The Experimentalism of Michael Snow

Michael Snow, Self-centered, 1960. Oil on canvas, 126.5 x 101.5 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Strutt, Lucerne, Quebec, 1980. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Michael Snow Photo: NGC

In the main-level exhibition space at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, there is a wide display of mid-century drawings, sculptures, film, foldages, assemblages and paintings, abstract, figurative and whatever’s in between. It is an exemplary selection. One could reasonably mistake it for the career retrospective of an accomplished post-war talent, says its curator, James King. But no, all of the works displayed in Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947–1962 were made by Toronto artist Michael Snow at the very beginning of his career — the earliest when he was still in high school. King calls the show “an exploration of a genius’s youth.”

All these works were made before the geese of Flight Stop (1979) ever soared through the Eaton Centre atrium and before anyone had yet hailed Wavelength (1967) a masterpiece of avant-garde cinema. A prolific and multidisciplinary innovator, Snow has gained renown over his seven-decade career as a musician, painter, sculptor, filmmaker and photographer. His art is collected widely, both at home and internationally, and the National Gallery of Canada collection includes 79 works by him. And yet, although the 91-year-old artist’s hits are widely recognized and his œuvre has been shown and studied extensively, some passages of invention have possibly gone overlooked.

Michael Snow, Metamorphosis-Chair, 1955. Oil and metallic paint, polyester resin on metal armature, overall: 45.7 x 29.3 x 34.6 cm . Gift of Michael Snow, Toronto, 2001 Acc. 2001/195. Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Concurrently to the Hamilton exhibition and also including loans from the National Gallery of Canada, another show just an hour down the highway considers a similarly under-explored chapter of the artist’s catalogue. Listening to Snow at the University of Toronto’s Art Museum is devoted to his experiments in sound installation. Both reveal a sharp artistic mind deeply committed to formal play, whatever the medium.

The spirit of experimentalism forms a through-line in Snow’s wildly varied art practice, and it starts at the very beginning. King, who recently published a biography of the artist, calls the ethic of Snow’s formative years “try this, try that.” Paintings like Moonlit House and Colin Curd, About to Play, both from 1953, show the influence of European modernists such as Ben Nicholson and Paul Klee. Next, Snow toys with Alberto Giacometti in a series of table and chair sculptures from the mid-1950s, while – playing nearby – is his very first film, the animation A to Z (1956). Opposite hangs the suite of drawings from 1959 that the artist called “the masterpiece of early Snow” – Drawn Out. It comprises 22 charcoal sketches based on the photographs, clipped from a newspaper, of an English murderer and his victim. Each of the 21 depictions of the killer, Alan James Grierson, is a variant executed in a different style. Snow here proves himself proficient in a multitude of the dialects and idioms contemporary to visual art at the time.

Michael Snow, Lac Clair, 1960. Oil and paper adhesive tape on canvas, 178 x 178.3 x 3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Michael Snow Photo: NGC

One room is dedicated to pure abstraction. Foldages, oils and mixed media panels, like Blues in Place (1959), Self-centred (1960) and Green in Green (1960), line the walls. Snow considers the lattermost, as well as the National Gallery of Canada's Lac Clair of 1960, “sculptural” for their concentration on colour and surface. For him, the development transformed the panel from representational space into more of a three-dimensional object. This line of experimentation led to some of the wooden pieces, such as Shunt (1959) and Quits (1960), which connect the traditional place of painting — the wall — and that of sculpture — the floor — to challenge the categories that define each.     

The exhibition traces an evolution, King says, that concludes with Snow’s formalism taking shape in the Walking Woman series. The iconic silhouette figure develops across panels, including Reclining Figure and Seated Nude (Red Head) from 1955 and the 1960 January Jubilee Ladies, before the shape appears in its more recognizable form rendered, say, in oil paint on wooden sculpture, shorn from canvas and rolled up, or photographed as a cutout travelling around Toronto. His early “try this, try that” approach is shown to culminate in one of his biggest successes.

Michael Snow, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids), 2002. Video projection, colour, sound, 61:32 min., looped, 2 m wide. Courtesy of the artist.

The theme persists across both exhibitions: Listening to Snow demonstrates that the same exploratory drive central to his youthful works remains strong. From his college days, Snow has been an enthusiastic practitioner of jazz and improvisational music. Indeed, sound was one of the earliest sandboxes for his artistic experimentation — and one he’s returned to often. The exhibition is itself a type of experiment, curator Liora Belford explains, on “listening as a curatorial method.” It manifests as one sonic experience uniting three sound installations, one screening, two recordings and a piano for Snow’s performance – all coming together in the same acoustic space. Belford selected works so they could be enjoyed individually, but would also play dynamically together.

The main space presents a Michael Snow music box. From the listening station for Falling Starts (1975), visitors hear the pre-recorded piano phrase transmogrify as it gradually slows and slows. The whistling and breathing composition W in the D (1975) forms a sort of duet with it, backed by the more frenzied rhythm of Tap (1969–72) from another room. The 2002 video Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids), a 62-minute shot showing a curtain slapping against its window frame in a breeze, lends accents to the score. And whenever a visitor activates the 2000 Waiting Room by pulling a number from the machine and then taking a seat as instructed, a momentary solo is piped in from the microphone hidden elsewhere in the building (Belford says that if you follow its cord, you’ll find the mic installed inside the Hart House reading room; this means its transmissions are sometimes whispering partners or the ringtone of a phone or giggling study groups).

Michael Snow, Tap, 1969–72. Framed black & white photograph, framed typewritten texts on paper, tape player, speaker, wire, and sound tape, framed photograph, installation dimensions variable. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Michael Snow Photo: NGC

Configured in a spiral like the cochlea of the ear, the exhibition houses the quietly droning Diagonale in its innermost chamber. In this unlit room, 16 loudspeakers arrayed around the perimeter produce a single chord. When you stand still, you hear a pure tone, but as you move around the room, you perceive variations that sound like a siren or perhaps musical like an arpeggio. The effect changes by how quickly you traverse the space. This writer found himself running small circles around the room, half-giddy from the invitation to play. It is a profound experience art can sometimes provide, when you get to perceive yourself perceiving. Diagonale is more than 30 years old, but it feels thrillingly new. The truth contained in a successful experiment does not diminish over time.

In Hamilton, King shared a similar experience upon the uncrating of Quits and Shunt, two works he had never seen in the original. He calls the sculptures “breathtaking. They are just as contemporary now as they ever were. … Snow is this great experimenter. And the experiments work.”


For details of works by Michael Snow in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. See the website of the Art Gallery of Hamilton for their exhibition Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947–1962 and the University of Toronto’s Art Museum for Listening to Snow. Read also the article on Michael Snow's photo-based work Authorization in the NGC Review. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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