Husband Willard Maas
The Art Students League of New York, 215 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019
Yaddo, 312 Union Ave, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
62 Montague St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
117 Greene St, New York, NY 10012
252 Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Marie Menken (born Marie Menkevicius, May 25, 1909 – December 29, 1970) was an American experimental filmmaker, painter, and socialite. She was noted for her unique filming style that incorporated collage.
Menken was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 25, 1909, to a Roman Catholic immigrant couple from Lithuania. She studied at the New York School of Fine and Industrial Arts as well as the Art Students League of New York and honed her craft as a painter. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum before receiving a scholarship from Yaddo and moving to upstate New York.
In 1931 she met Willard Maas, a professor of literature at Wagner College in Staten Island. They married in 1937, but it was a rocky and unstable marriage, described as a "succession of fights and drinking bouts". Menken and Maas lived at 62 Montague Street in Brooklyn. As core members of the Gryphon Group, Menken and Maas were highly respected by the experimental and avant-garde art circles of the time. Menken was known for her association with and influence on many of the leading members of the movement, including pop artist Andy Warhol, painter and experimental filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage.
"The Maases were warm and demonstrative," wrote Andy Warhol in his own memoir, "and everybody loved to visit them." The parties they hosted in their penthoue at 62 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights ("a shack on the roof," corrected Menken) brought artists, groupies, patrons, and intellectuals together before a spectacular backdrop of Manhattan across the East River, and were popular, even defining events in the art scene of their time. Stan Brakhage recalled the parties organized by Menken and Maas as the most lavish he had attended. "They would include everybody," he reported, "Marilyn Monroe and her then husband Arthur Miller, Charles Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, to name only a few." He listed also a "blowzy, rich old lady" identified as the Medea of the Twentieth Century, Hazel McKinley, the sister of Peggy Guggenheim. Between painting and film, Menken believed, the practical difference was money. Having painted, she remarked in an interview, "the camera was a natural for me to try, but how expensive!" Her solution was Gryphon Productions, sometimes called the Gryphon Film Group, a pioneer filmmaking and distribution cooperative that she organized in 1946 using her Christmas bonus from Time. More reliable funding came from Dwight Ripley. The studio occupied a loft at 117 Greene Street, in what is now SoHo but was then a forbidding district of half-vacant buildings and abandoned industrial lofts. Eventually it was relocated to the Ovington Building at 252 Fulton Street in Brooklyn.
Menken and her husband Willard Maas began a well-respected avant-garde art group known as The Gryphon Group in the mid-1940s. It was around this time that Menken, bored by the static nature of paint on canvas, began to experiment with film. She released her first film, Visual Variations on Noguchi, in 1945 to acclaim within experimental art circles of the time. She used a hand-held and hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera for this as well as many of her later films, contributing to the spontaneity and agility of her work. Noguchi is a non-narrative film that combines quick, decontextualized shots of the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi with shrill, discordant music.
Menken is lauded as one of the first filmmakers from the New York scene to endow the handheld camera with an elementary freedom, as it swings and sways its way around the scene. This was first apparent in Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945). Menken made this film while working as a studio assistant to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Reflecting on the context within which the film was made, Menken shared: "I was working on something … for Noguchi, some special effects for The Seasons, a ballet by Merce Cunningham with music by John Cage, and while I was experimenting around, I had the advantage of looking around Isamu’s studio with a clear, unobstructed eye. I asked if I might come in and shoot around, and he said yes. I did that. And when he saw that footage, he was entertained and delighted. So was I. It was fun. All art should be fun in a sense and give one a kick."
In 1957 Menken was so fascinated with the rock garden at Wappingers Falls, the country house of Dwight Ripley and Rupert Barneby, that she filmed a five-minute, 16mm film, Glimpse of the Garden, described by Stan Brakhage as "one of the toughest" of her influential works. Menken was the wife of Willard Maas, the soldier poet once enamored of Rupert. In 1959 Menken directed an animated, three-and-one-half-minute, 16mm film with the peculiar title of Dwightiana. The film was made from stop-motion sequences that Menken filmed in Rupert and Dwight's apartment at 416 East 58th Street in New York.
Andy Warhol met Menken and Maas in 1962, he called them "the last of the great Bohemians", and began making films of his own later the next year.
Menken and the Gryphon Group began to produce numerous short experimental films around the time of Noguchi's release. She also began to experiment with various types of animation techniques, including collage and stop-motion cinematography, owing to her background in painting. Her 1962 film Notebook was shot between 1940 and 1962, and is arguably her best-known film. It consists of short snippets of film she shot over the years spliced together in a meditative fashion. Menken continued to make films that both were influenced by and commented on the various art movements her contemporaries took part in, including abstract expressionism in Drips in Strips (1963) and pop art in Andy Warhol (1964).
After an ill-fated experiment with LSD, Maas attempted suicide. He was hospitalized temporarily at Payne Whitney, the psychiatric unit of New York Hospital. When he returned home he was taking lithium. Nevertheless he and Menken continued to drink heavily, perhaps competitively, every day. "Marie's drinking," reported Brakhage, "finally killed her." Menken died, aged 61, on December 29, 1970. Four days later, Maas, 59, followed her. Maas' obituary in the New York Times attributed death to a heart attack, but colleagues assumed that it was suicide.
According to the 2006 film documentary Notes on Marie Menken produced by Martina Kudláček, it was Marie who schooled Warhol on using the 16mm Bolex. The film presents never-before-seen footage by Menken salvaged from basements and storage vaults, including a camera "duel" for Bolexes between Menken and Andy Warhol; the two are seen dueling on top of a New York City building, facing each other with Bolex Cameras and dancing in circles around each other while gliding across the roof-top of Menken's penthouse apartment. Menken later appeared in such Warhol films as Screen Tests (1964), The Life of Juanita Castro (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966), among others.
In 2007, her Glimpse of the Garden (1957) was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
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