Millions of Canadians know the art of Michael Snow. His work is familiar to anyone who has walked under the glass arcade of the Eaton Centre in Toronto and admired the flock of Canada geese overhead or anyone who has laughed at the figures of gesticulating fans on the facade of the Rogers Centre. And yet, if Snow is a figure of renown in the international art world, it is not for these accessible sculptures but for Wavelength, an experimental film of 1966 that featured a single 45-minute zoom shot.
Snow, the Canadian painter, sculptor, filmmaker and jazz musician, was an ever-inventive artist with a long, eclectic career that repeatedly mixed conceptualist coups with witty populism. He died in Toronto Thursday from a respiratory infection at the age of 94. He leaves his wife of more than 40 years, the curator and critic Peggy Gale, their son, Alexander Snow, and his sister Denyse Rynard.
“Michael Snow was undoubtedly the most influential postwar Canadian artist,” said Adelina Vlas, head of curatorial affairs at the Power Plant art gallery in Toronto. “One can hardly imagine the history of Canadian contemporary visual arts without his work, nor can one imagine the history of structuralist film, improvisational music or artists books without Snow’s brilliant and game-changing contributions.”
If Snow can be called the leading Canadian artist of the post-Second World War period, it is because he enjoyed the widest international reputation. In 1976 he became the first Canadian to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan; titled Projects: Michael Snow, Photographs, it ran for more than two months. In the late ‘70s, a Snow retrospective prepared by the National Gallery of Canada successfully toured museums in Paris, Rotterdam, Bonn, Munich and Lucerne. In his hometown, Snow was the guy who, as a 2013 magazine profile put it, “single-handedly transformed Toronto from a Group of Seven-worshipping, landscape-loving hayseed backwater into a hub of high-stakes, high-concept art.”
Yet just what that greatness consists of is hard to pin down. Snow’s output, spanning more than 60 years, was protean and prolific, elusive and allusive. His practice, ever-evolving, relentless and marked by a great assuredness, embraced painting and drawing, film, photography, sculpture, music and sound, performance, holography, installation and print-making but rarely in obvious or expected ways. Occasionally, he could charm a wide public, as he did in 1967 at the Expo world fair in Montreal. There, at the Ontario Pavilion, he wowed with a presentation of 11 silhouette-like stainless-steel sculptures drawn from the famous Walking Woman figure he had begun using in 1961.
More often, though, Snow liked to confound, or, perhaps more accurately, to test and contest the limits, protocols and possibilities of diverse media. He was a man with a dry wit yet a ready laugh, piercingly acute yet self-deprecating in his observations on life and art.
Enamoured of process and flux, Snow was perhaps the quintessence of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous credo: “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.” He liked to say (or writers liked to quote him saying): “My paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a painter, music by a filmmaker, paintings by a sculptor, sculpture by a filmmaker, films by a musician, music by a sculptor. … Sometimes they all work together. Also, many of my paintings have been done by a painter, sculpture by a sculptor, films by a filmmaker, music by a musician.” No wonder a 2007 article on him in the arts magazine Border Crossings was titled “The Lord of Missed Rules.”
Snow, who was born in Toronto on Dec. 10, 1928, came from “the best of society.” He and an older sister were raised largely in a 14-room house on the southern edge of the city’s Rosedale neighbourhood. Later, in the mid-1940s, he was enrolled in Upper Canada College, the all-male private school for the Canadian establishment. He reportedly hated it, yet it was there, in 1947, that he produced his first art, a painting, which won him a prize and served as his entrée the next year to what was then called the Ontario College of Art, (now OCAD University.)
Snow’s father, Gerald Bradley Snow, was a peripatetic civil engineer, surveyor and the grandson of a former Toronto mayor. His mother, Marie-Antoinette Lévesque, was the daughter of the mayor of Chicoutimi, Que.; Snow met her there at a party thrown by the lumber-and-hydro baron Sir William Price while he was working as a consultant for a construction company. Shortly thereafter, they eloped. It was not a happy marriage. She was outgoing, a talented pianist, an avid reader who reportedly could speak six languages. He was a First World War veteran, gaunt, reserved, “a classic depressed Torontonian,” as Gale told Toronto writer Adele Freedman in 1994.
