were taken.
Mekas frames his life in three distinct movements right out of Dante’s Divine Comedy—four actually, as it ends where it began. His childhood, with his brother Adolfas, was an idyllic Paradiso in the town where the City Council of Vilnius founded the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center in 2007. “Then Hell came.” World War II sent the brothers into a very dark period until they landed in Williamsburg as refugees—an improvement, but merely a Purgatorio. Within months of being tossed by the UN’s International Refugee Organization into 1949 Williamsburg, which he described as “the worst, most dilapidated part of Brooklyn,” Mekas bought a new Bolex camera and began to document his new city and its people.
But Paradiso returned when he ventured into a blossoming scene in Manhattan that he called the “end of everything and the beginning of everything,” and which took him from his late twenties to the present. In addition to a lifetime of creating first person cinema, Mekas went on to co-found Film Culture magazine in 1955, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962, and Anthology Film Archives in 1970. He was also the Village Voice’s first film critic during those important early years of what we now call downtown art.
What is in the show is A Walk, a 55 minute unedited, single-take video shot on a grey, rainy December 1990 day, that ends on the bridge to Williamsburg, the same location seen in the freeze frame compositions from the film hanging right across the room. Mekas told me 12 were selected from an archive of about 90 from this Purgatorio period.
A Walk begins at 80 Wooster Street, where the Film Anthology was located before its move to its present location on lower Second Avenue. It is also the location of the centerpiece of the Flux-cooperative project of Maciunas, who gathered together artists to purchase abandoned factories, transforming a no-mans land into downtown loft culture called Soho. 80 Wooster was the first such building and became the “headquarters” for both Maciunas and Mekas.
That building is where the John Lennon Polaroids were shot on June 29th, 1971. Maciunas invited Mekas, his brother Adolphus, Andy Warhol, photographer Peter Moore, and a few other friends to one of his dumpling parties— a Flux-gathering that always promised festive interactions and sometimes mediocre dumplings. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Fluxus friends who had been married two years at that time, arrived at the basement apartment just below Mekas’s Film-makers’ Cinematheque at a time when Lennon was creating his new life as a former Beatle and also experimenting with a new Polaroid camera. While Mekas shot with his Bolex, Lennon snapped two portraits of Maciunas and two of Mekas, each alone. Lennon also shot one of Mekas with Maciunas’s dog “Butch” and finally one of Mekas and Maciunas together puttering with the latter’s famous metal “mouth stretcher.” The photograph is inscribed, “Jonas learning to smile from George by John.”
This small exhibition is an invitation to an extended diary entry, illustrated with intimate souvenirs and inscriptions about life, not art, exchanged among friends who just happened to become among the great cultural pioneers of the era. As Mekas told me, “Who cares about… art? I don't care. I care about beautiful things; well done things; things that move me; things I want to see again and again. It has to have life. It has to have intensity, energy,” which is precisely what Notes from Downtown and Jonas Mekas exude.
MARK BLOCH is a writer, public speaker and pan-media artist from Ohio living in Manhattan since 1982. His archive of Mail/Network/Communication Art is part of the Downtown Collection at the Fales Library of New York University.