Michael Snow (1928–2023)

Canadian artist Michael Snow, a towering figure in the world of avant-garde cinema, has died at the age of ninety-four. His death was confirmed by Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents him. Best known for his 1967 film Wavelength, a structuralist masterpiece frequently named as the most important avant-garde film ever made, Snow remained uncategorizable as an artist during a career that stretched over eight decades. Painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, video, filmmaking, installation, and music all fell within his purview, and he created groundbreaking works in many of these media. “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,” he told the National Gallery of Canada in 1967. “Sometimes they all work together.”

Michael Snow was born in 1928 in Toronto. A student first of Upper Canada College and then the Toronto College of art, he spent his twenties working as a jazz pianist at night and painting during the day. In 1961, he moved with his wife, artist Joyce Wieland, to New York. Snow’s creative horizons and his professional circles expanded quickly in the metropolis, where he befriended fellow experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas and composer Steve Reich. He shot Wavelength over the course of a single week in 1966, editing it the following year. Presenting the interior of a room in which a few human actions and interactions take place as the camera slowly zooms in on a painting hung on a wall while an unsettling whine ascends in pitch, the forty-five-minute film was instantly lauded as a landmark of avant-garde cinema and won the Grand Prix at the Knokke Experimental Film Festival in Belgium the year of its release. Writing in Artforum in 1969, Manny Farber pronounced it “a pure, tough 45 minutes that may become the Birth of a Nation in Underground films.” He went on to characterize Wavelength as “a singularly unpadded, uncomplicated, deadly realistic way to film three walls, a ceiling and a floor,” noting, “It is probably the most rigorously composed movie in existence.”

Snow continued to push the boundaries of filmmaking, next with Back and Forth of 1969, shot on a college campus in New Jersey, and then, following his 1970 move with Wieland back to Toronto, La Région Centrale, 1971, a three-hour paean to majestic Canadian mountain ranges. Both films called attention to the mechanics of filmmaking, a concern that likewise informed 1982’s language-focused So Is This, which comprises nothing more than a series of title cards, each bearing a single word. “The charting . . . of Snow’s course,” wrote Annette Michelson in a 1971 issue of Artforum, “produces a shifting constellation of epicyclic figures, whose complex and firm geometry is sustained by the breadth and probing consistency of an inquiry into the modes of seeing, recording, reflecting, composing, remembering and projecting.”

Concurrent with his filmmaking, Snow continued to work across various media, as exemplified by the 1974 artist’s book Cover to Cover, which can be read forward or backward, and his 1987 album The Last LP, which purported to contain field recordings of vanishing ethnic musics but in fact comprised multitracked fragments composed and performed by Snow. His 1979 Flight Stop, a flock of fiberglass geese in flight created from many photos of a single goose, remains on view today at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, with which it is inextricably identified; other public works include The Audience, 1989, a group of over-life-size sculptures of celebrating people painted gold at Toronto’s Rogers Centre; and The Windows Suite, 2006, a series of plasma screens on a downtown Toronto hotel showing “impossible” sequences.

Considered by many to be Canada’s most important artist, Snow is represented in the National Gallery of Canada by seventy-five works; he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981 and promoted to Companion in 2007 for his contributions to cinema. He has enjoyed retrospectives at multiple venues in Toronto and at the British Film Institute; his work was included in the reopening exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2000, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2005.

Though he worked in a broad range of media, Snow’s own source of inspiration was not external but internal. “Cross-media pollination . . . doesn’t happen to me,” he told the National Gallery of Canada in 2014. “I have ideas, and the wish to attempt something; I muse about it, sometimes for a long time, and then finally ‘attempt’ it.”


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