Entertainment

Michael Snow, Canadian artist on a ‘Wavelength’ of his own, dies at 94


Michael Snow, an audacious and prolific painter, sculptor, photographer, musician and filmmaker known for his 1967 film “Wavelength,” an avant-garde landmark comprising a slow, deceptively simple zoom across a New York City loft, died Jan. 5 at a hospital in Toronto. He was 94.

In a death notice published by the Toronto Globe and Mail, his family said that Mr. Snow died “after a brief respiratory infection.”

Mr. Snow made art that was both playful and cerebral, examining properties of light and color while often featuring pun-heavy titles and a sly, absurdist humor. He was widely considered one of Canada’s greatest artists, renowned for public installations such as “Flight Stop” (1979) — a flock of 60 fiberglass geese, all modeled after the same bird, hanging at the Eaton Centre in Toronto — and for films that influenced directors as varied as Atom Egoyan, Peter Greenaway and Wim Wenders.

His films were more likely to be screened at museums than multiplexes, and they left some viewers angry and bewildered, wondering whether Mr. Snow was trolling the art world with pieces that lacked a narrative and seemed to drag on for hours. To his admirers, however, he was one of cinema’s great avant-garde artists and a leader of the 1960s “structural” movement that also included filmmakers Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits.

While earlier experimental filmmakers used techniques like fast cutting and collage to flood the screen with images and ideas, the works of Mr. Snow and his fellow structuralists were more pared-down, mirroring the rise of minimalism in the work of artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Ryman. His films were rigorously formal, often composed of static shots or steady, continual camera movements, as in “Wavelength,” in which the film’s structure was its content as much as anything else.

Filmed over the course of a single week, “Wavelength” is set at a Lower Manhattan apartment, where the camera begins by looking across a mostly empty loft. Over the course of 45 minutes, it zooms in to a tight close-up of the opposite wall, revealing a photograph of the sea that fills the screen. Along the way, a few other things happen too: Movers bring in a cabinet, two friends listen to the Beatles, an unknown man collapses on the floor, and a woman in a fur coat makes a phone call. “Could you come over right away,” she says, “I think there’s been a murder.” An electronic sound also rises in pitch for much of the film, while the color changes unpredictably before fading to white.

Reviewing the film for Artforum, painter and film critic Manny Farber described “Wavelength” as “a pure, tough 45 minutes that may become the ‘Birth of a Nation’ in Underground films.” It was, he added, “probably the most rigorously composed movie in existence.”

Originally screened for a small gathering organized by critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, “Wavelength” gained a larger following after it won the grand prize at the 1968 International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium. In 2001, it was ranked No. 85 in a Village Voice critics’ poll of the best films of the 20th century.

Film critic David Sterritt, a scholar of avant-garde cinema, called “Wavelength” Mr. Snow’s “enduring masterpiece.” In a phone interview, he noted that while the film defied easy interpretation, it seemed to have a strong “spiritual dimension”: “It’s about this idea of transcending. The most dramatic thing that can happen in a human life happens — a person dies. But the camera continues on its way, on its appointed path, following its destiny without pausing, even though this monumental event has taken place.”

Mr. Snow experimented further in films such as “<—>,” also known as “Back and Forth” (1969), in which he continually panned across the outside and then the inside of a building, taking viewers inside a college classroom as figures occasionally crept into view. For “La Région Centrale” (1971), he used a mechanized camera with preprogrammed movements to make a three-hour ode to the remote mountains of northern Quebec.

“I make up the rules of a game, then I attempt to play it,” he once said, describing his artistic process. “If I seem to be losing, I change the rules.”

Some of his works were more free-spirited, like a four-hour 1974 film that the Harvard Film Archive likened to “the remake of a Jacques Tati film scripted by Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Its full title: “Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen.” In 2002, he directed “Corpus Callosum,” a surreal, partly animated film named for a region of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

Mr. Snow said he chose the title because the film explored and represented “betweens,” including the space between illusion and reality. It was an idea that had resonated for him for decades, as he made musical films, sculptural photo installations and painterly sculptures that occupied an artistic in-between, straddling various media. His own artistic identity, he said, was that of someone who was constantly moving between art forms.

“I am not a professional,” he wrote in a 1967 catalogue essay for a group show in Saskatchewan. “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.”

Michael James Aleck Snow was born in Toronto on Dec. 10, 1928. He became fascinated with art as a boy, when he was introduced to the work of Pablo Picasso by a Life magazine article, and studied painting and sculpture at the Ontario College of Art, now known as OCAD University.

Mr. Snow later worked for an advertising agency, hitchhiked across Europe and performed in jazz bands, playing piano and trumpet by night and painting by day. He ventured into filmmaking in the mid-1950s, after director George Dunning, who later made the animated Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine,” saw some of his paintings and invited Mr. Snow to join his Toronto production company.

While working at the firm he met artist Joyce Wieland, whom he married in 1956. They moved to Lower Manhattan in the early 1960s, making their home in converted industrial spaces and mixing with a group of New York artists that included sculptor Richard Serra, filmmaker Shirley Clarke and composer Steve Reich.

By then, Mr. Snow was focused on his “Walking Woman” series, a multimedia project that incorporated the silhouette of a female figure. He was also delving into photography: In 1969, he made a photo installation called “Authorization,” for which he took Polaroids of himself standing in front of a framed mirror, then pasted each photo in a corner of the mirror as he continued to shoot. Eventually the pictures obscured his own reflection.

“Mr. Snow’s approach to photography is both heady and physical, a rare combination,” wrote art critic Karen Rosenberg, reviewing a 2014 survey of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “For every work that needs to be teased out in the brain or eye or both, like the light-distorted grid of ‘Glares,’ there’s one that requires some action.” His 1970 installation “Crouch, Leap, Land,” for instance, requires visitors to squat down low to see three photos of a leaping nude woman.

Mr. Snow returned to Toronto in 1971, and he and Wieland separated by the end of the decade. He later married Peggy Gale, a writer and curator. She survives him, as does their son, Alexander Snow, and a sister.

Mr. Snow was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1981, and was promoted to companion in 2007. He found that the acclaim helped keep viewers in their seats, telling the magazine Brooklyn Rail last year, “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.”

Still, he found himself adapting to an age of shortened attention spans. Revisiting “Wavelength” in 2003, he released a reimagined version that lasted only 15 minutes, instead of 45. Fittingly, he titled the piece, “WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time).”

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