Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015. The book was published by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in December 2017 to mark their 50th anniversary. It is now available for order from the CFMDC. Copies are available to reviewers upon request. Below is an excerpt that introduces Michael Snow, from his emergence as a painter to his first film, New York Eye and Ear Control.
MICHAEL SNOW: SIGNS AND SILHOUETTES
Michael Snow was born in Toronto in 1928, the son of an Anglophone father, a civil engineer and surveyor, and a Francophone mother who loved languages and music. Raised between English- and French-Canadian societies, Snow’s dual heritage formed the bulk of his cultural experience, and was complemented by a fascination with the senses. His father’s partial and later total blindness, arising from a workplace accident, stimulated Snow’s interest in vision, and his mother’s attraction to language would similarly guide his passion for sound and music. In Snow’s own words, “the two most important things in my life were that my father went blind when I was 15, and that my mother loved music.”(1) In his youth, Snow took up painting, drawing, writing and music, but even then he did not cast rigid divides between these pursuits, allowing the activity of one to inform another. An interdisciplinary sensibility is evident in the early painting Jazz Band (1947), a bizarre and elastic depiction of a septet in which the environment, figures and instruments share a common plasmaticness.(2)
As the son of an affluent family, Snow attended the prestigious Upper Canada College and afterward pursued a formal art education at the Ontario College of Art (OCA). His studies there had emphasized design, but with a Bauhaus model of interdisciplinary foundations, by which the curriculum guided him toward painting and sculpture. Snow shared his paintings with his teacher, John Martin, who encouraged him to read the books of artists’ writings issuing in the Documents in Modern Art series, edited by Robert Motherwell and published by George Wittenborn. Through this, he came to study the work of Paul Klee, who would become a major influence on his development as an artist.(3) His most pronounced debts to Klee were in works such as his Wall Panel series (1951–52) and Still Life: Red Goblet (1952), in which geometric forms, distorted from perfection by pliable lines, are dissected, fitted together, in a style recalling Klee’s work in the Bauhaus period, for example, Red/Green Architecture (yellow/violet gradation) (1922). In Snow’s paintings from the mid–1950s, the application and density of paint, pronouncement of line, billowing of forms, evident in works such as Reclining Figure (1955), recall Klee’s mystical-abstractionist work of the 1910s; and the line, naïve figuration and frontal portraiture of Georgine (1954) and Colin Curd About to Play (1953), in which faces are rendered with features tilting across a round plane that comes to a pointed chin, have debts to Klee’s portraits and figuration, such as Senecio (1922), in which a human face is assembled out of gradating and bounded colour contrasts, the face subdivided by a series of curvilinear forms and ninety-degree angles.(4)
Shortly after completing his studies at OCA, Snow undertook travel throughout Europe, which exposed him to both the historical roots and modern vanguard in painting. This early immersion would inform his later decision to shift away from the business of graphic design and toward the calling of art. After his return to Toronto, Snow was hired by the firm Graphic Associates, an independent animation company founded by former NFB animators Jim McKay and George Dunning. His first Toronto show of drawings at Hart House in 1955 had impressed Dunning, who had brought him on board the fledgling company.(5) Graphic Associates would ultimately disband in 1957, but for the short time it was in operation, the company had a lively staff of artists such as Warren Collins, Graham Coughtry, Bob Cowan, and Snow’s future wife, peer and collaborator Joyce Wieland. At Graphic, Snow would make his first film, A to Z (1956). Snow described the film as a “cross-hatched animated fantasy about nocturnal furniture love. Two chairs fuck.” The film holds a tenuous relationship to his later films and art, coming as it does almost a full decade before his next finished film, but it does bear relation to his work in other media at the time, for instance, the pliable, elastic forms of the dinner set; the comedy of personified action, the furniture anthropomorphized into ecstasy; and the rhythm of those ecstatic motions, their punctuations, in continuity with visual music films, such as Norman McLaren’s contemporaneous Blinkity Blank (1955), which shared Snow’s rhythmic affinities for modern jazz, though little else. The choice of subject mirrors Snow’s contemporaneous painting Table and Chairs No. 1 (1956), in which the overlapping silhouettes of a table and two chairs make a stark, flat, black form against a red background, painted in visible strokes showing through to a black base. In its spatial execution, Table and Chairs No. 1 is unlike A to Z; in the latter, blue ink cross-hatching and depicted action gives the subjects a dimensionality that is absent in the former. The film also demonstrated Snow’s transgressive comic sensibility, descended from the absurd shocks of Dada, which would become an enduring mark of his style.
