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Michael Snow, Prolific and Playful Artistic Polymath, Is Dead at 94


Michael Snow, a Canadian painter, jazz pianist, photographer, sculptor and filmmaker best known for “Wavelength” — a humble, relentless, roughly continuous zoom shot that traverses a Lower Manhattan loft right into a photograph pasted on its far wall — died on Thursday in Toronto. He was 94.

His wife, Peggy Gale, said the cause was pneumonia.

“Wavelength” (1967), hailed by the critic Manny Farber in Artforum magazine in 1969 as “a pure, tough 45 minutes that will turn out to be the ‘Birth of a Nation’ in Underground film,” provided Twentieth-century cinema with a visceral metaphor for itself as temporal projection. If it also saddled Mr. Snow with the burden of an unrepeatable masterpiece, it was a burden he bore calmly.

Mr. Snow was a prolific and playful artist, in addition to a polymath of extraordinary versatility. “I’m not an expert,” he declared in an announcement written for a bunch show catalog in 1967. “My paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, movies by a painter, music by a filmmaker, paintings by a sculptor, sculpture by a filmmaker, movies by a musician, music by a sculptor.” And, he added, “Sometimes all of them work together.”

Whatever his medium, he appeared to be always rethinking its parameters. “A Casing Shelved” (1970) is a movie fashioned from a single projected 35-millimeter photographic slide showing a bookcase in his studio and a 45-minute tape recording of Mr. Snow describing the case’s contents.

Within the 16-millimeter film “So Is This” (1982), which consists entirely of text, each shot shows a single word as tightly framed white letters against a black background. One other film, “Seated Figures” (1988), is a 40-minute consideration of landscape from the angle of an exhaust pipe; to make that film, Mr. Snow attached the camera to the carriage of a moving vehicle.

He began his film profession with animation and capped it with the digitally produced feature “*Corpus Callosum” (2001), a cartoonish succession of wacky sight gags, outlandish color schemes and corny visual puns rendering space as malleable as taffy. Because he was waiting for technology to catch up together with his vision, the film took 20 years to appreciate.

Mr. Snow’s work was often based on the paradox of two-dimensional representation and sometimes demanded a physical or psychological shift within the viewer’s position. “Crouch, Leap, Land” (1970) requires the viewer to scrunch down beneath three suspended Perspex plates.

“Mr. Snow’s approach to photography is each heady and physical, a rare combination,” Karen Rosenberg wrote in The Latest York Times in a 2014 review of a retrospective dedicated to his photography on the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The show makes you wonder, though, why Mr. Snow’s photography isn’t as well often called his movies.”

The explanation could also be that his best-known film was a real cause célèbre — probably the most outrageous American avant-garde film after Jack Smith’s quite different “Flaming Creatures” (1963). Laurence Kardish, a former film curator on the Museum of Modern Art in Latest York, said a screening of “Wavelength” in March 1969 was disrupted by “shouts and counter shouts and walkouts.” Many attendees of MoMA’s screening, a part of its often experimental Cineprobe series, were “lost,” Mr. Kardish recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2016, although he said he believed Mr. Snow “enjoyed the brouhaha.”

In an interview in 1971 with the Canadian film magazine Take Out, Mr. Snow recalled that the primary screenings of an earlier film, “Latest York Eye and Ear Control” (1964) — which combined a cacophonous free-jazz soundtrack with a classically constructed non-narrative montage — caused disturbances each in Latest York and in Toronto, where “anyone wrote a review with a headline saying ‘300 Flee Far Out Film.’”

Take One quoted that headline on its cover. Inside, the filmmaker and author Jonas Mekas described a recent screening of “Wavelength” on the Anthology Film Archives in Latest York:

“There have been fist fights within the auditorium and no less than two members of the audience were seen with handkerchiefs on their faces, all bloody, and someone stood up within the auditorium and shouted, loud and indignant: ‘I do know what art is! I studied art in Italy! This can be a fraud! I’ll get Mayor Lindsay to shut this place.’”

