An Interview with Michael Snow

Michael Snow, Midnight Blue (1973–74), colour photograph, wood, acrylic paint, wax, 73 x 66 x 12.5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle. Purchase, 1979

Michael Snow is an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist who may be best known for his refusal to be pigeonholed. He has mastered nearly every existing artistic medium: visual art, including sketching, printmaking and painting; film, video, sound and cinematic installations. He also writes poetry and essays, and is an accomplished jazz musician. He is equally skilled at creating crossover works, commenting in a 1967 National Gallery of Canada text: “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.”

The National Gallery of Canada has 75 works by Snow in its permanent collection, ranging from his early work in the 1950s to influential pieces from the 1960s through the 1980s. The NGC’s most recent acquisitions are the looped video projection, In The Way (2010), and The Viewing of Six New Works (2012), both acquired in 2012.

A new ebook on Snow’s life and work was issued this month by Art Canada Institute, and is available for free download here

Michael Snow recently spoke with NGC Magazine about his work and about the new exhibition, Michael Snow: Photo-Centric, currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


NGC Magazine: Photo-Centric is described as exploring “the intimate connections" between your photography, painting, sculpture and film.” What are those intimate connections? 

Michael Snow: The title of the photo-work Handed To Eyes is intended to underline the handmade aspect of the work, which simultaneously has photographic, sculptural and painting aspects. The abstract shapes were made by hand; they were photographed; then the photographed objects were tinted by hand with oil paint. This is one example of the “intimate connections” referred to. 

NGCM: You previously showed these photographs in 1976, when the Museum of Modern Art presented your work. How does it feel to be bringing these photographs out again?

MS: I had an exhibition of my photo-works at MOMA in 1976, but the works in that show have all been shown separately, individually and frequently by their owners between then and now. All of the work is borrowed from collections and institutions. The AGO in Toronto sent six works—including, for example, 8 x 10 and five other works which have been shown at the AGO several times in recent years. The National Gallery lent three works.

NGCM: You are known for your multi- and inter-disciplinary work. What happens in your creative process? Do you start with a print, which begs a sculpture, which inspires a video? How does that urge to create in new mediums evolve?

MS: I very rarely make art. My two most recent works (done about three years ago)—The Viewing of Six New Works and In The Way—were both acquired by the National Gallery. Mostly my assistant and I answer e-mails, supply images, do interviews, etc.  Also, I travel a lot and I play concerts. Cross-media pollination like you describe doesn't happen to me. I have ideas, and the wish to attempt something; I muse about it, sometimes for a long time, and then finally “attempt” it.

NGCM: For Crouch, Leap, Land (1970), one of the pieces in your current exhibition in Philadelphia, visitors have to squat beneath the work to see three serial photos of a jumping nude. The photographs are displayed horizontally, parallel to the gallery floor. For Digest, also in this show, viewers can don cotton gloves and flip through a stack of laminated photographs of cross-sections of a related sculpture. What is it that you like about including this type of interactive component in your art?

MS: To generalize, sculpture asks the viewer to move around to properly perceive an object. I’ve done some photo-image works which in fact are also objects but aren’t seen as “sculpture,” such as Crouch Leap Land, which also asks spectators to physically position themselves in certain ways. This kind of suggestion happens in different ways in different works.

NGCM: Does one piece ever affect or inspire you to work on another?

MS: Yes, one work can inspire another. I have done several films which involve camera movement, and learning what one work did led to another. My 1967 film Wavelength led to Standard Time, which led to Back and Forth, which led to La Région Centrale.

NGCM: What would you like to create next?

MS: I recently looked through a pile of old notes and scribbles—ideas for possible works—and was struck by a couple of ideas for sculpture from 1968 that I didn’t do then. Now I’m interested in perhaps doing them.

NGCM: Do you have a daily routine?

MS: This will probably be surprising, but as mentioned I very rarely make art. My “daily routine” honestly is sending emails and going to meetings. Sample activities: end of January, beginning of February, I was away two weeks, five of those days working on the installation of my exhibition Michael Snow Photo-Centric at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There were also the opening formalities, interviews, and I played a concert there. Then I went to New York City (three days, talks with my gallery there, and played a concert), then to Washington, D.C. where, at the National Gallery, I lectured at three screenings of my films. Then back to Toronto.

NGCM: If you could give one piece of advice to an emerging artist, what would it be?

MS: My advice to “an emerging artist”: try to find what is yours in your work, and take it further.

Michael Snow: Photo-Centric is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until April 27, 2014. For more information click here.

Click here to read or download the new ebook on Michael Snow’s life and work by Art Canada Institute.

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