Snow’s involvement in improvised music began in his teenage years and by the late 1940s had developed into a vocation. From 1948 to 1950, Snow spent several weeks each summer in Chicago, serving as an informal pupil to the boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey and jamming with, among others, Cootie Williams, Buck Clayton and Pee Wee Russell. Yancey would serve as a key influence on Snow’s aesthetic sensibilities in general, for his sense of vamps, motifs, and wild, mechanized action.(6) Years later, while at Graphic, Snow would divide his time, off the job, between painting, drawing and performing as a pianist in Toronto’s traditional jazz ensembles such as Ken Dean’s Hot Seven and later, after Graphic dissolved, the Mike White Imperial Jazz Band. But Graphic also provided Snow with an early exposure to film, a medium that would become increasingly central to his work through the 1960s. In addition to A to Z, Snow made a number of short films in collaboration with Graphic coworkers Joyce Wieland, Graham Coughtry, Warren Collins and others: Tea in the Afternoon, A Salt in the Park, Assault on Grenville Street and Hamlet.(7)
In September 1956, Snow and Wieland married in a small civil ceremony at Toronto City Hall.(8) In coming years, the couple would at times exhibit their work together in two-person shows, both channeling Dada in their approaches to painting and collage, their work ultimately diverging as their styles became more determinedly individual. When in subsequent years Snow would develop statements about his activity as a painter, his ideas were pitched between radical aesthetic gesture and a deep knowledge of commercial design, both under the influence of Dada and situated in an awareness of the implications of insignia and signature. In Snow’s thought, formal radicalism and commercial branding could correspond; in the late 1950s, his painting was becoming increasingly radical, while his ‘day job’ kept his attention on commercial design. As the films of Graphic’s staff demonstrate, this workplace was another venue for joyous expression. As Snow had found peers and companions at Graphic and was fostering some of his experience in the practical manifestations of commercial art, he maintained a serious commitment to his work as a painter, and was building his reputation in the Toronto art scene. To that end, he joined the original group of artists represented by the Isaacs Gallery in 1956.
Av Isaacs had grown up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the heartland of Canadian red politics. It was perhaps that exposure to class and labour politics that had led him to study Political Science and Economics at University of Toronto. Isaacs began a framing and art supply business in 1950, and soon his shop would become a commercial gallery specializing in modern art. He proved to be a champion of new and difficult forms as he gathered his first stable of artists—Snow, Graham Coughtry, William Ronald, Gerald Scott and Robert Varvarande—later expanded to include Wieland, Chambers, Robert Markle, Gordon Rayner and Tony Urquhart, among others. Isaacs’ role went beyond sales and representation, as his gallery became a focal point in the local and national modern art communities, hosting poetry readings, concerts and groundbreaking shows.(9) Between the Isaacs Gallery, its neighbor the Cameron Gallery, and the Librairie Française, the Gerrard Street Village bookstore of Dada scholar Michel Sanouillet, a generation of Toronto artists would receive an informal education in the styles of late modernism and would build platforms for their own radical practices.(10) Michel Sanouillet would serve as a central guide to the Dada movement and a champion of its resurgence among painters in New York, Paris and Toronto. A leading expert on the original Dada movement of 1916 to 1924 and a friend to Marcel Duchamp, Sanouillet had published the first collection of Duchamp’s writings in 1959, Marchand du sel (Paris: Le Terrain Vague), and had, through his years in Toronto, engaged young artists in that movement, many of them members of the roster of the Isaacs Gallery, their own work already emerging from a mix of the comic, lively, dissatisfied and uncertain vicissitudes of modern life in a mode of perceptual challenge and distress.
With the closure of Graphic Associates in 1957, Snow focused on his painting full time. Both he and Wieland had begun to move in the direction of Neo-Dada. Snow’s work no longer bore an obvious debt to Klee. It became increasingly abstract, still painterly but rough-hewn, using cardboard and plywood in lieu of canvas. He began to make sculptural works such as Colour Booth (1959), a standing corner, narrow, ninety-degrees at its base, dark blue with yellow bands painted vertically from its midpoint up, recalling the zips of Barnett Newman’s zip paintings. In 1959, Snow’s use of geometric forms and space showed the influence of abstract expressionists such as Newman and Robert Motherwell, with firm geometry, often in the form of paper collage, serving as fixed forms under spontaneous brushstrokes. Snow’s work dealt increasingly in the relation between paint and other materials, integrating paper collage and adhesive tape. In Snow’s painting Two (1960), linear form, present in the impression of a rectangle, is revealed by a loose application of paint, strokes moving outward from the rectangular stencil, forming an oblong circle. The Klee influence remained, but the work that Snow would develop through 1960 would emphasize the demarcation of the frame, a self-consciousness of painterly activity and obscure programme, evident in Green in Green, Years and Lac Clair (all 1960).
