Jytte Jensen, who worked for more than 30 years as a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art and most recently served as chair of New Directors/New Films, died Monday night after a prolonged battle with cancer. She was 65.
The news was announced by a museum representative on Monday. Jensen served on the chair for New Directors/New Films for two years, most recently working alongside the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Dennis Lim through this January, when her illness prevented her from continuing the job; MoMA’s Chief Curator of the Department of Film, Rajendra Roy, then took over. According to Roy, she had continued screening titles for the festival from her hospital bed.
“She was just fearless,” Roy told Indiewire in a conversation this afternoon. “There was this fearlessness in her drive to tackle the unknown. She would go places most people would consider far-flung. Which curators are going to former Soviet Republics? She would go there when they were still part of the Soviet Union. She would go to the Middle East. It was a pretty rarefied world that she felt comfortable in. She really integrated herself. That’s what I’m going to miss.”
Though Jensen had pulled back from many of her programming duties in recent months, she had been working on a retrospective of Brazilian filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos with former Film Society programmer Richard Peña set to begin at MoMA next month. Adjunct curator Dave Kehr has absorbed some of her responsibilities.
“My cherished friend and MoMA colleague Jytte Jensen passed away this morning, going with all the dignity and resolve of the Viking she was,” Kehr said on Twitter.
“My late colleague Jytte was a diviner,” added Laurence Kardish, Jensen’s longtime co-curator at the museum, who retired in 2012. “From Asta Nielsen, the first European star, to new films from the Middle East, she celebrated the originals.”
Jensen held a masters degree in cinema studies from New York University, which brought her to New York from Denmark. She worked briefly as an editor before joining the staff at MoMA in 1984.
During that time, she was responsible for hundreds of exhibitions showcasing both contemporary and retrospective cinema from around the world. Highlights included annual programs like Premiere Brazil!, as well as 2006’s Prix Jean Vigo, a yearlong celebration of first films by French directors. She also organized mid-career retrospectives of emerging filmmakers such as Carlos Reygadas and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The Nielsen retrospective, entitled “The Tenth Muse,” took place in 1996. Jensen also organized surveys of Chinese cinema and the former Soviet Union, along with retrospectives of Bella Tarr, Alexander Sokurov, Abbas Kiarostami, Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Last year, her two-part series “Discovering Georgian Cinema” took place after 20 years of research.
Jensen was also a major advocate for contemporary experimental filmmakers, organizing gallery installations featuring work by Kiarostami, Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow and Ernie Gehr.
Over the course of her career, her publications included “Benjamin Christensen: An International Dane,” “Four Decades of Brazilian Cinema” in the 1999 collection “Cinema Novo and Beyond.” She also contributed essays to monographs on Carl Theodor Dreyer and Tarr as well as interviews and articles for various newspapers.
Roy said that much of the museum’s focus on international cinema will continue to reflect Jensen’s influence. “If we backed off any of those territories, we would really be betraying her legacy,” he said. “The flavor of our programming will not change, and that’s because of her impact.”
There will be a memorial for Jensen hosted by the museum announced at a later date.