Michael Snow, an experimental filmmaker and artist whose formally audacious work tests its viewers’ perception of time and space, has died at 94. A representative for New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents Snow, confirmed his death.
Snow’s art broaches heady questions about whether photographs and films truly capture what passes before a camera. Puns abound, and a slithery sense of humor can be found beneath his art’s austere surfaces.
For this reason, critic Manny Farber called Snow “a brainy inventor who is already a seminal figure and growing more influential by the day” in 1970. “Incapable of a callow, clumsy, schmaltzy move, he’s a real curiosity, but mostly for the forthright, decent brainpower that keeps these films on a perfect abstract path, almost always away from preciosity,” Farber wrote.
Snow’s works have appeared just as as widely within arthouse theaters as they have within museums and commercial galleries.
Between 1966 and 1967, Snow had created what is now his most famous work, Wavelength. It’s today considered one of the most important experimental films of all time, and it once even outranked narrative movies like Suspiria, Star Wars, and Blade Runner on a Village Voice list of the 100 greatest films of all time.
For much of its 45-minute runtime, Wavelength consists of little more than an office that includes a prominently placed yellow chair. Its footage, lensed via what appears to be one largely continuous take, was shot on different film stocks, lending the work a handmade quality; its pacing is slow and meditative. As the film goes on, its camera zooms ever closer to a wall that has a photograph of the ocean hanging on it. The sound of a sine wave is heard throughout.
The effect of viewing Wavelength can be difficult to describe. Some have compared it to an attempt to communicate with the occult, given that we feel as though we’re meant to see something that isn’t actually visible. Others have admired it as a landmark of structuralist filmmaking, which seeks to distill cinema to its most basic qualities, often with an eye to the medium’s materiality. The critic J. Hoberman once called the film “an unrepeatable masterpiece.”
In the ensuing five decades, Snow, whose career took him from Canada to New York, would translate his experiments across multiple mediums. “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,” he once said.
Photography was often at the center of all these different bodies of work, and when he had his first U.S. museum retrospective, in 2014, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition was appropriately titled “Photo-Centric.”
Some of his photographic works attempted to mull how we see by creating voyeuristic situations. Crouch, Leap, Land (1970), a grouping of three plates that show a nude woman enacting the three titular verbs, are hang down over the floor, so that the viewer must look up from beneath and adopt the camera’s perspective. Paris de judgement Le and/or State of the Arts (2003) is an image of three naked women, who are seen from behind and posed before a reproduction of a famed Paul Cézanne painting of bathers. As they look on at this Post-Impressionist masterpiece, we gaze at them viewing the piece.
Other photographic works took on sculptural qualities, imploding any boundaries between the two mediums, as was the case in 1983’s Handed to Eyes, a hand-tinted picture of blobs of clay.
In interviews, Snow drily said of his multimedia experimentation, “I have ideas, and the wish to attempt something; I muse about it, sometimes for a long time, and then finally ‘attempt’ it.”
Michael Snow was born in Toronto in 1928. He attended the Ontario College of Art and initially started out in the world of advertising design. Dissatisfied with his job, he went hitchhiking in Europe and then embarked on a career as a professional musician. He played in jazz clubs in Canada at night; during the day, he created paintings in his studio.
In 1961, he and his wife, the artist Joyce Wieland, moved to New York. Early on, he showed with Poindexter Gallery, the same space that also represented abstractionist painters like Jules Olitski and Willem de Kooning. But it was his ties to the New York film world that ultimately brought him fame.
Under the aegis of Jonas Mekas, Snow was able to screen his works for crowds that included artist Nam June Paik and filmmaker Shirley Clarke. It wasn’t until he screened Wavelength at a festival in Belgium and won the grand prize for it that he realized the following his work had gained.
Within Canada, Snow was considered one of the most important artists in recent history, with solo shows staged over the course of his career at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. He was picked to do the 1970 Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Yet his art has been prominently featured outside Canada too. It was included in Kynaston McShine’s 1969 show “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has been credited with helping to solidify the Conceptualist movement, and in the 1977 edition of Documenta in Kassel, Germany.
Wavelength is hardly the only film by Snow to receive acclaim. The three-hour La Région Centrale (1971) includes little more than 17 unbroken shots of the mountains in Canada. Lensed using a robotic arm, each shot crawls along slowly, but for many, the effect was riveting. In Artforum, John W. Locke wrote that La Région Centrale was as “radically different from other contemporary films as Eisenstein’s in the 1920s were.”
Not every critic was pleased with Snow’s films. *Corpus Callosum, a 2002 film about the digital world that focuses mainly on office workers, was given in a mixed review in the New York Times by Elvis Mitchell, who wrote, rather bluntly, that “the movie goes on and on, using repetition to comment on repetitive behavior.”
Snow seemed totally unfazed by the fact that his work may not have been to everyone’s taste.
In 2021, he told the Brooklyn Rail, “Now that I’m ‘iconic,’ audiences tend to stay respectfully through even my longest films, unlike the old days when some people lost patience after just a few minutes and exited abruptly, sometimes noisily.”