Michael Snow’s Experimental Works Toy with Perception & Representation – ARTnews.com

A white magazine cover with text in black green and pink, and an image of a person lying on a pink surface with various objects covering their face and body.

The July 1994 issue of A.i.A. with a work by Lygia Clark on the cover.

Canadian experimental filmmaker Michael Snow died on Jan. 5, 2023. This article originally appeared in the July 1994 issue of Art in America.

Michael Snow is most widely known for making the kind of excruciatingly difficult experimental films that brainy theorists love to love and from which ordinary people stay away in droves. Wavelength (1967), which is mainly a hypnotically slow zoom from one end to the other of an 80-foot loft, is considered one of the great miracles of the avant-garde cinema. But as was demonstrated by a very large, 43-year retrospective exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and at the Power Plant, a municipal gallery, Snow, who was born in Toronto in 1929, has not confined himself to filmmaking; he has worked in a dazzling variety of modes over the course of his career. Since graduating from the Ontario College of Art in 1952, he has produced representational as well as abstract paintings, sculptures and installations for the gallery and for public sites, mixed-medium assemblages and collages, performances, guerrilla street art, photography, holograms, sound pieces and slide projection works. In addition to all that, Snow has enjoyed a parallel career as a professional jazz musician and he has an extensive resume of concerts and recordings to his credit.1 (This dual career has enabled Snow to avoid ever having to take a permanent teaching job.)

Snow’s art self-reflexively toys with its own procedures, rules and limits of representation. This can and at times does seem a narrowly pedantic pursuit, even if spiced, as it frequently is, by humor and eroticism. But if it is true that we know things only through representations in our minds, then to represent (or deconstruct) representation itself is potentially a means of opening windows onto the inner workings of mental experience.

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Portrait of Michael Snow crossing his arms.

Although marked by playfulness and protean inventiveness throughout, the diversity of Snow’s career would otherwise seem to defy critical generalization. But a unifying theme can be discerned: that is, a focus on the interplay of reality and illusion. Ever since the early ’50s, Snow has been addicted to the thrill that happens when you shift attention back and forth between the material facts of an art work’s physical being and the immaterial fictions of its representations. It is what this focus reveals about the nature of consciousness that gives Snow’s work its philosophical depth and urgency.

By framing and reframing images, illusions, reflections, metaphors and other sorts of visual representations as well as pieces of the real world, Snow now produces brain-teasing puns, paradoxes, perspectival shifts and unexpected confrontations that confound our usual ways of distinguishing between the actual and the representational. In his plastic work, Snow is often only entertainingly clever, but at its best, his work can trigger an exhilarating awareness of the viewer’s own thought processes. In a few cases, such as the film Wavelength, his work can make you feel that you are on the brink of metaphysical revelation.

THAT HAIR-RAISING LEAP from sensation to imagination and back again is, of course, one of the archetypal experiences of modernist painting, which is where Snow started out. A small painting made under the very obvious influence of Paul Klee announces the theme explicitly. Called Man Examining a Line (1953-54), it is a bust-length depiction of a person fancifully outlined on a richly mottled painterly ground who holds between his fingertips a brightly painted stick or piece of string—a line that functions both as an element within the fictive space of the picture and as a literal line on the surface of the canvas, and that also typifies the fascination with ambiguities of representation that will preoccupy Snow for the rest of his career.

Two people sit and stand in front of four large windows in a loftlike space.

Michael Snow: still from Wavelength, 1967, 16mm film, color, sound, 45 minutes.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

It is not until the end of the 1950s, however, that Snow begins to break free from the confines of traditional modernist painting and to focus more specifically on the conceptual. Before that, he looks like a conventional, facile (though not unengaging) painter trying to find a style of his own. The influence of Klee gives way to the influence of Abstract Expressionism—de Kooning and Kline, especially—as in the mid-’50s he produces modestly scaled but radically abstracted, painterly pictures of furniture and room interiors. A little later, he is working loosely within a grid format; in News (1959), gray and black rectangles embedded in a flickering gray field suggest a painterly equivalent of the front page. Later, rectilinear shapes and lines become flatter, bolder and less atmospheric; paint is dripped and splashed in a jaunty, matter-of-fact fashion.