Of these works, Lac Clair was a breakthrough achievement, a dense, pale blue painting composed in pronounced brushstrokes, flowing on a slight curve. There is no other guide to its orientation within the image, as adhesive tape runs in a repeating pattern from each corner, demarcating the frame and placed in such a way as to give the work a rigid symmetry.(11) At the same time that his painting became abstract, Snow was honing his relation to realism and the photograph. This is most evident in Drawn Out (1959), a work of twenty-two charcoal-on-paper drawings, based on a diptych photograph of a murderer and his victim taken from an old newspaper. Twenty-one of these illustrations are portraits of the murderer Alan James Grierson, each one marked by absences, partially filled silhouettes, including and excluding features such as his nose, eyes and mouth. Each illustration was in a markedly different style. In the first image, Grierson is rendered by the conventional expectations of realism, his visage resembling the source photograph, and likewise, in the final image, his victim Molly Brown is rendered realistically. She is never subject to these variations that turn the photograph into a series of changing impressions, reassembling Grierson’s face in pieces to mirror his compromised humanity. This is not mere gradation through the features of Grierson but a catalogue of recognizable styles of art and portraiture. They bear marks of primitive and naïve movements, of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada, one in cross-hatching, another in a style that recalls bas-relief. Some bear the boundaries of the frame while others allow the face to dissipate into the paper. These variations recall Pablo Picasso’s 1957 suite of variations on Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Even by its grave nature, the work took on the form of play, punning on Grierson’s face, but also bearing an earnest rumination on photographic accuracy and truth.
From December 20, 1961 to January 9, 1962, the artist Richard Gorman held a show of local manifestations of Neo-Dada at the Isaacs Gallery, featuring work by Gorman, Snow, Wieland, Curnoe, Rayner, Dennis Burton and Arthur Coughtry (Graham Coughtry’s brother).(12) This would prove one of the rare group shows to announce the presence of a Canadian Neo-Dada. Michel Sanouillet wrote that this show indicated “a healthy reaction against a lethal form of stuffy conservatism which has pervaded most of this country’s artistic circles.”(13) While Neo-Dada thought and expression is inextricable from Snow at all stages of his art from 1957 onward, and the legacy of Dada informs so much of his aesthetic philosophy, by the winter of 1961, his work had already begun to depart from the dominant aesthetics of that movement. He would confront realism and representation, adopting an inclusive attitude toward form and content, and that inclusiveness would become a dominant characteristic in his mature work.(14)
Snow wrote poems and texts sparingly, but one early text, “Title or Heading” (1961), served as a free form statement of his ideas about art that included aphorisms, descriptive expressions and lists of influences from Gustave Flaubert to Art Blakey. It was an inventory, a mode of speech, rife with enclosures and allusions, a declaration of art as “Difficult Entertainment,” and it began with a statement of Snow’s process that would declare the most enduring and difficult character of his work: “I make up the rules of a game, then I attempt to play it. / If I seem to be losing I change the rules.”(15) These ideas of difficult entertainment and the flexible game would achieve most vivid application as Snow began, in subsequent years, to develop films and happenings, work that could play out in time and that would take as the variables of its games perspectival enigmas, clarity of forms and visual and verbal puns. Snow’s relation to punning, mass culture and modal tension (between artwork, perception and context) would evolve his work further, away from painterly abstraction and toward the reproducible gesture of postmodernity, toward the self-conscious manufacture and repetition of the icon.
