PRINT Summer 2009


Paul Sharits

ONE OF THE FEW MISFIRES in the Whitney’s landmark 2001 exhibition “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977” was its partial reconstruction of Paul Sharits’s 1975 film installation Shutter Interface. While the work was accorded pride of place on the cover of the show’s catalogue, in the gallery it seemed anemic. Amid pitch-perfect re-creations of Robert Whitman’s Shower, 1964, and Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story, 1974, as well as the brilliant installation version of Anthony McCall’s interactive film projection Line Describing a Cone, 1973, one encountered an aloof two-screen version of Sharits’s piece configured at merely half its original size and volume. The quarter century that intervened between the work’s premiere and its rediscovery had not been particularly kind to the piece or to its maker. Portions of the picture elements of Shutter Interface had been thought lost, and the filmmaker would die in 1993, at the age of fifty.

Paul Sharits, Shutter Interface, 1975. Installation view at Greene Naftali Gallery, 2009.

At the time of the installation’s creation, Sharits had made the classic error of believing he was witnessing the beginning of an era, though in actuality it was coming to a close. The limited space that had been opened up in the late 1960s and early ’70s for film installation within the institutions of gallery and museum was beginning to disappear. Henceforth those arenas would grant admittance to moving-image work primarily rendered on video. Film was about to take a long hiatus, and while it was still occasionally acquired by museums and collectors, increasingly it would be displayed only in neutralized forms—in cans inside vitrines or projected on occasion in isolated screening spaces. Critical interest in the form of cinema that Sharits had pioneered returned to the more fringe circuits of experimental film, and showings abounded mainly on the screens of college classrooms. His forays into film installation had subsided by the early ’80s, and his response to the institutional indifference to that work—a return to the painting of his early career—itself garnered only modest critical reception.

Against this less than promising backdrop, then, the recent exhibition of the complete four-projector version of Shutter Interface at Manhattan’s Greene Naftali Gallery came as an extraordinary gift. Looking as pristine and potent as it did when it was first presented at Artpark in upstate New York in the mid-’70s, the installation, meticulously restored by Anthology Film Archives, presented an immersive array of alternating solid-color frames continually shifting across the gallery wall in a simulation of an endless lateral filmstrip. The keys to the piece, now as then, are its physical presence, the slightly enigmatic sound-image relationships, and the constantly permuting synthesis of hues and patterns—what Sharits termed a “pulsating dialectic”—that emanates from the roughly six-minute film loops whose monochromatic images are set into overlapping interplay by the quartet of projectors. But if the work is (thankfully) unchanged, we are not, and our willingness to embrace Shutter Interface three and a half decades after its production provides a remarkably accurate sense of just how far ahead of his time the artist was. As Sharits confided to the curator Gary Garrels in a 1982 interview, “People have not developed a way of reacting to seeing a film in the same way that they would react to, say, a Rothko after all these years of abstract painting.” The passing years would seem at last to have yielded viewers and gallerygoers capable of such responses.

What has taken us time to fully grasp and then aesthetically accommodate is the radicality of the break Sharits made. He had abandoned painting by the mid-’60s, seeing in film a practice that provided a greater range of philosophical and aesthetic registers. In short order, he created a series of canonical 16-mm works exploiting the flicker effect, including Word Movie/Fluxfilm 29 (1966), N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968). His subsequent shift to installation—what he termed “locational film pieces”—returned his work to the gallery and brought “the act of presenting and viewing a film as close as possible to the conditions of hanging and looking at painting.” What made these works manifestly ready for the white cube was in part his singular rejection of film’s representational content, its traditional reliance on mimesis and language, and in part his willingness to take the technology in hand and refashion it for his own needs. He composed his films using color-coded scores and fabricated them from nonobjective sources. His deployment of the standard apparatus for exhibition—the motion-picture projector—required an alteration of the transport and shutter mechanisms. For his first locational piece, Sound Strip/Film Strip, 1971, Sharits shifted the standard aspect ratio of film by projecting the images sideways, and for Shutter Interface he serially aligned the projectors in a manner that critic Rosalind Krauss described at the time as “muraliz[ing] the field of projection.” Even the visible presence of the projectors—a taboo for nearly all forms of cinema, from commercial to avant-garde—created what Krauss termed a “sculptural” presence and revealed “the work’s involvement in its own material basis.”

Excerpt form Paul Sharits, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, 1968.