Around 1960, Snow begins to question those fundamental conditions that define painting as painting. Lac Clair (1960), for example, is a monochromatic blue square with lengths of masking tape applied along part of the edges of each of its four sides, a tactic that emphasizes the objectness of the stretched canvas; Colour Booth (1959), a freestanding piece consisting of two intersecting planes of painted plywood, takes painting off the wall; Red Square (1960), an irregular grid composition made by painting on a folded canvas and then presenting the canvas unfolded and stretched, challenges conventional procedures of the medium. In these works and others, Snow is working in the gap between painting and sculpture, and it is conceivable that he might have gone the way of Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly, painters who pushed the limits but never completely broke with the idea of painting as a fundamentally esthetic enterprise. He might also have become involved with process art.

In 1961, however, Snow shifted from primarily formal to primarily conceptual imperatives. This change is heralded by what looks like a step back. In a series of collages and drawings revolving around flattened and simplified representations of the female figure, he seems to pick up a figurative direction he had left behind five or six years before. What issues from these works, however, is a motif that frees him from painting as traditionally conceived: an image Snow called the Walking Woman, which he used as the exclusive subject and the formal anchor of his art from 1961 to 1967.

The way Snow’s films immerse and aggressively toy with — and even attack — a viewer’s sensibilities is, in large part, what makes them so compelling.

The Walking Woman is an image selected from many drawings of female figures he was making at the time. The life-size, silhouetted profile of a young woman in mid-stride was originally cut out of a piece of cardboard. With full breast and derriere contours, a bouffant hairdo and a tight, short skirt, she is mildly sexy in a generic, modern style. (Without the bit of skirt, which is indicated by a small flip at the knee, she could be nude.) Significantly, her hands and feet and the top of her head are cut off, which implies that the image is or was framed; the Walking Woman is therefore not a representation of a woman but a representation of a representation of a woman. Such a frankly stereotypical image looks as though it might have been taken from some advertising logo, which led many to mistake Snow for a Pop artist.

But for Snow, the Walking Woman was not a Pop icon but a device to which he could moor a wide-ranging process of conceptual experimentation on the formal, technical, contextual and representational possibilities of art itself. The work in this series has more to do with the formal and conceptual innovations wrought by the likes of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Johns and Dine than with the kind of sociological ironies associated with Warhol or Lichtenstein. And it is impressive if not astonishing how many different ideas are embodied in the Walking Woman works included in Snow’s retrospective. The series may be read as a near-comprehensive, historical catalogue of modernist and avant-gardist impulses.

Many of these works explore painting as painting: there are flat, richly colored, painterly compositions that recall Matisse and relate to Color Field painting of the ’60s. Others comment on style, such as Mixed Feelings (1965), in which each of 15 Walking Woman images is made in a different manner: as a cartoon, as an impressionistic painting, as a hard-edged image with stripe, etc. Some works focus on canvas shape—for example, Five Girl-Panels (1964), in which the figure is variously squashed, stretched or tilted into a series of canvases that range from short to tall to diamond shaped. In several paintings. Snow plays with the figure-ground relationship by cutting the figure free and placing it in front of its background.

SCULPTURAL WORKS are equally various: one from 1961 is a cubist construction made of small blocks of wood; in Corner Piece (1963) the figure is made into a knickknack shelf; in Project (1961) the image is painted onto an assemblage of drawers. In several works, parts of the negative space around the figure are projected into sculptural volumes. Snow also put the image into non-traditional contexts: he took a full-size version into the street and photographed it as people walked by; he placed the image as a small ad in the Village Voice; and he secretly put small versions into books at bookstores.

Finally there are works that play explicitly with levels of reality and representation. In the three-canvas work Hawaii (1964), a portrait of the Walking Woman is seen as an actual painting, as a painting represented within the fictive space of another painting (on the wall in a Pop-style room) and in the shape of a trapezoid, so that it seems to exist in an implied, but not represented, perspectival space. Several other paintings can be viewed through a window of tinted plastic that stands a few feet from the wall. These works address the shifty relationship between the real and the representational. Anything “real” can be reframed as fictional; perhaps nothing, after all, is nakedly real.

As the foregoing descriptions may suggest, what is of primary interest in these works is neither form nor image per se. Rather it is the relationship between form and illusory image that is philosophically at stake. More specifically, each formal variation evokes a figure that exists in the imagination independent of its specific material incarnation. You could say that the Walking Woman series is like the work of a goddess-worshipping cult; what interests Snow, however, is not the mythopoeic but the psychological phenomenology: the way consciousness operates at the intersections of such fundamental dualities as sensation/Imagination, perception/idea or mind/matter, These philosophical preoccupations have continued to determine Snow’s plastic art from the late ’60s to the present (about which more later).