In late 1960, Michael Snow developed what would become the enduring sign of his work through the 1960s, a cardboard figure in the shape of a woman mid-stride. He would later write that this resulted after several years of “worrying about where the figure is or could be or would be.”(16) The Walking Woman, as he would call it, was first cut from cardboard, creating a positive-negative stencil that Snow would use to initially reproduce the work, and as a model for later stencil reproductions of varying scale. The figure’s contours would remain fixed, or else, elasticized in a consistent way, but it was cast on many surfaces, on paper, wood, canvas, cardboard, even a car door; and in many media, including acrylic, enamel, ink, spray and oil paints. It was a symbol synonymous with Snow and yet anonymous, an icon of marketing, manufacturing, commercial culture, and was itself aware of these traits, assuming a semi-ironic presence within that culture.(17) It was also an expression of pure form, a stylized silhouette that could be repurposed, a mark of continuity in varied styles and environments, to exhaustion. Snow would cast it unsigned on lampposts, subways, buildings, and it became his signature, or as he would pun, his “trademark.” This lost art, like much of the Walking Woman work, was rooted in the Dada gesture, continuing from the found objects that Marcel Duchamp had exhibited in New York forty-five years earlier. The Walking Woman would serve as witness to and central object in a continuous evolution in Snow’s art from 1961 until 1967. The presence of the figure allowed Snow to challenge any expectations an audience might bring to his work as regards realism, figuration and classical perspective. For example, in the distortion of Touched Woman (1961), in which the figure is fragmented by paper folds; Forty Drawings (1961), one of several works in which repetitions of the figure reveal anamorphic distortions and variations, following in the line of Drawn Out; the painting 61-62 (1962), in which a pair of Walking Woman forms are then filled by colour differentiations that divide the figure into an abstract composition, departing from the figurative dimension and returning to Snow’s Klee influence; the figure is slowly realized in the seven-panel sequence of Clothed Woman (In Memory of My Father) (1963); another sequential work of the same year, Olympia (1963), renders the figure in positive and negative stencil, in photographic detail and in styles recalling Pop or the Neo-Classical. By the time that Snow made Five Girl-Panels (1964), in which the Walking Woman is repeated on five canvases, distorted as through a funhouse mirror, by width and height and angle, the figure had been realized in painting, sculpture and as ‘lost art’, as Snow called it, in environmental stenciling throughout Toronto and New York City. Much as Jack Chambers had come to see the figure as “an object into which you unload experience,” with the Walking Woman, Snow had conceived of an icon that could serve as the prison-house of art, a series of lines that were simultaneously limiting and freeing, and a path toward a greater understanding of the relation between form and content, and between realism and abstraction. The silhouette could suggest realism and yet, as pure form, resist it.(18)
At the same time that Snow’s work was moving in the direction of the Walking Woman, Snow and Wieland were planning a move to New York City. Snow would later tell Joe Medjuck that his reason for going had been “to get out of me what I hoped was there.”(19) He believed that the energy of New York would draw out all dormant abilities, that it would make new things possible, an intention that mirrored the role of the Walking Woman, which was essentially an organizing principle for formal radicalism that challenged Snow to work around the parameters of the icon, and in doing so, to draw out from him and refine a total vocabulary of form.(20) Snow would later describe New York as “a sampling of everything good and bad everywhere,” and there, Snow and Wieland received greater exposure to contemporary movements.(21) They would befriend others who, like them, had come under the influence of Dada and Surrealism and were wrestling with the experience of making radical art and poetry, chiefly, Jonas Mekas, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and Paul and Jo Haines, among others.(22) Soon after arriving, Snow would begin to work in film again, with Walking Woman in New York, a project first discussed in winter 1962 as a collaboration with filmmaker Ben Park and TV presenter Hugh Downs. Not many details are known of the film’s content, but Marcel Duchamp, to whom Snow and Wieland were introduced by Michel Sanouillet, was to appear on camera. Walking Woman in New York was conceived for television and art house theatres, and it was to be a non-narrative film in which the Walking Woman icon was sighted around New York. Asked at the time why he wanted to get into films, Snow replied, “I don’t. It’s just another way of using the walking woman.”(23) Although the film would never be completed, the idea of making a film that would serve as a vehicle for the Walking Woman stayed with Snow, and the process of working with film became more appealing.
