Michael Snow was without pretension. Although justifiably proud of his many achievements, the pioneering Canadian artist was a gentle, courtly, humble person. I met him while researching a life of Greg Curnoe, another artist – though one very different from him – he admired immensely. Two years later, I asked Snow – who passed away Jan. 5 at the age of 94 – whether I could write a book about his life and art.
He agreed to my request, and we met at his Toronto home on a regular basis during the next two years, starting in 2016. Like the man, the interior of the house possessed no air of self-importance. In the centre of the dining room, instead of a table and chairs was his mother’s majestic, gleaming grand piano; whenever we walked past it, Snow would stop, bend down and play a chord or two. The left wall was occupied by a huge abstract canvas by an artist friend, and one of his landmark Walking Woman sculptures – made of various layers of wood – jutted out at the corner. On the opposite side of the room stood one of the original Walking Woman cut-outs. Behind her was a small assortment of works by contemporary Canadian artists.
Snow took special pride in being a child of Canada’s two solitudes. He shared with me vivid memories of his vivacious and outspoken Quebec-born mother, Marie Antoinette – a gifted classical pianist who gave him unconditional love. His more reserved father, the Toronto-born Bradley, lost sight in one eye when Snow was a child and became blind when his son was 15. As an adult, Snow retained strong memories of Bradley’s fortitude in adversity. He was certain that his father’s blindness and his mother’s skills as a pianist had made him an artist.
Music, he often reminded me, was a mainstay in his life long before visual art. When his mother asked the youngster to take piano lessons, he rebelled against the teacher she hired. The lessons ceased, but one day, arriving home unexpectedly, she was pleasantly astonished to hear her son improvising jazz tunes on the piano.
Snow labelled himself an indifferent student at Upper Canada College. Not having the least idea of what he wanted to do with his life, he enrolled in the design stream at the Ontario College of Art only because he had won, to his amazement, his school’s prize in art. One of his teachers suggested some books and urged him to take his art seriously. A new kind of energy took hold – though he confessed to me that he never quite understood why or how the impetus to become an artist so rapidly took over his existence.
By the early 1960s, Snow had become the Toronto artist. He was inspired in part by abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and his canvases quickly became works of a calibre to rival theirs. In 1962, he decided to move to New York. His reason? “I wanted to become better.”
In New York, Snow made more of his successful Walking Woman paintings, drawings and sculptures, but by 1967 he had become became fascinated with photography and experimental film. He made an about-face in his career by pursuing those interests. In so doing, he took a considerable risk. He was leaving a clear path for a much more challenging terrain – one that was financially precarious. When I asked him why he had done this, he shrugged his shoulders: “I had no choice. I had to do it.”
Snow was an exacting reader of the drafts of my manuscript. He had perfect recall of the creation of each of his works and chided me when my descriptions were not specific enough. But his eyes would light up when I offered my take on a piece and he felt I had gotten the point.
Halfway through my research on his life, Snow and I visited the Toronto Carpet Factory building, where his large studio had been transformed over the years into a storage space for tape recordings, various types of equipment and early works he had not sold or had decided to keep. As we sorted through the drawings and paintings, I caught glimpses of how the young artist had come into being. “We should think about an exhibition of your early work,” I suggested. He beamed: “We could call it Early Snow.”
And we did, in 2020, at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
One of my last memories of Snow is of the time Early Snow was being installed. The set-up met with his approval, although he insisted that one of the large sculptures had to be elevated slightly off the floor to display properly. When we toured the exhibition, he inspected each entry carefully. Several times he observed, “That one still works,” or, “I still like that one.” As we continued our stroll, I beheld two Michael Snows: the prodigy who had created a series of masterworks, and the older man who took pleasure in revisiting his early life.
Snow laughed a great deal during our conversations and sometimes poked fun at himself. He reminisced about his dead friends and those who were left. He spoke lovingly of his wife, Peggy Gale, and of their son, Alexander. He was insatiably curious. He was a deeply intellectual person who carefully conceptualized each of his works and told me in detail of the pleasure he had received in making them. He retained his sense of inventiveness and his delight in the experimental – he wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of what a work of art could be. He never grew old.
James King’s biography, Michael Snow: Lives and Works, was published in 2019. He curated the exhibition, Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947-1962, at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2020.