(Snow’s parents eventually divorced. Gerald Bradley died at 72 in 1964; Marie-Antoniette remarried, to Cuban-born Toronto art dealer Roberto Roig, and lived until almost 100, dying in 2004.)
When Snow was 5, in 1934, his father lost one eye in an explosion in a tunnel while the other was “peppered with dust.” By the early 1950s Gerald Bradley Snow had lost his sight entirely. Later, Snow would suggest that his father’s blindness, his mother’s musicality and his bi-cultural heritage were central to his artistic development. By the ‘50s, he was casting about for some direction. He knew he had what might be called an artistic temperament but how best to express it?
For all his aptitude in visual arts, he was also mad for jazz – Dixieland, bebop, boogie-woogie – which he gamely played on piano, accompanying like-minded buddies in various combos, even though he couldn’t read music. Entering OCA and taking the design program there was a kind of compromise, he told an interviewer in 1971. “I didn’t know whether I was going to turn out to be a commercial artist or what.” Meanwhile, “Father was losing his sight when I was becoming an artist,” he told another interviewer in 1994, “so I guess I stressed the optical aspects of art.” He went on to declare that “the variety of my work ultimately comes from confusion.”
While studying at OCA, Snow got more deeply into painting, familiarizing himself with the works of Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky. Graduating in 1952, he scored a short-lived job at an ad agency, then, in 1953, headed to Europe, bumming around for about 15 months, gallery-hopping, playing music and doing the occasional drawing or oil painting. Back in Canada, he showed at the University of Toronto’s Hart House in 1955 with former OCA pal Graham Coughtry – an exhibition that would have passed without comment had Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips not attended and deemed several nude works obscene. By the next year Snow had a dealer, the enterprising Avrom Isaacs, with whom Snow would have a profitable association until the early 1990s when Isaacs retired.
The Hart House show did get Snow a job – this time as an animator for TV commercials for Graphic Associates, a new film production house. His boss was George Dunning, who had worked with the legendary Norman McLaren at the National Film Board and who went on, in 1967, to animate and direct The Beatles’s trippy cartoon feature Yellow Submarine. Graphic Associates lasted for about two years, long enough for Snow to make his first two films, both animated shorts, and to date a vivacious co-worker and similarly aspiring artist, Joyce Wieland, roughly two years his junior. They would marry in September, 1956.
With the collapse of Graphic, Snow decided to get a studio and delve more deeply into his art – without, of course, settling on any one thing. There were paintings, monochromatic and quasi-abstract expressionist, and collages, mixed-media assemblages, room-sized sculptures that, in the words of writer Emily Landau, “resembled lumbering wooden leviathans.” During this time, Snow also created what became his “logo” – the cardboard cut-out known as Walking Woman, a simple figure in profile that would serve as the prototype for literally hundreds of iterations in all media for the next six years. Hauled into the Toronto subway, plastered on hoardings or printed on postcards, she was everywhere in a bold act of guerrilla art that would foreshadow Snow’s public commissions in later years. Through the period he continued to play piano, making his living from a regular gig with Mike White’s Imperial Jazz band at the Westover Hotel, a funky venue on the eastern edge of Toronto’s downtown that became home to Filmores Hotel.
Still, it took a move by Snow and Wieland to New York in the fall of 1962 for Michael Snow to become Michael Snow. There, living and working in cold-water lofts in lower Manhattan, he experienced an immediate expansion of his ideas and techniques in New York’s fertile cultural milieu. He got to know, among many others, Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton and Ernie Gehr, titans all of American avant-garde cinema. In early 1966, Snow began to make notes for his own major foray into film.
This was Wavelength, a landmark in the history of the medium – “the Birth of a Nation in underground films,” according to the American painter and film critic Manny Farber – and the work that launched Snow into the international avant-garde. Shot in one week in December, 1966 in the Wieland/Snow loft in Tribeca, Wavelength is a film about film itself, the elements that constitute its grammar, and, for Snow personally, “a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas.” It runs 45 minutes and consists of a single continuous zoom shot slowly heading to a photo of a swelling sea positioned on the opposite side of the loft. En route, the zoom records four “human events,” among them the installation of a shelving unit and a death. Screened in 1967 to both acclaim and bewilderment, Wavelength went on to win the grand prix at the 1968 World Experimental Film Festival in Belgium.