Much as the Walking Woman was inspiring Snow to carry on his painting in the mode of Difficult Entertainment, it, and the influence of his and Wieland’s New York social circle, was also drawing him toward underground cinema. In New York, Snow and Wieland had been exposed, via their friend and former Graphic Associates coworker Bob Cowan, to the work of George and Mike Kuchar, twin brothers whose underground films such as The Pervert (1963) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) parodied melodrama and established the camp aesthetic. They were also exposed to the films of Jack Smith, specifically Flaming Creatures (1963), an explicitly gay work, equal parts shocking, repellent and joyous, which was immediately seized by the police on charges of obscenity. These charges hit close to home as Snow and Wieland’s friends were directly involved in this work, as exhibitors, distributors, allies and collaborators with Smith. At a screening the following year, police seized the film again, and arrested Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekas for exhibiting it. Some strata of New York society were just as threatened by modern art as stuffy, conservative Toronto where, within a year, gallery owner Dorothy Cameron would be arrested for exhibiting Robert Markle’s nude drawings. Against this climate of censorship and suppression, the films of Smith and the Kuchars represented freedom, and what is more, these films had made filmmaking seem a possible and worthwhile activity.(24) The film community in New York City, and in particular this lively group of personal and satirical underground filmmakers, revealed to Snow that cinema still had diverse artistic application, and that like painting and sculpture, it held unmapped territory for him to explore.
In 1964, Snow was commissioned by Ten Centuries Concerts in Toronto to make a film. That film, New York Eye and Ear Control, would act as a prelude to the aesthetic concerns that would dominate his filmmaking through the remainder of the 1960s. It would signal a coming change in his work, a shift away from the iconographic activities that he had pursued around the Walking Woman, and yet it would also be an essential part of the Walking Woman series. The earlier film project with Ben Park, Walking Woman in New York, had collapsed. By Snow’s account, this was because the enthusiasm with which Park had initially approached the project had waned. Park’s original ambition was to make an artistic film that would be palatable to a television audience. New York Eye and Ear Control, the film that Snow would make with some of the same ideas, had elements of material self-consciousness uncommon even in avant-garde film at the time, elements that remain incompatible with the mass audience. Snow wrote of the collaboration with Park that it seemed “to concern itself with the poetry of the juxtaposition of the static and the dynamic, absence, presence, development of events for capture…” and New York Eye and Ear Control would be haunted by his icon accordingly, occupying compositions, sometimes announced, sometimes hidden.(25)
If Walking Woman in New York had been posed around the loose narrative structure of a day-in-the-life of the icon, that mission continued in New York Eye and Ear Control. The Walking Woman travels from rustic, natural settings, shorelines and woodlands, to the city, largely empty in early morning. The icon is insinuated into nature, on beaches and in forests, alternately stood upright and laid flat on the ground, obscured in trees, stood among rocks on the shore, and in one witty image, stood in water on the shoreline, walking on water. The figure is reversible, black on one side, white on the other, mirroring the black and white of the film stock. The camera rides through a forest wildly, trees becoming abstracted by motion and speed, their original form evident in silhouettes as sun breaks through them. The camera slows as it approaches the Walking Woman in the woods, then starts again. It ends up in New York City, entering over bridges. Trumpeter Don Cherry stands on a sidewalk as a car approaches and slows. He waves to the camera, gets into the car and departs. The title is photographed in fragments of awnings and signs, broken down into individual letters. Cherry arrives at his destination, exits the car and enters an apartment. The black Walking Woman is stood in front of a series of buildings in New York. In a long shot, light and smog overtake the image in a gauzy blur. Back on the beach, the white Walking Woman is stood against rocks on the shoreline. The Walking Woman becomes a graphic form when laid flat, but when stood, becomes both graphic form and a part of the landscape, blending with her surroundings. Sand and water wash over the Walking Woman, laid on the shoreline. The white Walking Woman is set on fire and burns against an otherwise black set, burns against a background of white light, until all that remains is her ashen impression. After its day out, the icon retires to a studio, where, now in the form of a cut-out silhouette, the icon is filled by real women.(26)
Snow would describe this work as an attempt to make a film in which sound and image had equal weighting, neither one subservient to the other. The sound component of the film is a group improvisation performed by Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), John Tchicai (alto saxophone), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Gary Peacock (bass) and Sonny Murray (drums). For this session, Ayler’s trio (Ayler, Peacock and Murray) was supplemented with Cherry, strongly affiliated with Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic quartets, and Tchicai and Rudd of the New York Art Quartet. Their faces also make up the penultimate sequence of the film. The band arrives in their recording space and each member is filmed in a frontal portrait. As the film ends, two figures, a black man and white woman, are seen having sex, embracing nude, in a bed with white sheets. The Walking Woman has entered reality in the literal representation of the woman. And yet, the notion and function of that icon, as a positive-negative suggestion of form, one side black, the other white, is also present in the interplay of black and white forms, in skin tone but also in illumination and shadow, in all aspects of this final episode. This final sequence is at once image and theme, graphic form and realist form.
