Paul Sharits on Matisse

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From the Archives: Warhol, Judd and others Weigh In on Matisse in Art in America in celebration of the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. More at

Read more in Art in America


Dear Mr. Lebensztejn,

My immediate reaction to the idea of contributing a statement regarding my work's relationships to the work of Matisse was apprehension. Because my work has occasionally been simplistically interpreted as "painting in motion" or a transposition of painting's pictorial principles into film's temporal frame, I am naturally shy of possibly adding fuel to that fire. Also, when I began to think of the painters whose works I have deeply admired and who thereby may have had an influence on some aspect or another of my work in film, my mental list expanded quickly and broadly. Many names came to mind—and among them, yes, of course, Matisse. Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that Matisse has had perhaps a stronger than usual effect on my own thinking, perhaps more about art in general than any specific color and/or form sense. If I can say, as a preface, that my films are not extensions of painting or sculpture, although I studied both for about five years (during which time I was also independently making short black and white "imagistic" films), and that my present work issues primarily from concerns of classical cinema, essentialized to the point where questions of distinction between film and painting and sculpture are forced, then I can make the following remarks.

Your suggestion that there is a relationship between my recent film Color Sound Frames and Matisse's statement of how colors vary contextually is well taken: "The mutual influence of colors is quite essential for the colorist, and the most beautiful, most fixed, most immaterial colors are obtained without being materially expressed. Example: pure white becomes lilac, ibis pink, Veronese green or angelica blue by the vicinity of their opposites only." The delicate shifting of hue inflection and identity, so characteristic of Matisse's work, which gives his paintings a sense of being alive and "moving" and which is accomplished by the proximity of color areas, can be even more directly actualized in temporal sequentiality. Very rapidly altering frames of different colors in a film can produce an apparent infinity of iridescent color "chords," shimmering time-color fields. Sequential tensions and balances of these chords and solid units of a color characterize my so-called "flicker" works. Color Sound Frames is a film of/about "flicker" footage; it is an analytical rephotographing of a "flicker" film which at slow speeds of film strip passage reveals the infra-structure of "flicker" and at high speeds approximates the "flicker" effect. One can see, as if in slow motion, the ways in which colors affect, blur and/or merge into each other in sequential time, generating new and uniquely temporal color states.

Matisse was probably more useful to me in a way larger than his being a brilliant colorist. One recalls Moreau's famous remark to his student Matisse: "You are going to simplify painting." The bold forcefulness, the all-at-once presence of many of Matisse's paintings, challenges more detailed but less unified work. Film is physically serial and, for my tastes, most films are not unified enough to hold up across serial spans to create a sense of presence. Matisse's achievement impressed me and I have tried in various ways to achieve a similar sort of all-at-once quality within the time frame.

During the shooting of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, I had up several reproductions of Matisse's work, not to transpose them somehow into the terms of film-making but to just have them there as lucid, crisp, non-rhetorical statements which would inform and refresh me.

Sincerely yours,

Paul Sharits