The diversity of Snow’s career would seem to defy critical generalization, but a unifying theme can be discerned: a focus on the interplay of reality and illusion. He is addicted to the thrill that happens when you shift attention back and forth between the material facts of an artwork’s physical being and the immaterial fictions of its representations.

In light of the subsequent growth of feminist consciousness, it is a good thing for Snow that in 1967 he abandoned the Walking Woman image, which seems a bit tacky from today’s perspective. But there is something less obvious and more interesting to be considered in Snow’s use of the image than the issue of simple sexism. For Snow’s repeated objectification, manipulation and even abuse of his female surrogate may tip us off to something deeper: an attitude of intellectually domineering willfulness that tends to repress sensuality and poetic resonance in favor of analytical scheming. It is this attitude that makes Snow’s plastic pieces—the Walking Woman work as well as the post-Walking Woman work—less satisfying than a viewer might wish.

Yet when we turn at this juncture to Snow’s films, it seems that that domineering quality has now become a strength. The film medium extends Snow’s philosophical imperativeness and the impact of his manipulations of materials and images beyond the work itself to operate directly on the viewer. You can’t distance yourself from the films as you can from paintings or sculptures; and the way that Snow’s films immerse and aggressively toy with—and even attack—a viewer’s sensibilities is, in large part, what makes them so compelling.

AS WAS HIS PAINTING and, in an expanded sense, his Walking Woman series, Snow’s films are based on modernism’s reversal of the traditional relationship between form and content. Snow has repeatedly pointed to Cézanne as an inspirational model. Just as Cézanne’s paintings assert their own material surfaces at the expense of their representational illusions, Snow’s films emphasize the filmic qualities and conditions to which we expect to be oblivious when we watch conventional movies. A Hollywood movie encourages us to enter fully into the fictional world it represents and to lose awareness of our actual circumstances and even of the fact that we are watching a film; it’s only when a movie isn’t working that we think about how long it is. In Snow’s work, we are as much aware of the film medium itself (its qualities of light, texture, color and sound, the way the camera frames and composes) and the circumstances of a film’s presentation (its duration in actual time as opposed to fictional time, our own presence in front of a white screen) as we are of what is represented. In fact, Snow deliberately impoverishes or destabilizes the elements of fiction that conventional films depend on— character, plot, setting, narrative pace— in order to secure the audience’s focus on the immediate, actual experience of the film. Raw, homemade qualities further enhance sensuous immediacy and undermine pure illusionism.

Snow’s refusal to give audiences a coherent illusory world into which they can escape is what makes his films, like Warhol’s, unendurable for most people. Moreover, his films can be very aggressive toward the audience. Unlike paintings, movies act on the viewer’s perceptions kinetically, and Snow’s films can be distinctly unpleasant. Disjunction, repetition, extreme duration, harsh light, color and sound, dizzying contradictions of gravity, disorienting points of view: these qualities can make you feel bored, irritable, confused and even victimized. (In one instance, I had to flee the theater because a relentlessly repeated back and forth and up and down sweeping of the camera was making me literally sick.) The strategic willfulness apparent in the Walking Woman works is here directed full force at the viewer, and one understands why audiences sometimes erupted into riotous protest during early showings of Snow’s films.

But that ruthless quality is also the strength of the films. Snow does less in these works than he does in any other medium to ingratiate himself with the audience. Each film follows its own predetermined logic and, in the best of them, there is an awesome grandeur about the implacability with which it fulfills itself. Challenging though they are, Snow’s films can also be formally beautiful, conceptually intriguing, mysterious, mesmerizing, suspenseful and humorous. And despite a reversal of the usual form-content hierarchy, illusion is not wholly eliminated; rather, as with the Walking Woman works, it is the complication of the relationship between the actual and the imaginal that is at stake. In film, however, Snow realizes visual, metaphorical and philosophical possibilities beyond anything he’d managed in static art.

Snow’s first film (not counting a seven-minute animated movie made in 1956 was a Walking Woman work. New York Ear and Eye Control (1964) consists mostly of long takes of Walking Woman cutouts placed in various natural and urban settings along with a sound track of raucous, improvisational jazz. But the best approach to Snow’s use of the medium may be to concentrate on his most famous work, Wavelength (1967), which is only his second film but which embodies the central issues that Snow will deal with in his subsequent film work.

In its basic structure, Wavelength verges on a kind of abstract minimalism. The camera is fixed in one place for the 46-minute duration of the film. From an elevated position, it focuses on a wall at the far end of an 80-foot-long loft, where there are tall windows looking out onto the street and a few pieces of furniture, including a chair and a desk. As the film progresses, the frame slowly moves forward, creeping almost imperceptibly toward the wall; at the same time, an electronically produced sound rises from a low hum to a high-pitched whine in a long, steady glissando, an aural reflection of the visual zoom. In itself, this structure may sound monotonous, but there is a nice elegance in the way the zoom and the glissando reflect each other, and in the way both reflect the real time of the film. Around this basic armature there also occur a variety of visual transformations and discrete events that tend to produce a dreamlike interweaving of different levels of reality, illusion and fantasy.

AT THE BEGINNING of the film, the viewer beholds what seems to be a conventionally realistic cinematic space. Here the first of just four brief events involving human actors happens. Several people enter rolling a large bookcase; they deposit it at the far end of the loft, and then they leave. Shortly thereafter, two women enter, sit at the far end of the room and listen to the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields” on a radio. This, too, seems an ordinary event, but the song adds a different dimension— music and fantasy—and, in effect, announces a departure from “normal” reality. After the song ends and the women leave, there’s a long period during which a series of photographic transformations takes place. Using different colored gels and different kinds of film stock, Snow causes extreme changes in color, value, focus, texture and positive-negative relations that function as painterliness does in modernist painting to heighten our awareness of the medium itself. We are subjected to a nearly abstract filmic splendor of color and light. But these formal manipulations also have a psychological effect. They shift the quality of atmosphere and mood from mundane to hallucinogenic. Combined with the slow zoom and the rising glissando, they evoke a strangely ominous and decidedly oneiric sense of urgency.

Far into the film, the third human event happens: following some loud crashing sounds, a man staggers into view and collapses on the floor. Not long after, a frightened woman enters the scene and calls someone named Richard on the telephone to tell him about the fallen man, whom she presumes to be dead. After hanging up, the woman leaves. There is no resolution to these events—we never find out who the man is or whether (or how) he died, or anything about the woman or Richard. There is something weirdly comic about such an attenuated narrative. In a sense, Snow is debunking conventional, story-based moviemaking, saying, essentially, that narrative events, for his purposes, are not more important than other more strictly formal events that happen in a film. And yet these human events combine with the visual and aural momentum of the zoom, the glissando and the atmospheric changes caused by color, light and texture shifts to create a palpable narrative drive; as abstract as it is, the film nevertheless has an almost Hitchcockian feeling of mystery and suspense.

By this time, the camera has drawn very close to the far wall, and has begun to focus on a small rectangle, a photograph tacked up between two windows. It is, we finally discover, a photograph of the ocean—a dark, serene, black-and-white picture of rippled water. After this image fills the entire frame for a few minutes, the film ends. It is a quiet ending, perhaps anticlimactic, but also poetically conclusive and mysteriously moving. Given the preceding human events, you can’t help thinking of this movement from the “real” space of the loft to the still, fictive oceanic space of the photograph as, metaphorically, a movement from real life to the cosmic hereafter. As movies so often do, the film ends—by implication, at least—with death.

PART OF THE FASCINATION of Wavelength, then, is in the way it lends itself to extensive formal, conceptual and philosophical analysis; intellectually it is intensely provocative. Think only, for example, of its use of framing: how the film frame, a kind of window, moves from a distance toward actual windows and arrives at yet another sort of framed window, the photograph, with which it merges in the end. This movement is formally satisfying, but it can also be seen as an obliquely romantic “plot,” a kind of love story in which a disembodied but active visual will enters and moves through space to achieve union with an embodied, passive, natural other. Here Snow’s masculine willfulness finds its perfect metaphorical embodiment in the penetrating gaze of the camera, and the action can be read not only as a sexual coming together of male and female, but also as a metaphysical marriage of mind and matter. Whatever exegesis it inspires, the beauty of the film lies in the way its meanings are embedded in its raw visual plenitude. (The title, incidentally, is a complex pun referring to the physics of light and sound, the film’s essential mediums, and also to the time and distance traversed in reaching the ocean waves.)

Before returning to Snow’s plastic art, it would be well to mention three other movies, if only to show how adventurously he has experimented with the medium. One of his most rigorously Minimalist films is La Région Centrale (1971). For this film, Snow had a machine built that would rotate a camera 360 degrees around an invisible point, moving horizontally, vertically and in every other possible direction. Snow then helicoptered into the Canadian wilderness and set up this machine on an unpopulated mountaintop, where he shot film for what became three hours of pure landscape.

At the other extreme of complication and artificiality is Presents (1980-81), in which the triumph of modernism is allegorized. In this film, an elaborate but obviously phony set—an apartment interior—literally rolls back and forth in front of the camera as a man and a woman struggle to move naturally while searching for some unspecified object throughout the apartment. The subject is the rickety, old-fashioned construction of “reality.” At a certain point, the picture plane attacks the set: the camera is mounted on an invisible machine behind a transparent panel, which moves onto the set and begins crushing everything in its path. Thus the modernist picture plane flattens illusionism. After the set is destroyed, there follows an hour-long montage of non-narrative film. A hand-held camera follows falling or flying things (a parachutist, birds, waterfalls), sweeps across landscapes and cityscapes and passes over the bodies of naked women, favoring the abstract dynamics of motion over the conventional imperatives of representation or narrative.

Finally, So Is This (1982), a silent, 45-minute film, is striking in that it consists entirely of single words projected one at a time and for varying lengths of time (mostly white on black). Here is a quote from the film that conveys something of its self-referential humor:

Sometimes the author of this film is present when his films are screened and can thus answer questions about them. One question which the author expects is: “Why would anyone want to do such a thing as this?” followed by, “Wouldn’t a book be better?” If Mr. Snow is here on this occasion he will attempt to answer such questions in speech after this film is over. It’s going to he a very interesting film and perhaps such a question will be answered by the film itself so to speak!

Thus, like all Snow’s films, So Is This sets up a paradoxical tension in the viewer between mental, imaginal experience (the fiction of a voice that addresses the audience) and the here-and-now actuality of light projected in real time on a screen.

AS REPRESENTED BY the Toronto retrospective, the creative peak of Snow’s career seems to have come at the end of the 1960s. He lived in New York from 1962 to around 1972, and he apparently benefited from the stimulation and pressure of a vital avant-garde scene. (In 1970, he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale.) Indeed, this period is considered to be so important that a separate essay in the catalogue is devoted to it— “Around Wavelength: The Sculpture, Film and Photo-Work of Michael Snow from 1967 to 1969,” by Philip Monk—and it was given a separate exhibition space at the AGO.

This small show-within-a-show had a cohesiveness, a feeling of rigorously distilled and fulfilled purpose, that set it apart from the much longer periods that preceded and followed it. The Walking Woman image is now gone, and the influence of Minimalism’s preference for formal reduction, serialization, industrial materials and fabrication is evident. These are Snow’s most sculpturally physical works, but they are still about vision and consciousness. In Scope (1967), for example, you look into one end of a long steel box and see a periscopic view of the opposite end of the box. The view is not very interesting until somebody else happens to look into the other end; internal mirrors then reflect the other person’s presence with unexpected immediacy. As I was looking, a woman peered in at the other end; surprised to find me gazing out at her, she visibly flinched and laughed out loud. Works like Scope in effect reframe the frame, putting into it not an expected fctive space or object but something real, or virtually real; such pieces make us wonder about how we selectively, and maybe self-protectively, frame our world.

In relationship to what Snow will do in the years to follow, the most consequential works in this section were those involving photography. Like film, photography is particularly well-suited for Snow’s purposes because its highly convincing illusions are always contradicted by its physical qualities. Press (1969), for example, is an absurdist demonstration of the paradoxes of photography. Snow photographed sundry materials (spaghetti, an egg, a tube of paste, a pair of gloves, etc.) one at a time, clamped flat under glass. He then displayed the resultant black-and-white photographs in a grid format clamped under a heavy sheet of transparent plastic. This arrangement comments on photography’s ability to contain the illusion of three dimensions within a two-dimensional format. In addition, it punningly reflects modernism’s fetishization of flatness. (It also predates by a decade and a half the very physical treatment of photography by the Starn Twins, who appear to have been influenced by Snow indirectly, if not directly.)

In one of the most compelling of all Snow’s photo-works, however, ironic self-reflexivity is superseded, as it is in Wavelength, by a kind of metaphysical poetry. Atlantic (1967) is a wall-hung grid of 30 stainless-steel boxes, each of which contains a photograph of the ocean’s surface (all are slight variations on the same photograph that appears at the end of Wavelength). The most immediate effect of this work is optical. The image of rippled water is repeated and blurrily reflected in the slightly flared sides of the boxes, which makes the whole piece shimmer and wobble almost surrealistically. The viewer also seems to be looking through the actual grid, as though through a window to a fictive world beyond. This conjunction of the geometric structure of the grid and the limitlessness of the water can be read as a transcendental marriage of body and soul, culture and nature, the rational and the irrational, the finite and the infinite. A wedding of opposites that reflects the extremes of the psyche itself, Atlantic offers something that verges on a religious experience.

OF THE TWO DIVERGENT directions suggested by Press and Atlantic, it is the former that Snow mainly pursues in the decades that follow. In his work of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s (represented at the Power Plant, a large, rehabilitated industrial building, by more than 60 pieces), he has explored photography itself as a means and as a subject with the same single-minded focus and unpredictable inventiveness that was typical of his variations on the Walking Woman theme. (A handful of sculptures and paintings from this period were also included, but they seemed peripheral to Snow’s primary involvement in photography.)2

What Snow tends to do with each of his photo-works is to zero in on a particular characteristic or element of photography that we take for granted and to defamiliarize it through punning literalization, reversal of expectation or some other manipulation. Crouch, Leap and Land (1970) deals, like Press, with photographic space. Kneeling down to look up at the underside of three waist-high panels, you discover a sequence of black-and-white images of a naked woman; seen from below (through a transparent floor), she crouches, springs up and comes back down. Momentarily, you believe that she is jumping into actual space; yet when you stand up, you see that, of course, there is no such space—only those thin panels. The revelation is oddly surprising; somehow, the mind becomes captivated by the illusion and is startled by its disappearance. Snow’s method of tricking you into an act of voyeurism is also noteworthy. It is worth observing that the connection between looking and desire is one of the artist’s favorite subthemes.

Almost all of Snow’s works from this period deal with the discrepancy between two or more ways of looking at photographs. You might think such an approach would become predictable, but what’s impressive is how he keeps finding new ways to match form and concept. Here are a few more examples: in Of a Ladder (1971), photographs of parts of a ladder are sequentially stacked up the wall, creating a formal, absurdly literal version of the illusory image. In Meeting of Measure (1983), a commentary on scale, an image of a human foot placed on top of a cardboard box full of little clay figures shows that the box is a foot square; but because the whole photograph is dramatically enlarged, the foot, which is normally a measure of actual scale, becomes fantastically huge and threatens to crush the tiny people in the box. In Egg (1985), a holographic image of the artist in the act of cracking an egg and dropping its contents is projected above a real frying pan, creating an almost hallucinatory confusion of the real and the illusory. Speed of Light (1992) is a large color transparency of a rustic, curtained window attached to a light box so that the light from behind glows through the curtain, conflating actual fluorescent light and fictive sunlight. With these and many more works, Snow again and again refreshes our awareness of the complex and contradictory relationship between reality and its representation. He also makes us marvel at the sheer fertility of his conceptual imagination.

BECAUSE OF ITS diversity and ingenuity, the post-’60s section of Snow’s retrospective was the most entertaining of the three sections (four, if you count the films). However, it also exposed certain of the artist’s limitations. What’s problematic about these later works is similar to what is disappointing about the Walking Woman series. Because of Snow’s relative lack of engagement in the development of form or image as ends in themselves, individual pieces tend not to be very esthetically or symbolically gratifying. Although some are very technically complex—Redifice (1986), for example, is a massive box with many windows and holograms, each displaying an elaborately constructed two- or three-dimensional image—single works are more interesting as part of the collective record of the artist’s thinking and strategic decision-making than as traditional esthetic objects. But because each work ostensibly addresses some more or less familiar art-related idea (i.e., the tension between representation and abstraction, the idea of negative space, the objectivity of the medium, style as subject, etc.), the oeuvre becomes an ongoing series of didactic, even academic (albeit witty) lessons in modernist theory and practice. And because of the way Snow distills or isolates his conceptual points, his works often read as one-liners or illustrative demonstrations of ideas.

Finally, too much self-reflexivity can begin to feel claustrophobic. You start to yearn for a glimpse of the world outside the studio. In this regard, it’s instructive that one of Snow’s most compelling works is a series of tiny, richly hued still-life pictures—Still-Living ( 9 x 4 Acts, Scene One) (1982)—in which the formal beauty and symbolic intrigue of miniaturized assortments of odds and ends (boots, horns, bottles, a lobster, tools, bones, rope and wire, etc.) are more absorbing than the conceptual commentary on photography that the piece also offers. In sum, you might wish that Snow would give his pieces more room to breathe, that he would let them grow beyond their pre-conceived limits. (With the films, as suggested above, Snow’s extremism in carrying out his plans and his involvement of his audience prevent those works from seeming too neatly self-enclosed.)

It is interesting to consider here, as well, certain broader possibilities that are implied but not pursued in Snow’s enterprise. The deconstruction of photographic representation, for example, has been extended by many ambitious American conceptual artists of the 1980s (Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler, to name three) into ideological, social critique. And as for the aggressive emphasis on immediate context in Snow’s films, it is possible to imagine such a method extended to institutional and other sorts of contexts. Hans Haacke’s expansion of his subjects from the micro-ecology of the gallery to the macro-ecology of international systems of culture, business and politics comes to mind as an example. This is not to argue that Snow ought to involve himself in some sort of ideologically adversarial project; it is only to say that the narrowness of his persistent self-referentiality can make you wish he’d take up some of the wider implications of his own ideas.

Snow’s best works, however, are so philosophically enchanting that you can be persuaded to set aside such reservations. One of these, iris-IRIS (1979), is in part about photography’s seeming capacity to freeze a moment in time. A diptych of 4-foot squares, its left-hand panel is a photo of a wall in a bedroom viewed from the foot of the bed. A postcard depicting a mountainscape is attached to the wall and, on a table in front of the wall, something is burning in an ashtray. This flame and a certain quality of light create the illusion of a specific instant in the past. The right-hand panel of this work is painted flat gray and has an actual postcard attached to it—apparently the same card as the one that appears in the photograph. Thus an object in real time is juxtaposed with an illusion at a fictive moment. But the “actual” postcard is the same size as the representation of the postcard in the photograph—a contradictory situation. If the depicted postcard is in truth the same size as the actual one, then its representation ought to be smaller because it is further away in illusory space. But if the postcards are not the same, then which, one wonders, is the original, the real one? Perhaps the one in the photograph is the real one and the “actual” one is a fabrication. Trying to sort out the paradoxes and contradictory levels of reality here has the strange effect of engaging the viewer in a directly experienced deconstruction of the real: each time you shift your frame of reference, you enter a new reality. There is no absolute truth. This, one of the essential philosophical and experiential insights of modernism, is the center around which Snow’s art has always revolved. □


1. There are points of contact and overlap between Snow’s art and musical careers, but mainly they have been separate enterprises. Although not discussed in this article, Snow’s musical career was addressed by the AGO retrospective, and a separate catalogue devoted to his work in music and sound was published along with the catalogue for his art and film work.

2. Also included was documentation of a number of public art works that Snow has produced over the years. Among these are the two works for which Snow is best known in Toronto: a flock of life-size, sculptural representations of Canadian geese hung in the atrium of Eaton’s Centre, a huge commercial mall in the city’s downtown area; and The Audience, a set of colossal cartoonlike representations of sports fans attached to the outside of the Skydome, where the Blue Jays play their home games. That the man who made Wavelength could also make such popular public works says a lot about his versatility and his disregard for that hobgoblin of little minds, consistency.

“The Michael Snow Project” was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Power Plant from March 11 to June 5, 1994. Each of the three major sections of the show was organized by a different curator: Dennis Reid, curator of Canadian art at the AGO, developed “Exploring Plane and Contour: The Drawing, Painting, Collage, Foldage, Photo-Work, Sculpture and Film of Michael Snow from 1951 to 1967.” Philip Monk, curator of contemporary art at the AGO, curated “Around Wavelength: The Sculpture, Film and Photo-Work of Michael Snow from 1967 to 1969.” Louise Dompierre, associate director and chief curator of the Power Plant, organized “Embodied Vision: The Painting, Sculpture, Photo-Work, Sound Installation, Music, Holographic Work, Films and Books of Michael Snow from 1970 to 1993. ” The exhibition catalogue includes a lengthy essay by each curator. A brochure containing an essay by Jim Shedden on the films was also provided.

Two related books are The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Wilfrid Laurier University Press/The Power Plant/Art Gallery of Ontario, 1994) and Presence and Absence: The Films of Michael Snow from 1956 to 1991.

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