More Parts Than A Whole
by Saul Ostrow, January 18, 2023
Starting out as a self-taught jazz pianist who evolved from Dixieland to bebop (and later, to free jazz), Michael Snow turned to painting, sculpture, installations, photography, film (starting in animation), video, holography, audio, and concept books. Despite all these achievements he is still best known for the film "Wavelength" — in part, this is for 3 reasons. The first is the obvious merits of "Wavelength" given its clarity as a quintessential touchstone for all the issues surrounding structuralist cinema of the 60s and 70s. But the reason is he is best known to cinema studies students rather than art and art history students is because the areas in which he excelled such as the use of light, motion and kinetics have been sufficiently written out of the history of late modernism. This leads to the third reason the eclecticism and diversity of Snow’s work does not fit the progressive and developmental model of what an artists’ career is supposed to look like. The result is that there are few artists since the 1930s, who have been such relentless experimenters in so many differing media. Seemingly, artists are written into a pre-existent history, they do not make it.
When I was a student in the late 1960s, I went to a screening in Snow’s loft of what is now regarded as his groundbreaking film “Wavelength”, which is a 45-minute film about film —e.g., the elements that constitute its visual and material grammar. The film consists of a nearly continuous zoom shot of an empty loft space. About halfway through the viewer becomes aware that the camera is zooming in on a postcard or a photograph pinned to the far wall. The image is that of a wave swell. Though there are four staged incidents, and the occasional insertion of color filters and changes of film grain, the camera relentlessly continues its transit. In other words, there is just the slow steady movement of the zoom as it carries its audience to its inevitable conclusion.
What makes “Wavelength” (1967), such an important work is that unlike Warhol’s films at the time, Snow’s structuralist approach sums what was happening culturally in the aftermath of Minimalism and Pop — it marks the moment when Modernism begins to unravel and when all things seem possible. Snow for the better or worst claimed as much of this territory as he possibly could. Snow’s advantage was in being a Canadian. He was not burdened with the heritage of AbEx, instead he had knowledge of the Montreal and Toronto art scenes which in turn connected him to their vanguard European counterparts.
In the 1950s, Snow would generate hundreds of works in all media, based on a cardboard cut-out of a curvaceous female figure known as "Walking Woman". What is curious about Walking Woman is that this silhouette has neither hands nor feet. At about the same time he was plastering up posters and sending out postcards of "Walking Woman", Snow got a job as an animator for TV commercials for Graphic Associates. This lasted for about two years. The reason this is worth mentioning is that it afforded him the opportunity to make his two animated shorts. In 1953, Snow headed to Europe, where he bummed around for about 15 months, gallery-hopping, playing music and making the occasional artwork. On his return to Toronto, he gained some notoriety: a number of works he exhibited were deemed to be pornographic — the outcome of this is he came to have gallery representation.
Snow married the artist Joyce Wieland in September,1956 and in the fall of 1962, they moved to New York. During this period while the couple opposed the war in Vietnam, Weiland would becoming a political activist –– a feminist and a Canadian nationalist. By 1970, Snow had now achieved recognition both at home and abroad,– enough so that he was the first person to be given a solo show in the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The couple would return to Toronto in 1972, and four years later their marriage broke up. Weiland received recognition in Canada with her exhibition, "True Patriot Love" at the National Gallery in 1971. In 1998 she died from complications due to Alzheimer.
Always the prankster and provocateur in an often quoted statement written in 1967, Snow asserts he is not a professional artist, he instead offers a mismatched list of his endeavors claiming his paintings are done by a filmmaker, his sculptures by a musician, his films by a painter, his music by a filmmaker, his paintings by a sculptor, his sculpture by a filmmaker, his films by a musician, his music by a sculptor. Though he should be recognized with Bruce Nauman as the quintessential precursor of post-Modernism, Snow is barely remembered given the post-Minimalism he would have been identified with, has been written out of the history of late modernism.
The erasure of the period of let’s say ‘62-‘74, which was characterized by media diversification and exploration, non-linearity, process, chance, and transience, seemingly leaves homeless Snow’s interest in the structuralist issues concerning identity, objecthood, self-reflectivity, self-referentiality, and representation. Yet during this epoch, these themes dominated the space of a contemporary culture defined by the emergence of multi and mixed media, performance, the expanding field of painting, and an analytic conceptual art. As such, Snow had a foot in each of these.
In the following decades Snow continued to work with photography, film, and light. In the 1980s, he began to experiment with holographs, creating a series of still lifes that were juxtaposed with real objects to underline the irreality of the holograph. In 2011, in a gallery in Lisbon he would make a simplified version of a piece made of a series of single-colored transparencies hung from fishing line, originally created for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1998.
Through much of his gallery and museum works, his fame also brought him major public art commissions for which he took a populist approach. Perhaps the best known of these is "Flight Stop" of 1979, the gaggle of geese coming in for a landing under the roof of the Eaton Centre, in Toronto. This specific work garnered attention because it was 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 off. In 2013, with lighting designer Jonathan Speirs, Snow created a 65-storey light sculpture, which runs up the side of what was then the Trump Tower (now the St. Regis hotel) in downtown Toronto.
Yet, despite all these achievements and still others, as his numerous obituaries remind us, he is still best remembered as the film-maker who made "Wavelength". Hopefully this will be rectified.
Still images from: Michael Snow, Wavelength, 1966–67, 16mm film, colour, sound, 45 min., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa / Michael Snow poses in 1962 with a jumping figure cut-out and Green in Green. Courtesy of the artist / Recent portrait of Michael Snow, by Craig Boiko