Artists

‘That’s the Cathedral of Cinema, Don’t You Know It?’: Jonas Mekas on the Wonders of Downtown New York

Jonas Mekas outside the future home of Anthology Film Archives, 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street, New York.

HOLLIS MELTON/COURTESY ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES

A couple years ago, before I started working at ARTnews, I corresponded with Jonas Mekas for a story for another publication that never came to pass. (It was supposed to be a tribute to several “downtown New York” luminaries as selected by the fashion designer Hedi Slimane, but for various reasons, it stalled.)

In any case, I was struck at the time by the image of Mekas sitting down to write up some thoughts on what “downtown” meant to him—a subject he’d obviously addressed countless times, and in contexts more involved than a fashion magazine. He was 93 at the time, in 2016, and he could have dashed off a few lines and called it a day. Instead, he sent the email below.

Herewith, published as-is with all the little trip-ups and tics of a mind still fast in action, the artist’s own words…

Jonas Mekas
July 1, 2016

When I am looking back to the period of c.1950-70, the geographical border that separated Downtown artistic activities from the Uptown, was the 14th street. Symbolically, the 14th street was where Duchamp lived. The Happening Theater, Fluxus, Film-Makers Cinematheque, Judson Hall, The Charles Theater, The City Hall Cinema, Jack Smith, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Velvet Underground, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Yoko Ono, The Village Voice, The Village Other, LaMonte Young, Rauschenberg, The Living Theater… I can go on and on… They were all busy Downtown. That includes fighting the censors, Lenny Bruce, my own arrest for screening FLAMING CREATURES and UN CHANT D’AMOUR . Etc etc. And yes, the Cedar Bar, all the Jazz places, Cafe Bizarre, and Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan, and Barbara Rubin, and McLise, and Phill Glass… Coleman, Coltrane, Miles…Harry Smith…

Downtown was where it was all happening. The Uptown however produced the audiences for it… Uptowners went downtown for excitement…
That doesn’t mean that there was nothing North of l4th street. There was the Factory (47th street), there was Kansas City (l9th street), there was the Film-Makers Cooperative, a very very busy place (28th street), and there was Chelsea Hotel (23rd Street). All very important, very active places.

But it was at the Film-Makers Cinematheque, as it moved from Astor Place (where Andy screened his first sound movies and where the First Expanded Cinema/Expanded Arts event, with over 30 artists participating, took place)); to 41st street (where THE CHELSEA GIRLS were premiered) to City Hall (where EMPIRE movie was premiered); to 80 Wooster street, where you could see and meet them all. The reason for the fact that the Cinematheque became so focal, was that while many other places only on certain days were available for artistic activities, Cinematheque was open every day. Every evening there were screenings and performances taking place, without restrictions political, aesthetic or gender –.

The end of Downtown came after l970, with the legalization of Soho, with the emergence of the commercial/business/fashion Soho. And when there was no more place for the businesses in Soho, they jumped to the other side of Canal Street and produced, with De Niro’s help, Tribecca, moving further and further South, pulled by the magnet of Wall street…

The “Downtown” moved to Williamsburg…The Ludlow-Orchard had a brief period of activity, with places such as Pink Pony, and of course there are in the East Village still places like John Zorn’s Stone, and , where Dalius Naujo anachic music rules, — and a good number of less visible ethnic places, pockets of music and poetry — and yes, the St.Mark’s Church Poetry Project and the Poetry on the Bowery Bar are still there. But most of the new places that pop up are places for selling art and not places where it’s being made or performed, as illustrated by a good number of galleries that manage to exist in the shadows of the newly coming up skyskcraping condo buildings and museums..

The neighborhood of Anthology Film Archives, on the corner of 2nd ave and 2nd street, where it moved in l978 it had transformed since from a drug infested dillapidated neighborhood into a condo area. Tourists see Anthology’s building, a humble Romanesque brick structure and they ask, but what’s this there? It somehow doesn’t seem to even belong there… So I tell them: That’s the Cathedral of Cinema, don’t you know it? That’s where the poets live! And since the building was built as a prison, originally, it’s built very strong, it will hold some 400 years probably…

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues