Michael Snow, avant-garde film-maker and sculptor, has died aged 94

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Michael Snow, the multidisciplinary Canadian artist known for his ground-breaking work in film, photography, painting, sculpture, sound art, and experimental jazz, has died, aged 94. Canada’s National Gallery called him a “giant in the art world” and a “formidable ambassador”.

Snow was a noted, and influential, experimental film-maker and the creator of much-discussed public sculpture in Canada. His breakout underground cinema piece Wavelength (1967) had an enormous critical impact. Writing in Artforum in 1969, Manny Farber described it as “a pure, tough 45 minutes that may become the Birth of a Nation in Underground film”. Snow disliked having his work described as experimental, lamenting, “Since a lot of people use it, I’m stuck with that.” He was a true polymath always with something on the go. “While I’m working on this one,” he once said, “I’m thinking about that one.”

Snow was born in Toronto in 1928, and his family later relocated to Montreal. He returned to Toronto for high school and then a stint at the Ontario College of Art (now OCADU), which he chose to attend after being awarded an art prize. He graduated in 1952, his first showing coming at Hart House at the nearby University of Toronto a few years later. He also showed an interest in film, his initial effort being an animated short titled A to Z. On top of that, he was a talented, self-taught musician with a fondness for jazz piano. He performed solo and also hooked up with some notable fellow artists and went on to release a number of albums.

He and his first wife, the artist Joyce Wieland, headed for New York in the early Sixties, spending about a decade there. Snow devoted much of his time there to his iconic Walking Woman paintings, drawings and sculptures, which turned heads when shown at the Ontario pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. Snow’s move toward photography and film-making in the late 1960s felt somehow inevitable. As he told his biographer James King, who also curated his last major show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2020, “I had no choice. I had to do it.”

Snow was asked to create a piece for the atrium of the Toronto Eaton Centre shortly after its opening in 1977. He was struck by the amount of “air space” available. “I thought I should do something in the air,” he later related. “What goes in the air? Birds.” The piece he made, Flight Stop, is made up of some 60 soaring Canada Geese. But Snow soured on it when staff tied red ribbons around the necks of the geese during the Christmas season in 1981, which was likened to “putting a wristwatch on Michelangelo’s David“. Snow subsequently sued the Eaton Centre for distorting his work and won his case.

Snow was among those commissioned to create art for Toronto’s Rogers Centre (previously known as SkyDome), a multi-use sports facility, in 1989. He came up with The Audience, a sizeable, gold-painted sculpture depicting some 14 frenzied baseball fans that fronts the northeast end of the stadium, impossible to miss as you approach the centre from the city’s downtown core. Though the sculpture received some criticism, Snow was undeterred. “It’s something I’m quite proud of,” he said recently. “Each of the figures is making a gesture, either for or against.”

A lesser-known side of Snow was touched on by long-time Toronto Star art writer Chris Hume, who said, “The one thing about Snow that people don’t realise was his sense of humour. He always seemed playful and slyly subversive. He was clever, but it was humour that kept his work from dreariness.”

Snow represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1970, the first Canadian to be given a solo show, and his work can be seen world-wide in private and public collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Germany’s Museum Ludwig, Cologne, the National Gallery of Canada and Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.

Michael James Aleck Snow, born Toronto 10 December 1928; married 1956 Joyce Wieland (marriage dissolved 1976; died 1998), 1990 Peggy Gale (one son); died Toronto 5 January 2023.

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