Notes on Paul Sharits’ "Declarative Mode"

Arindam Sen

In the post-war era, American film of the independent kind slowly started to showcase the broad potential of film as a medium. Following on the heels of filmmakers such as Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Gregory J. Markopoulos and Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits started making films in the 1960s alongside practicing as an abstract painter. The early films, by Sharits’ own admission, were psychodramatic in nature. He destroyed them in 1965 to embark on making Ray Gun Virus (1966)  - a film where he would decisively abandon narrative. This marks the beginning of a series of “Abstract” films - abstract in their non-imagistic character and not by way of optical experiments. Declarative Mode (1977) is the last of his Abstract films.


“It is in his capacity for abstraction that I believe Sharits’ strength is to be found.” Rosalind Krauss, 1976


In 20th century art, the term abstraction had journeyed from being a crisis of representational possibility to something autonomous. Abstraction acquires a form of completeness (at least theoretical) when it severs all ties with natural motifs, a total liberation from being a signifier. This absolutism is probably the touchstone of Greenbergian formalism1. Annette Michelson2 once recalled the experience of screening Paul Sharits’ S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1971) in the 1990s in Cairo where one member of the audience connected the violence of the formal adventurism3 in the film to that of the violent history of the United States from the period. Indeed, as Branden W. Joseph notes about Sharits, “ events are condensed into daily experience as subjectively filled anxiety, fear or even joy on the part of the filmmaker, who then communicates such affective states, via rhythm, to the audience who feels such emotions on a precognitive, physical, and psychological register”. In another instance, after a screening of Condition of Illusion (1975) at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Peter Gidal justified the two lengthy quotations (from Louis Althusser and Samuel Beckett) at the end of the film4 as a means to deter formalist aestheticization by hinting at the intellectual process that underscored the making of the film.

These examples are invoked here to suggest that any form of abstract strategy (Both S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED and Condition of Illusion can be labeled Abstract without raising many eyebrows) as a formal means becomes interesting only when the process of abstraction is made apparent in conjunction with the formal achievements of an artwork. To avoid confusion, it is better to state here that the formal parameters of Sharits resulted from aesthetic resolution of political and personal subjects (Racial tensions, Vietnam war, marital disharmony, travels etc.) in his films, while for Gidal the influence was drawn from political theory (Louis Althusser). For Piet Mondrian, his Cubist oeuvre was an elaborate process of “abstracting” rather than abstract. Which is not to suggest that it wouldn’t be foolhardy to try and read Mondrian’s paintings in the mid to late 1910s as visual representations of wall posters, Church facades, railroad tracks and trees in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris where he lived in a studio. In keeping with Sharits’ own assessment of his work, where the Structural surface of his films are informed by a substructural layer derived from his mental, physical and psychological exchanges with the natural world, I attempt to simultaneously outline the process of abstraction in Declarative Mode along with its perceptual accomplishments.

Making films in the mid 1960s after abandoning painting (to which he would later return), Paul Sharits started out as a Fluxus5 artist, after which he made a number of films—self-reflexive and analytic in nature—that consolidated his label as a Structuralist filmmaker. Sharits himself was drawing upon linguistics, cybernetics and information theory to arrive at a highly sophisticated language for his films outflanking the medium specific concerns of Structural Film theory. In the 1970s, he increasingly explored possibilities in galleries and museums with multi-projector film installations that he referred to as locational film pieces.

Mao - art as a celebration of everyday life
- and celebration of spirit,
Great leaders: Mao/Lenin - revolutionaries.
of figs of Ame rev*, Jefferson
- intense, adventurous,
- scope & seeds of a second revolution: freeing of slaves.

Statement “Declarative Mode”, Paul Sharits, 1976.

*American Revolution

Sharits perceived Declarative Mode also as a locational piece exhibited in a museum or gallery where the film projection would be accompanied by slide shows of the film’s score along with a display of the Frozen film frames6. It was initially conceived by Sharits in two possible incarnations: a single channel work of 38 minutes length at 24 frames per second, which was to become a chapter in the longer film that he was planning at the time called Passare7 and a double projector piece with two identical film prints where one image was to be projected inside the other with the help of a Zoom lens. In one projection instruction, it was mentioned that the film could also be projected at 18 frames per second resulting in a duration of 50 minutes. Other important projection instructions were: the image on the screen ought to be perfectly symmetrical along both the vertical and horizontal axes (unlike Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square8 series of paintings which are only symmetrical along the vertical axis), and the inner rectangle ought to be fainter than the outer one (with focus on the projector gate for sharp edges in the image) while leading the image in the circumscribing rectangle by 24 frames (or roughly one second at 24 fps speed). In Sharits’ case, this asymmetricality manifests in the temporal realm as it did in Ray Gun Virus and N.O.T.H.I.N.G (but with a difference since Declarative Mode was not structurally mapped out) through variations and rhythms of pure color frames in the form of forward acceleration.

