The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has purchased 212 moving image works by the experimental film-maker Ken Jacobs, a pillar of the city’s avant-garde cinema scene who celebrated his 90th birthday on 25 May. The museum already had 14 works by Jacobs in its permanent collection prior to the purchase announced today, which makes it the principal institutional repository for Jacobs’s work.
Two of the acquired works will go on view in the museum’s galleries starting 3 November. One is a restoration of Jacobs’s first film, the cinema vérité picture of Lower East Side street life Orchard Street (1955). Also going on display will be Joan Mitchell: Departures (2018), an experimental examination of the movements, surfaces and textures in Mitchell’s work informed by the film-maker’s own brief engagement with Abstract Expressionism—he trained as a painter with Hans Hofmann in the early 1950s at the Art Students’ League of New York.
“Hofman made me so depth-conscious,” Jacobs said in an interview with Metrograph last year. “He was always talking about depth. And at the same time, said you have to respect the surface. So what he’s after, I am finally understanding, is depictions of depth. But how do you depict depth without achieving depth? Depth is a sin. You know, it’s a two-dimensional canvas. You don’t want to lie. You don’t want it to do anything it doesn’t naturally do. But the concentration on depth made me want to see the illusion. So in my film-making, very often I was immersed in an illusion.”
From his beginnings in a purely documentary vein, Jacobs’s work did indeed increasingly embrace illusion, stylisation and commentary. The filmic essay that is considered his crowning achievement, the 440-minute Star Spangled to Death, brings together original and found footage he gathered over nearly a half-century, from 1957 to 2004, to comment on the violence and greed seemingly endemic to life in the United States.
Jacobs’s history with the MoMA stretches back to his teenage years in the late 1940s, when he would attend film screenings at the museum. “The Museum of Modern Art plunged me, when a teenager, into the unexpectedness of art,” he said in a statement. In the ensuing decades he showed films, performances and experimental installations at the museum. In 2004, the museum hosted the film and performance series Ken Jacobs: Illusions and Improvisation, co-curated by Jytte Jensen and Joshua Siegel.
“As he celebrates his 90th birthday this month, Jacobs is one of cinema’s living treasures, a film-maker who for the past half century—together with his partner and collaborator Florence Jacobs—has reawakened the sense of awe and mystery that 19th-century audiences must have felt in confronting motion pictures for the first time,” Siegel said in a statement. “With this major acquisition of preprint elements, films, and digital works, MoMA will continue to preserve and exhibit Jacobs’s art for future generations.”