New York Eye and Ear Control begins with a text by the poet Paul Haines; in Snow’s writings, he indicates the role of this text as an indicator of the flatness of the screen: “Start with Words. Words flat on screen which is Flat. Words don’t have much visual space unless you’re asked to see that.”(27) The text, therefore, not by its content but by its presence, announces the role of the screen as a flat plane. The viewer is confronted by this, but indirectly, without context and without instruction to connect this idea with the rest of the film. The film invariably casts the flat form of the Walking Woman into three-dimensional space, spaces occupied by the dramatic, shifting surfaces of nature (sand, rock, forest), and the flat planes of civilization (street signs, buildings). There is little editorial mediation in what follows, as one roll leads to another, with light-struck ends bridging the sequences. The aperture changes on the same compositions, indicating that each camera roll contains several exposures of the same shots. These strategies distress the conventional realist expectations of cinema, as the camera rolls play against the artifice of film editing, and bear the marks of their material base, process and construction. As a document of Snow’s artistic activity, in the context of activity with which he identified (the free jazz of this ensemble), New York Eye and Ear Control was profoundly difficult, alluding to his sources and his prior work, placing it in a context where parallels (between his Walking Woman activity and free jazz) were not comprehensible or immediate, and in disorienting sequence, the relation between one episode and another forged by physical editing alone and not by logical, causal transition. Snow could build perceptual puzzles in film, and extend to cinema the most difficult ends of his art, the work developing around puns, disjointed sequence and self-referentiality. The film was perceptually distressing, dense, fortified against ready interpretation, and yet, it remained as vibrant and witty as his work in other media.
When New York Eye and Ear Control premiered at Ten Centuries’ season finale in April 1965 at the Edward Johnson Building, home to University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, it inspired a massive walkout from angry, confused patrons. A local newspaper headline read, “300 flee from far-out film.”(28) The premiere in New York inspired similar hostility, with the audience throwing popcorn at the screen. Gerard Malanga, despite his enthusiasm for the film, charged that it could not have been made when Michael Snow said it was made because of its formal correspondences to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests series (1964–1966). While this correspondence could be taken as derivation or dismissed as coincidence, it might best be regarded as a sign of the common disposition of Snow and Warhol toward structural transparency and choice of subject, that both were essentially devoted to the repetition of the icon, but to different ends: Warhol to the emptiness of experience, Snow to the richness of forms. In a statement that Snow wrote about the film, “Around about New York Eye and Ear Control,” it is clear that he did not see his method, what P. Adams Sitney would later name structural film, as clinical. Snow connects New York Eye and Ear Control, in the abstract, to the authority of experience (“James Joyce could legally pun because he had the Background […] Who has the foreground?”); to ecstatic experience, in a long digression dealing with emotional response to art; to the Difficult Entertainment of jazz and its ascension toward freer forms; and to the classical idea of art and its aspiration toward scientific declarations of form. This connection is stated but not directed to any evidence of the film itself. It is only an impression that forms around the film. The statement reveals that the primary concern of the work is not the image as an isolated thing, or as a thing put into conversation with sound, but as the contemporary end of several lines of thinking, around race, art, authority, rhythm, presence, and the spatial and temporal relations between language, image, representation and real things.
Manny Farber, “The Arts: Farewell to a Lady,” Time (Canadian Edition), 24 January 1969, 17.
In much of the work that immediately followed, Snow used jazz, as improvisation and liberation, as a subject or to inform structure. Later, his work would involve free jazz musicians such as Albert Ayler and Roswell Rudd, and he would be a founding member of the improvisatory Canadian Creative Music Collective, or CCMC.
Joe Medjuck, “The Life & Times of Michael Snow,” Take One 3, no. 3 (January-February 1971, published April 1972), 7.
These debts would carry on in Snow’s other figurative paintings in this period, such as On the Hero Myth (1955) and Young Girl (1955).
In a show of Canada’s puritan, anti-modern sensitivities, Nathan Phillips, then-Mayor of Toronto, demanded that those same drawings be removed, deeming them “offensive.” This incident is elaborated in David Kilgour, A Strange Elation: Hart House, the First Eighty Years (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 57.
Michael Snow, “Michael Snow Musics for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder, 1975,” in Louise Dompierre (Ed.) The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 175.
The dates on these films are a matter of some speculation. An illuminating account is provided in Iris Nowell’s Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art (Erin, Ont.: Porcupine’s Quill, 2001), which describes their content and rightly positions Warren Collins as the instigator of these collaborations; however, Nowell’s dates for the production of the films and the closure of Graphic Associates are not reliable.
Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 103.
The Isaacs Gallery had a public program of artists’ films in February 1964. Participating artists included Snow, Wieland, Bob Cowan, Graham Coughtry, Louis de Niverville, Arthur Lipsett, Al Sens, George Gingras, Carlos Machiori and George Dunning, a mix of artists working in late modern idioms and career filmmakers working within the institutional mechanisms of the National Film Board and the CBC. Where Wieland, Snow and Coughtry represented the former, Machiori, Sens, Dunning and Lipsett represented the latter, with figures like underground filmmaker Cowan falling somewhere in between.
This community originated in the Gerrard Street Village which had developed in the mid-1950s, a Toronto cousin of New York’s Greenwich Village, which would stand as the centre of the city’s avant-garde jazz, art and poetry movements through to the late 1950s when an expansion of Toronto General Hospital annexed the village. Isaacs started his first gallery here in 1955 as the Greenwich Gallery. For further discussion, see Stuart Robert Henderson, Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 33.
It is also worth noting another relation between Lac Clair and one trait found in allusive abstractionist painting: the title is programmatic, suggesting a subject. Many of Snow’s other titles of the period had not been so much suggestive as indicative of formal construction (for example, Blue and Purple Drawing, Painting Un-Foldage, Between, Title). By 1960, programme in the form of allusive titling had clarified the relation of Snow’s painting to exterior experience, for instance, showing debts to jazz, with Green in Green (1960), an abstract description of colour relation within the work but also an allusion to Bill Evans’s composition “Blue in Green” from Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959); and Snow’s Blue Monk, its title taken from a Thelonious Monk composition first recorded for the album Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige, 1954). Snow’s allusions did not begin and end with jazz; consider the literary debt of Notes from the Underground (1959) to Dostoyevsky, or the historical debts of Petrograd 1917 (1958), an allusion to the February Revolution.
Donnalu Wigmore, Isaacs Seen (Toronto: University of Toronto Hart House, 2005), 158.
Michel Sanouillet, “The Sign of Dada,” Canadian Art 78 (March/April 1962), 111.
The notion that Snow’s work is inclusive of various forms comes first from Snow himself, in “A Lot of Near Mrs.”, in which he writes: “My work is inclusive not exclusive, puppetry, choreography. I’m not so interested in making a lot of paintings, sculpture etc. as finding out what happens when you do such and such a thing” (18); but to speak of this as an inclusive aesthetic that simultaneously endorses realism and abstraction comes from R. Bruce Elder’s writings on New York Eye and Ear Control in Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1989). Inclusivity is one of the central modal difficulties of Snow’s work, which arrives at a time when so much modern and postmodern art demands that artists and critics take sides between oppositional and ideologically exclusive manifestations of form and content.
Michael Snow, “Title or Heading,” (1961) reprinted in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 13.
Michael Snow, “A Lot of Near Mrs.” (1963) reprinted in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 19.
The complexity of the Walking Woman, as a sign caught between marketplace and aesthetic radicalism, and its ultimate implications, recalls Donald Kuspit’s discussion of Pop Art’s devotion to the empty signifier and to the ideology of capitalism, as well as the way in which Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns used repetitions of mass images, the celebrity portrait and the American flag respectively. The Walking Woman works parallel the Pop Art movement, and they are the next evolution in Snow’s art, in continuity with his Neo-Dada and abstractionist periods. They assume some similarity with both Warhol’s and Johns’ acts of repetition in ideology, or at least inasmuch as they resist the social commentary that might be assigned to them by critics and audiences who search for inherent comment, rather than form, within the works. Such works are a declaration, not that anything can be art, but that art need not have its meaning dictated by anything beyond its own values; that beyond its formal values, a work might contain thematic ambiguities that could not be resolved with any certainty in surrounding discourse. This is especially true of Walking Woman works of 1964, dealing explicitly in perspectival distortions, such as Hawaii and Five Girl-Panels.