But formal description alone proves insufficient to capture both the impulse and the impact of these works. Sharits readily acknowledged that there were few individuals thoroughly attuned to his artistic sensibility and iconoclastic techniques. One was Stan Brakhage, the reigning figure in American experimental film for the latter half of the past century and Sharits’s early mentor, who responded to the receipt of the younger artist’s film Analytical Studies III: Color Frame Passages (1973–74) through his own ecstatic registers: “Within 5 seconds the glow [. . .] was moving thru my system as a heat, as it were: I COULD FEEL IT IN MY VEINS!” He clarified this experience with a description that vividly evokes the immersive quality of locational film pieces like Shutter Interface: “I was as if in midst of a delicious healing fever cycle.”

It was indeed a “healing fever cycle” that Sharits attempted to elicit in his viewers through the shifting matrix of colors and sound of Shutter Interface. The sound component consists solely of an intermittent thousand-cycle-per-second electronic tone played on each projector and synced with the single black frames that punctuate the color loops, creating an audio effect that the critic Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen likened to the sound of fingers on a wineglass. This sound shifts with the variations in the playback of each of the unsynced color loops and shares acoustic space with the whir of the film projectors, creating a pas de deux of machine- and information-age sonic materials, themselves set in tandem with the flickering pastel palette of Sharits’s image tracks. As he described this configuration to Linda Cathcart, the curator of his first monographic museum exhibition, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in 1976, “I wanted a sound rhythm and a visual rhythm that would have something to do with high-amplitude alpha [brain] waves. I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant film.”

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Had the exhibition at Greene Naftali consisted solely of the film installation, it would have been more than noteworthy, but the inclusion in a side gallery of dozens of notes, sketches, and scores made over a period ranging from before Shutter Interface to the final stage of Sharits’s career put on view an introduction—writ small—to the artist’s broader talents, ambitions, and interests. This array of material not only shed light on Sharits’s creative process (see, for example, the 1975 installation drawing depicting the “optimal arrangement” of Shutter Interface) but also revealed what the artist himself, in a 1983 interview with French critic Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, called the “polar” (or, more accurately, bipolar) aspects of his art and his life. Much as the presence of the projectors within the installation space laid bare the device, revealing the usually unseen cinematic source, the inclusion of such ancillary materials was an important exhibition component for the artist—demystifying the innate illusionism of the medium while providing equivalent transparency to the creative process.

There were sketches and scores that reflect what Sharits considered a “more lyric interest in pure color relations,” such as the studies in colored felt-tip pen for the contemporaneous Declarative Mode, 1976–77, a striking two-projector work in which the pulsating frames of a pair of identical prints, out of sync by a single second, are inset one within the other. It was produced with a grant from the NEA as a bicentennial project, which coincided with Sharits’s own declaration of independence from the a priori strictures of “structural film.” In that same vein were scores for unrealized works from the late ’80s with titles like Fugue and Sexuality, which the artist Paul Chan has described as looking “like notes from a demanding piece of music.” As frequent, though, were works that reflect Sharits’s other polarity. As he told Lebensztejn, “when I’m feeling more, what shall we say, hysterical, I tend to work with images and rhythms that are more emotional and psychological.” These included works on paper from the early ’80s such as 1981’s Spasmatic Pain 1 (Boulder Community Hospital), a disquieting abstract drawing whose acid colors complement an intense scrawl that mimics both illegible script and the output of some medical monitoring device attached to a manic patient.

In pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of a career, the exhibition at Greene Naftali made us privy to the utopian aspirations of an artist in his early twenties, the focused and scrupulously crafted projects on which his reputation was built, and the relatively unknown body of work produced toward the end of his life. The latter charts in part Sharits’s attempt to reclaim the significant role his early work had played within the Fluxus movement. There are the garish and not particularly appealing figurative “Flux-fashion drawings” of costume-clad figures, for example, designed for a series of newly conceived Flux performances that Sharits planned to mount in the early ’90s. These sketches hark back to the overt sexuality of his early work, the Fluxus moniker somehow providing license for an unconstrained libidinal outpouring. Yet even in Sharits’s most minimalist moments, his art had always been deeply reflective of his inner life. The film grain was personal, the colors were referential, and the formal shifts were narrative. The late work would partake of his signature color palette, make explicit his fondness for bravura display, and anchor the libidinous force of his montage in a sexualized subject. It was, in short, the very structured, engaging, and empowering work he had been making all along.

Bruce Jenkins is a professor of film, video, and new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.