On Paul Sharits
by Tony Conrad
An Excerpt from “I Was a Flawed Modernist”
Infamous experimental filmmaker Paul Sharits (1943 – 93) comes to life in two ways in “I Was a Flawed Modernist”: Collected Writings of and Stories about Paul Sharits. One section of the book features oral histories of this colorful artist, many of which come from artists of their own renown, such as Carolee Schneemann, Robert Longo, and Tony Conrad. The other section offers all of Sharits’s available writings, many of them—including letters to Stan Brakhage and Henry Holmes Smith—previously unpublished. Sharits’s writing reveals a powerful intellect while also, at times, a sense of fragility not usually associated with a figure of such flamboyance. In this way, this volume presents a vivid and sometimes contradictory picture of an artist whose films remain radical today. What follows is a condensed version of remarks made by Tony Conrad in 2002 about this important American filmmaker.
– Sarah Markgraf
I came into the story perhaps in the ’60s when I made The Flicker and I had been given some film by Jonas Mekas to work with. Jonas had given me some old out-of-date black and white film and as I got closer to finishing this film, Jonas mentioned that there was this other filmmaker that he knew who was also interested in making flicker films, and I was shocked and greatly worried. I was about twenty-five when I was working on this and so at that age I didn’t have enough experience to realize that everybody does everything differently from everybody else. I immediately assumed that there was only one possible thing that could be done and obviously this other guy was doing the exactly the same project that I was doing, and it freaked me out and I certainly didn’t want to look at his work or anything of the sort, and so I sort of resisted this.
I had only the dimmest notion of what Paul was like or where he was or anything. I didn’t even want to hear anything about it, and so five years went by and I finished a few films and then there was a program of new film work at the Whitney Museum and it premiered the films Coming Attractions and Straight and Narrow. On the same program of films Paul was showing Razor Blades, this two-screen film, so I had to watch it, and to my astonishment it was nothing like anything that I did or even would consider doing, but because I knew so much about that form of expression it was a film that just brought me such immense pleasure. I responded immediately to everything in it, even though the audience in general was a little freaked out because they had never seen anything like that before. But I responded almost microsecond by microsecond to all the little humorous inserted elements and the play screen to screen, and the way that he handled color. I thought this was completely magical. I had a wonderful time. I could hardly restrain myself, and so it really was a pleasure, then, to meet Paul and to find out that he was just completely different from me but actually somebody that I really liked from that moment on.
But since he didn’t really live in New York, I didn’t have too much contact with him until a couple more years went by and then in 1974 he had got a position teaching in Buffalo. Paul took things during this period for quite a long time and maybe forever took things very very seriously, deadly seriously and so he was miles ahead of me in terms of reading and keeping up with the contemporary thought, so he had given courses that had reading lists in structuralism and phenomenology and so forth. These were things that I had swept aside for the longest while and so it was quite daunting to find that I had some really strikingly brilliant students who had been cowed by this kind of high level set of aspirations in film.
I remember at documenta one time when we were both there, there was a big party for Nam June Paik. Nam June was there and it was at the time when Nam June was doing a performance with a piano that he beat on. Well, Paul went to the piano and he sat down at the piano and he had a wine glass and he was out of his mind and he beat the wine glass on the piano and then he beat his hands on the glass until he was just bleeding and numb and dizzy. He started to get up and I happened to be at his elbow and I said “Whoa, whoa, Paul, wait, whoa wait a minute,” because he was gushing blood everywhere, and I said, “Is anyone a doctor here? Is anyone a doctor?” And the place was completely packed shoulder to shoulder at this party, so one of the people near by was a doctor. Paul was just in a daze and I said, “Look at this—is this life-threatening?” And he said, “No, it’s not life-threatening, it’s O.K.,” and I said “Paul, go for it, just hold your hands up and walk around.” And Paul went around bleeding out of his hands with his hands held in front of him, almost like Frankenstein and created a swath of horror in front of him. It was a very startling moment, and there were other episodes that people will happily relate to you, in which Paul wrecks a car or climbs up on top of a roof and drops off and breaks his this or that. Paul went through a series of things where he acted out and finally what I began to notice about these things is that Paul would never hurt anybody else. He may have once or twice actually done something that was importune, but only secondarily, and it was mainly something that hurt Paul somehow, and always in a very flamboyant situation. He liked to live dangerously. Paul liked life. He seemed like he needed this kind of way of doing things. He really did.