Many other “moving-image” works, including video and film installations, followed over the next five decades. Some – like 1971′s three-hour La Région Centrale, shot on a mountaintop in northern Quebec using a remote-controlled camera-activated machine, and 1974′s Rameau’s Nephew, 270 minutes long, with no narrative continuity – were hailed as masterpieces by critics but it seems, in the long run, Wavelength’s stature in the cinematic canon is likely the most secure. Today, the Toronto International Film Festival continues to honour it by using the name Wavelengths for its experimental film program.
It seems it was no coincidence that Snow had first achieved public recognition with an image that literally objectified a woman’s body, turning a curvaceous silhouette into a simplified graphic statement that ended at the wrists and ankles, cutting off hands and feet. In retrospect, the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s can be recognized as an aggressively laddish scene – the New York filmmakers were exclusively male as were the various jazz ensembles in which Snow played and, although Isaacs represented Wieland too, his stable was dominated by male artists in those early years. Walking Woman was the product of 20 years of ogling, Snow once told Maclean’s magazine, and Wieland, a heart-on-the-sleeve personality in contrast to the cooler Snow, complained of his infidelities to friends.
In New York, she was becoming a political activist – the couple were loudly opposed to the war in Vietnam – but also a feminist and a Canadian nationalist. She got recognition in Canada with her True Patriot Love show at the National Gallery in 1971 and was drawn to the Trudeaumania of Pierre Trudeau’s first years in office. It was the right time for both artists to move back to Toronto in 1972, but their marriage broke up four years later. (Wieland died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in 1998.)
Snow had now achieved recognition at home and abroad – in 1970, he was the first person to be given a solo show in the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale – and he returned to a culturally awakened Toronto as a triumphant mid-career artist. He became active on the Isaacs Gallery scene, encouraged the development of experimental film in Canada, joined the Artists’ Jazz band and help found the Canadian Creative Music Collective which established Toronto’s Music Gallery as a space for jazz and new music. After his divorce, he married Gale and their son Alexander was born in 1982.
In the subsequent decades, Snow continued to experiment and to show internationally, working with photography and light. In the 1980s, he began to experiment with holographs, creating a series of still lifes that juxtaposed them with real objects to underline the irreality of the holographic. In 2011, he hung a series of single-coloured transparencies on fishing line in a gallery in Lisbon, inviting the spectator to walk among the panels to experience the abstract colour effects, simplifying a similar piece made of framed colour transparencies that he had created at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1998.
Much of this work is conceptual but Snow’s fame also brought him offers of major public art commissions for which he took a more populist approach. These include the giant fans at the Rogers Centre, and Flight Stop of 1979, the gaggle of geese coming in for a landing under the roof of the Eaton Centre, both in Toronto. To create the work, Snow had a Canada goose killed and dismembered so he could photograph the bird’s anatomy.. The final piece, which must count as one of the most viewed art works in Canada, was also the subject of an important legal decision. In 1981, Eaton Centre decorators tied red bows on the geese for Christmas and Snow sued, arguing that even though he had sold the work he retained a moral right to see its integrity maintained. He won, setting an important precedent in Canadian law covering an artist’s moral rights, and the bows came down.
“[He had a] down-to-earth sense of humour and ability to relate to everyone,” Vlas said. “That aspect of his personality found a form in the public art projects that he created for various sites in Toronto. Playful and witty, these works will always be one of his most visible and enduring legacies.”
In 2013, he executed one of his boldest moves yet in public art, a 65-storey light sculpture (produced with lighting designer Jonathan Speirs) that runs up the side of what was then called the Trump Tower, now the St. Regis hotel, in downtown Toronto. Yet in his final years, he was also working on a much more personal project, My Mother’s Collection of Photographs, a book of 1,500 images assembled from his mother’s albums. He had been working on the project for almost 10 years after including a smaller selection in a catalogue for a 1970 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“We will never be without Michael Snow,” said Concordia University art historian and Snow biographer Martha Langford. “From the Walking Woman Works to his last magnificent book, My Mother’s Collection of Photographs, Michael Snow leaves us in a state of heightened perception which was his greatest gift.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong birth year for Alexander Snow. This version has been corrected.