Mr. Snow’s sequel to “Wavelength” was a movie titled with a double arrow through which, for 52 minutes, the camera — positioned in a nondescript classroom — pans forwards and backwards and sometimes tilts up and right down to create what is perhaps called a perpetual movie.

Michael James Aleck Snow was born in Toronto on Dec. 10, 1928, the son of Gerald Bradley Snow, a civil engineer, and Marie-Antoinette Françoise Carmen (Lévesque) Snow. The family was distinguished. One in all Mr. Snow’s paternal great-grandfathers, James Beaty, had been mayor of Toronto and a member of Canada’s Parliament within the late nineteenth century; more recently, his maternal grandfather, Elzear Lévesque, had served because the mayor of Chicoutimi, Quebec, about 125 miles north of Quebec City.

Mr. Snow attended Upper Canada College and the Ontario College of Art, from which he graduated in 1952. He made his first film, the animated short “A to Z,” in 1956 (an excerpt from it was included in “*Corpus Callosum”) and had his first solo exhibition soon after. In 1961, he introduced a stylized, curvaceous silhouette, which he called the Walking Woman, that will be his trademark for much of the Nineteen Sixties.

The silhouette was featured in paintings, sculptures and pictures, in addition to in “Latest York Eye and Ear Control.” — a movie notable for its improvised soundtrack by the saxophonist Albert Ayler, the trumpeter Don Cherry, the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Sunny Murray. (Mr. Snow never played formally with these musicians, but he did have a combo, constantly called CCMC despite its shifting personnel, with whom he cut several albums and usually performed in Toronto.)

The Walking Woman project continued after Mr. Snow and his wife, the artist Joyce Wieland, moved to Latest York City in 1963 and have become a part of a bunch of avant-garde artists that included the composer Steve Reich, the sculptor Richard Serra, the playwright Richard Foreman and the filmmakers Hollis Frampton and Ken Jacobs, in addition to the critic Annette Michelson and quite a lot of jazz musicians, amongst them the pianist Cecil Taylor.

Increasingly concerned with Canadian material, Mr. Snow and Ms. Wieland returned to Toronto within the early Nineteen Seventies. They divorced in 1990, and Ms. Wieland died in 1998. Mr. Snow married Ms. Gale, a curator and author, in 1990. Along with her, Mr. Snow, who lived in Toronto, is survived by their son, Alexander Snow, and a sister, Denyse Rynard.

Mr. Snow’s first Canadian feature was “La Région Centrale” (1971), which used a computer-programmed, motorized tripod that would rotate the camera 360 degrees in any direction to create a vertiginous three-hour landscape study; back in Canada, he continued to work in quite a lot of media and revived his music profession with the CCMC ensemble.

In 1979, Mr. Snow was commissioned to create an installation for the atrium of the Eaton Center, a recent multilevel mall in downtown Toronto. The piece, “Flight Stop,” consisted of 60 life-size Canada geese fashioned from fiberglass and suspended from the highest of the atrium, frozen in flight. When the Eaton Center festooned the birds with ribbons for the Christmas season, Mr. Snow enjoined it to remove the decorations on the grounds that his intentions had been compromised. The Ontario High Court of Justice affirmed his rights, and the Copyright Act of Canada was amended to guard the integrity of an artist’s work.

“Flight Stop” became something of a municipal landmark. So did Mr. Snow himself, who went on to create more public artworks in Toronto. In 1994, a consortium of Toronto arts institutions celebrated his work with multiple gallery exhibitions and a whole film retrospective, in addition to live shows, symposiums and the publication of 4 books, each dedicated to a selected aspect of his oeuvre.

Nothing even remotely comparable was ever attempted in Latest York, his temporary adopted hometown, although Mr. Snow’s impact on Latest York’s avant-garde was considerable.

“One in all little greater than a dozen living inventors of film art is Michael Snow,” Mr. Frampton, his fellow filmmaker, wrote in 1971. “His work has already modified our perception of past film. Seen or unseen, it is going to affect the making and understanding of film in the long run.

“That is an astonishing situation. It’s like knowing the name and address of the person who carved the Sphinx.”

Maia Coleman contributed reporting.

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