The film was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, in particular, a section on anti-slavery that was deleted by the Congress from the final draft. The film was facilitated by a grant from the New York State Council for the Bicentennial year of the Declaration’s approval (at the time Paul Sharits was 33 years old—as was Jefferson when the document was approved). At the film’s premiere in 1977, it was projected with a computer generated soundtrack, which according to Sharits “produced variations and juxtapositions of phonemes from the [omitted] text; then, gradually morphemes would emerge; and finally the coherency of the unmodified text would be enunciated.” Sharits was not interested in direct correlation between language and color where the mapping from one to the other would be determined by some sort of scientific formulation (a structural trap); he intended the sound and the color frames to function independently, allowing for the interplay between structure and chance to result in accidental juxtapositions. In subsequent years, Sharits abandoned the idea of using the soundtrack, probably to heighten the musicality of the visual experience without the intervention of an explicit sound stream. In a conversation with Alf Bold9 in the late 1980s he would say, “It’s silent because I want the audience to focus on the rhythm of the colors”.

In Declarative Mode, Paul Sharits broke away from the Structural principles that determined some of his earlier works. In doing so, he furthered his experiments with color harmonies with an intention to celebrate the rhythms, melodies and chords of pure color in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence’s original ambition. During the making of the film, Sharits traveled extensively, as noted in his diary from the time. He traveled through Athens and Hydra in Greece (the birthplace of Democracy), Jefferson's Monticello10 and visited Brâncuși’s sculptures11 in Romania. In this period he didn’t so much shoot the film as translate certain motifs to colors through purely subjective interpretation, which he then mapped out on a paper along with frequencies and durations (from one frame to one second in length) that he referred to as scores, meant to be read from left to right as one would read a book. Sharits made 18 scores for Declarative Mode. This process came naturally to Sharits who had trained in Classical music for eight years prior to making films. For example, the green hues  at the beginning of the film are an observation, highly abstracted no doubt, of a garden in Hydra. The mapping from the visual experience of the film to their identifiable pictorial origins is not intended, indeed such an attempt is highly discouraged by Sharits.

The visual experience of the film is anchored by the spatial and chromatic relationships between the two visible rectangles on screen. Certain dramatic illusionary effects are articulated by the changing colors such as intrusions and extrusions of the surface of the screen like modular buildings protruding out of and into the screen. At other times, when both the inscribed and circumscribed rectangles are chromatically unified, the surface of the screen seems to vibrate like a flapping garment experiencing a gust, pinned at the four corners. Color deception, after-image and simultaneous contrast are all at play at the cognitive level. Sporadically, the overlapping rectangles generate illusions of transparency by suppressing the variations in hues and light, generating alternate additive and subtractive effects. This then is Sharits’ emphatic achievement, where he has the audience under a spell, by exposing them to, on the one hand, a filmmaking that is rigorously anti-illusionist, and on the other, an experience of intense illusionary perceptual fantasies.

Arindam Sen

Thanks to Jonathan Walley and Federico Windhausen.


  1. Art critic Clement Greenberg in his influential article titled Modernist Painting (1965), advocated different art forms to abandon representational roles in favor of foregrounding its peculiar characteristics - form as the subject of art.
  2. Annette Michelson was an art critic and writer based in New York City. She wrote some of her influential articles for Artforum She co-founded October with Rosalind Krauss in 1976.
  3. Sharits’ film work is characterized by formal means such as Flicker effect, non-pictorial color frames, direct scratching on film, re-photography, fragmented sound, to name a few.
  4. In Condition of Illusion, we are confronted with destabilizing images that never acquire pictorial concreteness until at the end, where we see these two quotes.
  5. Fluxus is an avant-garde art movement active between the period of the late 1950s and the 1970s. Inspired by Dadaism, it sought to re-write the rules of art by posing an ontological challenge to conventional art.
  6. Physical film frames in strips, serially arranged, side by side, from beginning to end, between plexiglass sheets.
  7. Passare (to pass (on)) was conceptualized by Sharits as an episodic film where real life events as experienced by him would be translated to film in as much of an unplanned way as possible.
  8. Homage to the Square is a series of paintings by Josef Albers, created between 1950 and 1976, they depict one or more inscribed squares of different colors aimed towards articulating a theory of Color. They share, in spatial and geometric terms, a visual proximity to Declarative Mode.
  9. Alf Bold appeared as an actor in the films of Jean-Marie Straub-Danièle Huillet and Rudolf Thome among others. He was an employee at the Arsenal Institute in Berlin and was the most influential figure who fostered the Institute’s ties with avant garde film practice.
  10. Monticello was the residence of Thomas Jefferson, it was built as a slave labor plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia, 1772. Jefferson was buried on its grounds.
  11. Constantin Brâncuși was a French-Romanian sculptor, painter and photographer – one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

Picture: Frozen Film Frame of Declarative Mode (Paul Sharits, 1977), 16mm color film between plexiglass plates, 953 x 132 cm. © Christopher Sharits / The Estate of Paul Sharits