He lived on a special plane somehow that normal people can’t touch. He did repel people too, but, again, as in life, the qualities of aggression that seemed to inhabit his work are qualities of intensity, like such a sexually charged driving energy that it’s really quite incredible, and yet it’s not a murderous violence. It’s always turned in relation to him and so he’s always at the center of every maelstrom of energy and violence or incipient violence, and then at the core you find that often he characterizes himself in a very delicate way, either damaged or vulnerable and he may occupy a kind of androgynous space or else, like in Rapture, he may look like he’s helpless, but that’s where he lets you get to the level of the person. Then there’s this whole body of work that has to do with the materiality of film and a kind of profound attachment to formalist stratagems and understandings of the way that he’s getting at his project and I think this was very, very important to him in setting out an idea about culture, about teaching, about the understanding of where he came from in his painting and his background that formal structures provided a kind of foundation that was really intellectually very strong and important for him. Although then later when his life became much more emotional, his work also became much more emotional, and the paintings are, really, an utter departure into Surrealism. In other words, if you want to see a very clear-cut trajectory from the most abstruse constructivist starting point to an utterly subjectified Surrealist outcome, you see that in Sharits’s work.
[The Frozen Film Frames] become very focal in creating an ambiguity around the issue of the relation between score or intentionality or notebooks or sketches on the one hand and the film itself on the other hand, and I think that as he began to do drawings that had spaces with colors in them, Paul also fixed on the idea of the score in the sense of a musical score, and he had done some overlays on some actual musical scores that he had on his wall that he considered his work—I think it was by Debussy or some other composers—that he had filled in certain empty areas on the score itself with monochromatic color to form a pattern and emphasize the design aspect of the score. It wasn’t that he was unaware of the design aspect playing itself out in Cage and so forth. He was really completely onto that. It was that he was sort of doing another twist on that, turning that in another way to create a system of reference to his own work, which was little squares, little checkerboards of squares that were all filled in with monochromatic designs. And I think that these provided a point of departure for him in his painting later, whereas his painting really began with the scores, and then as he wandered from this kind of transit from an almost totally constructivist background that he had had in the formalism of his key work in film and then toward the end in his painting, he moves over into this almost totally Surrealist way of working which is very much focused on the unconscious and elements of sexuality and color in every sort of sense of that. But the way in which the score functioned in his work I felt had to do with a kind of relation to authority or to planning or to designing at the personal level. The unconscious psychological ramifications of the score include the way in which it represents a planned mechanism of getting so-and-so to do such-and-such, of the future circumstance that is projected, and in that way it’s like a sense of a score as a sexual score, or the sense of the score as a plan for a kind of fulfillment or conquest and so in that sense I felt that this erotic underpinning of the score as a fulcrum for his work was a very important element like the kind of ways in which he distributes his ego on either side of the score is really balanced. You’d find one kind of sexual economy on one side and an opposite sort of sexual economy on the other and they sort of tend to move in opposite directions, and I think that his sexuality was really an important part of what inhabited Paul and his work and his relationship to his life and to what he was about and what he was trying to do.
Maybe Paul’s demise did reflect a kind of disenchantment with the things that earlier in his life had looked so bright ahead, but on the other hand, that can only be by comparison to where he was earlier. And he had done some really quite striking things. He contributed to the Fluxus film reel, which was very quite early, and at that time he was must have been quite young. He found his way into the heart of things and that was quite striking. He made a great effort to circulate in an effective way, in contact with currents and activities and people that were focused on the things that he regarded as the most important, so he may have devoted attention to intellectual figures, but that was nothing in reference to what he did in the art work, where he was very, very focused. And went for the top. And the sexy.
“I Was a Flawed Modernist”: Collected Writings of and Stories about Paul Sharits is the first book published by the Film-Makers’ Coop, the largest distributor of avant-garde and underground lms in the world. Also this month, Anthology Film Archives will be presenting a series of events and screenings in honor of Tony Conrad, who died in 2016.