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Issue 239

Discovering the Late Michael Snow

At Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School, New York, a pioneer of 1960s avant-garde film is remembered for his more contemporary works

BY Terence Trouillot in Exhibition Reviews | 15 AUG 23

It was after-hours at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, then in the basement of the Wurlitzer building in midtown Manhattan, that Canadian artist Michael Snow presented his 45-minute film Wavelength (1967) to a small group of friends, including Richard Foreman, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and Nam June Paik. Wavelength – which distinctively featured a fixed camera’s slow zoom onto a photograph of ocean waves, hung on the wall of a SoHo loft, amid a death scene – became a sensation, and remains an icon of avant-garde cinema.

For that reason, I was thrilled at the opportunity to see the work in person, projected in its original 16mm format, in ‘Michael Snow: A Life Survey 1955–2020’ at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School in Kinderhook, New York. Much to my annoyance, however, I encountered instead Snow’s later rendition, WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time) (2003). This abridged, digitized version superimposed 15-minute segments of the original to create a fragmented, almost illegible revision. A wisecrack response to a generation sans attention span, it ironically only grabbed me for a few minutes before I moved on (a moment I read as part of the intended joke).

A video projection of waves overlaid with what look like windows in a dark room with many folding chairs
Michael Snow, WVLNT: WAVELENGTH for those who don't have the time: Originally 45 minutes, Now 15!, 2003 / 2023, installation view. Courtesy: © Michael Snow and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

The original – which, thankfully, is shown every Saturday at 1pm – stands as a stunning relic of a specific time in the New York art scene. Yet, oddly, it was WVLNT that anchored this museum-calibre exhibition for me. Featuring some 80-odd works thoughtfully installed  into the nearly 3,000 m2 former high school, the survey seems better poised to focus on where the artist landed at the end of his career than where he began.

A projection upon an aluminum cut-out of a walking woman.
Michael Snow, Little Walk, 1964–2005, installation view. Courtesy: © Michael Snow and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

Although the retrospective showcases early works, from his oil-on-canvas abstractions of the 1950s to his seminal series ‘Walking Woman’ (1961–67) – a collection of images and photographs of the same aluminium cut-out of a female silhouette – these feel woefully one-dimensional (figuratively and literally) compared to later pieces. The mesmerizing interplay between light and space of installations such as The Corner of Braque and Picasso Streets (2009) – a real-time broadcast of a New York street projected onto a three-dimensional substrate, distorting the moving image in cubist fashion – and Piano Sculpture (2009), four videos of Snow’s hands playing the piano, projected onto four separate walls with speakers affixed to each, feels fiercely contemporary. As a result, the exhibition often seems disjointed, not least because most of the newer works sit high on the second floor but, in their vigour and inventiveness, make the earlier pieces feel dated.

Two video works of hands playing piano, projected upon what look to be speakers
Michael Snow, ‘A Life Survey (1955–2020)’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: © Michael Snow and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

One of the best works in the show is Sshtoorrty (2005), a 35mm film, just shy of two minutes, that creates an irresistibly complex feedback loop. A loose tale about a painting and the sordid affair between a painter and the patron’s spouse, the piece overlays two separate scenes so that the end of each segment bleeds into its own beginning and vice versa in a near-seamless, infinite loop. Its overlay and concision is used to better effect than in WVLNT, while still comparable to Wavelength’s durational aspect. Intended to be seen again and again over a sustained period of time, Sshtoorrty leaves you transfixed, lost in the structural layers of celluloid.

A projected film still: two overlaid images of a man and woman embracing with a painting and the man walking away from the woman, holding the painting
Michael Snow, Sshtoorrty (short story), 2005, exhibition view. Courtesy: © Michael Snow and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

Snow, who passed away in January of this year, fell out of the limelight soon after his seismic rise, when he returned to Canada in 1971. Nonetheless, working in a variety of media – including film, photography and, notably, music – he was tirelessly experimental: an unwavering quality that only seemed to augment as he aged. To experience Snow’s work today feels less like rediscovering an obscure artist than uncovering a late career that was only just blossoming.

Michael Snow: A Life Survey 1955–2020’ is on view at The School (Jack Shainman Gallery), Kinderhook, until 16 December.

Main image: Michael Snow, ‘A Life Survey (1955–2020)’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: © Michael Snow and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.