At 94, Jonas Mekas is as industrious as ever.
A troubadour in the American avant-garde film movement and a founder of the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, he is busy rounding up art from friends like Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close for an auction for the latter’s gala. Matthew Barney, Robert Frank, Alex Katz, Sarah Sze and Jenny Holzer are among the 100 artists who have chipped in pieces for the March 2 event at Capitale in Manhattan. The event will help fund its new library and Heaven & Earth Café, a $6 million undertaking.
Mekas has three new books in the works and a major art show through Documenta 14. In March, Spector Books will publish his “Conversations with Filmmakers” and later this spring Anthology Records will release one to be named “A Dance with Fred Astaire” or “Anecdotes.”
Mekas started Film Culture magazine with his brother Adolfas in 1954, and four years later he added Village Voice film critic to his job titles. In 1962 he founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and in 1964 the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue. A library and café were included in Raimund Abraham’s original blueprints for the AFA, but limited funds put that piece of the project on hold.
In an interview, Mekas chuckled recalling how $50,000 was the selling price at a New York City-run auction for the former courthouse, but $2 million more was needed to transform it. Mekas said, “Now in a sense I’m completing it, not expanding, like some cathedrals in the past centuries took longer than this. So I consider this is the cathedral of cinema.”
Before his death in 2010, Abraham also designed the spindly Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown Manhattan. His former right-hand man, Kevin Bone, will complete the $6 million AFA project thanks largely to the $3 million from Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Foundation. Once complete, Orson Welles’ original shooting script for “Citizen Kane” and other paramount film material from Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, Maya Deren and other filmmakers will be made available for scholars. Books, periodicals, documents, costumes from Jack Smith films, motion picture cameras dating back to the early 19th century and other historic pieces also will be made accessible.
Mekas’ son Sebastian has been studying small cafés in Paris and other parts of Europe to make the Heaven & Earth Café special. Dean & DeLuca cofounder and Giorgione owner Giorgio DeLuca, a friend since the Seventies, is advising Mekas about it. The name borrows from the title of a film by the experimental filmmaker Harry Smith, who is known mostly for compiling anthologies of American folk music, according to Mekas. Smith, who earned a Grammy for his efforts, also made films including one called “Heaven and Earth Magic,” all of which he bestowed to the Anthology along with all of his paintings.
“I usually do what has to be done. It’s not just a whim to build a library and café. It’s a necessity. If one loves something, one wants to preserve it. And preservation for its own sake is no good either — it has to be available to the people. There is a need. And the café is essential for the Anthology’s survival,” he said. “Film Forum and the Angelica lose [money] on their screenings but they survive with their small cafés. They enable them to continue the screenings. Our café should do even better because it will also be open to the community. We get very minimal support from the city or Washington so we depend on the people.”
As for keeping up with the latest movies, Mekas said, “I happen to be very busy with my own work so I follow usually the work of my friends like [Martin] Scorsese. I just saw Jim Jarmusch’s new film ‘Paterson.’ I liked it very much. It’s a small, humble movie. It’s very well-done and it’s about a difficult subject — poetry. Scorsese, of course, has a very, very big movie ‘Silence.’ But I always supported Scorsese and I always will. We met when he made his first film ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door?’ [in 1967]. We went on public radio for an hour to promote it with the filmmaker Shirley Clarke and my brother Adolfas.”
He is less inclined to play favorites with films through the years. “I like many films from many directors from many different countries, different periods. I cannot reduce my likings to one film, one musician, one artist or painter. My taste is very open and very wide. Reducing oneself to one is like depriving oneself from many other tastes like always eating the same food everyday. No — there are so many varieties for different tastes and possibilities,” he said. “I like to be very open to different aspects and tastes and different styles and possibilities. I don’t like to stick to one thing. Why should we? We should be open. The world is so rich in possibilities.”
Mekas is smoothing the way for his own big show that will be part of Documenta 14, debuting in Athens on April 8 before moving on to Kassel, Germany on June 10. In sync with this year’s theme of refugees and immigration, Mekas plans to show the photos he took during his years in a displaced persons camp in [Weisbaden and Kassel] Germany after World War II. “I spent one year during wartime in the German forced labor camp [in Elmshorn]. Of course, there I couldn’t do anything. I had to work for them, that was about all [I did],” he said. ”I described it in a book, ‘I Had Nowhere to Go’ [a new English version will be published in April]. It was tough but I was lucky, I survived it. I’m lucky that I’m here and doing what I’m doing.”
He continued, “War situations and conflicts between ideologies and countries are complex. We are going through the same thing now, and people are caught in the middle of it. I was only 20 years old. You get caught in it and you go through it. But when I look back, I feel like I was almost fortunate to go through it because it led me into New York where I’ve done most of my work, so it had to be. I had to go through it all so that I am where I am now. I was lucky because I was protected by angels. Not everybody was that lucky, so I’m grateful to the angels.”