In Snow’s period of transitioning between Toronto and New York, he began to write a statement to clarify aspects of the Walking Woman works that he felt were being misunderstood by audiences and critics. This statement, “A Lot of Near Mrs.”, continued the punning of “Title or Heading” but focused on matters of representation and meaning. It was more combative than “Title or Heading,” in that the earlier piece was posed to declare certain forms and sources, its own form of punning resonating with Snow’s painting, and announcing the comic sensibility of the Walking Woman works. With “A Lot of Near Mrs.” Snow was less concerned with playful declaration than with introducing critics and audiences to the potential meanings of a significant and focused body of recent work, to disabuse them of interpretations he believed to be incorrect or reductive, and to declare his movement across media. The resulting text offers expository statements, still often punning, that gave considerable insight into Snow’s use of the figure and his relation to real things. Perhaps the most definite statement in the text is this: “My subject is not women or a woman but the first cardboard cutout of W.W. I made.” This is an explication of his distinction between form and content, and of his rendering of the Walking Woman as icon rather than stand-in. Snow reveals, in his reflections on real things, a deep debt to Marcel Duchamp, for instance, in this statement that suggests a relation between Snow’s thinking on art and the “Unhappy Readymade” (1915): “Use time: outdoor exposure for one month: weather woman Jan. 1 to 31. Weather report. (...) in the process show the path of the model.” On the relation between abstraction, realism and subject, he writes, “An ‘abstract’ shape can be sexier than a representation of a (beautiful) breast but neither are sexier than a (beautiful) breast,” a claim that the purpose of art is not to supplant the experience of reality but to give rise to experience and sensation that is, in the resistance of realism, as distinct from real things as is realist representation itself.
Joe Medjuck, “The Life & Times of Michael Snow,” Take One 3, no. 3 (January-February 1971, published April 1972), 6.
In this context, the Walking Woman becomes the flexible game, a fixed form that is subject to acts of recontextualization, and that is encoded with process instructions, but despite those instructions and fluctuating contexts, the artist may spontaneously change the rules.
Kay Kritzwiser, “What’s So Special About New York? Ask an Artist.” Globe and Mail, 15 April 1967, 13.
The influence of Neo-Dada is common to Mekas and Jacobs, apparent in their sense of a living community and of the agency of art, to which end, of the two, Jacobs puts those ideas into practice with films such as Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) and Blonde Cobra (1963), both of which are raw in construction, improvisatory and mysterious, and defiant to order. Later, Jacobs would depart from these ideas, but the rough material awareness of these early works would stay with his films. Mekas, on the other hand, embraces the anti-art aesthetics of Dada and Fluxus as a thinker, but not as a filmmaker, as he began to advance an elegiac body of work in the resonances of Romanticism. Of all of Snow and Wieland’s friends in New York, it was the poet and sound engineer Paul Haines whose work most strongly resonated with Neo-Dada, by its fragmentary construction, its cooption of idioms and images out of everyday experience, surreally recapitulating the everyday into foreign syntax and minimal expression.
Arnold Rockman, “Same Woman, But In All Shapes and Sizes.” Toronto Star, 6 July 1963.
For its liveliness and its explication of material illusion, much of the New American Cinema bore a resemblance to the Neo-Dada performance art of the era. For instance, John Cage’s Theatre Piece No. 1 (1952), a proto-Neo-Dada performance piece, brought about a confrontational experience that, in its assembly through multiple media, distinguished the work produced from the action and minds that produced it. As the Neo-Dada formed in New York City through the 1950s, it arose from the idea that art and life were distinct but connected, that existing confrontational impulses in art, even the material consciousness inherent in work that distinguished expression from meaning, was a false confrontation, that the necessary artistic gesture of the present moment was to ask Cage’s question, “which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” Out of this mentality came the formation of intermedia and Fluxus, with its emphasis on performative manifestations and happenings. For example, the happenings of Allan Kaprow emphasized spontaneous situations and audience participation. This formed the basis for the Neo-Dada of the New American Cinema as seen in the films of the Kuchar Brothers, Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith.
Michael Snow, “A Lot of Near Mrs.” (1963) reprinted in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 18.
This sequence has direct correspondence to Snow’s Carla Bley (1965), a photo-collage portrait of the composer posed as the Walking Woman, but it also corresponds to the variations on the fill of the figure that had come through the Walking Woman works of 1963, such as Olympia. In the paintings, the Walking Woman silhouette is ‘filled’ by representations of women, stylized in the various idioms of representational painting. By contrast, the film and photograph might be taken as documentation of a direct interaction between icon and woman.
Michael Snow, “Around about New York Eye and Ear Control.” In The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 25.
Ralph Thomas, “300 flee from far-out film.” Toronto Star, 5 April 1965, 22.