Ken Jacobs is now immortalized as director of the Museum of Modern Art.
The Brooklyn-based experimental filmmaker will now have an extensive collection at the Manhattan museum, making MoMA the sole repository of the moving-image artist’s work. The Museum of Modern Art has acquired films and videos created by Jacobs, with the titles joining the 14 other works by Jacobs already housed in the museum.
Jacobs attributed his discovery of films to his youthful trips to MoMA in the late 1940s, recalling that “the Museum of Modern Art immersed me, as a teenager, in the unexpectedness of art.”
He added in a statement to IndieWire: “Eastern District High School in Williamsburg gave me a pass to MoMA, where I saw ‘Greed,’ Chaplin, Vertov. I am delighted that MoMA is now acquiring the film production of my long life.”
For more than 50 years, MoMA has presented Jacobs’ moving image work in nearly every context and format, from the theatrical screening of 8mm, 16mm and 35mm films to the cutting-edge computer technologies of its gallery installations , including “Nervous System” and “Nervous Magic Lantern” and screenings in the Museum’s Sculpture Garden.
Jacobs, who turned 90 on May 25, has devoted his seven-decade career to the aesthetic, social and physiological critique of the projected images he manipulates across formats.
“As he celebrates his 90th birthday this month, Jacobs is one of cinema’s living treasures, a filmmaker who over the past half-century – along with his partner and collaborator Florence Jacobs – has awakened the sense of awe and mystery that audiences of the The 19th century must have felt when confronted with film for the first time,” said Joshua Siegel, curator of the MoMA’s film department.
Siegel oversaw the Museum’s acquisition and organized numerous exhibitions of Jacobs’ work, including (as co-curator) the landmark 2004 live performance and projection series “Ken Jacobs: Illusions and Improvisations”.
A self-taught filmmaker, Jacobs studied painting with Hans Hofmann at the Art Students’ League of New York in the early 1950s before picking up a camera to shoot a series of New York City street burlesques with iconic performer Jack Smith , including the once-censored “Blonde Cobra” (1963).
His first film, “Orchard Street” (1955), captured the tenements of the Lower East Side that reminded Jacobs of his Depression-era childhood in Williamsburg.
While not exclusively part of the new collection, “Orchard Street” has been restored by MoMA and will be featured later this year in the Museum’s Gallery 411, opening November 3, 2023, along with more recent works to introduce and reintroduce art-goers of Jacobs’ career.
Jacobs later moved on to more politically charged work, culminating in his no-budget magnum opus “Star Spangled to Death,” a vision of American exceptionalism, greed, and intolerance that she constructed from found footage (Hollywood films, cartoons, newsreels, and TV shows), chauvinistic songs, and performances by Jack Smith and Jerry Sims, intertwined with her own prose. The director began assembling this material in 1957, expanded and updated it over the next half century, and completed it in 2004 in a six and a half hour work.
Jacobs blurs the worlds of 2D and 3D space across media to create his own kind of abstract expressionism. He has long been inspired by the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. This is evident in another work to be shown in Gallery 411, “Joan Mitchell: Departures” (2018), one of Jacobs’ self-described Eternalisms, which explores surface, depth, stasis and movement.
In addition to exhibiting Jacobs’ films, the Museum has also restored several seminal works “ORrchard Street”, including “Tom, Tom, the Pied Piper” (1969), “Urban Peasants” (1975) and “Perfect Film” (1985).
“With this major acquisition of preprint items, film and digital works, MoMA will continue to preserve and exhibit Jacobs’ art for future generations,” said MoMA Curator Siegel.