Michael Snow: A Life Survey (1955–2020)
May 21–December 16, 2023
Michael Snow passed away on January 5, 2023 at the age of ninety-four. Through the end of this year, his gallery, Jack Shainman, is staging a large-ish “life survey” at their exurban location, The School (a converted school building in Kinderhook, NY). The exhibition, Michael Snow: A Life Survey (1955–2020), affirms Snow’s place in the pantheon of great visual humorists. It also suggests that he was perhaps the consummate contemporary artist. His comic greatness and his mastery of the procedures of contemporary art are very much entwined.
The show comprises the boggling array of mediums which Snow was known for flitting between. But it’s the moving image work—or rather moving images as such—that provide the solidest ground for considering his whole sprawling project. This is not just because Snow is most famous for his films. Rather, there’s a basic affinity between film and the mechanics of contemporary art—the art of the last half-century—which his work draws out and draws upon.
Film came into its own as an artistic medium largely by making good on the observation that the meaning of any given moving image depends upon its positioning within a sequence of other moving images (montage). Take out the modifier “moving” from the previous statement and you have a workable account of how art in general has operated since about 1970. By then, advanced art had more or less fully metabolized the influence of Marcel Duchamp, who created merely by declaring that this or that non-artwork was in fact an artwork. The basic implication of this, taken up widely by artists in the sixties and later, is that the meaning, the effect, even the ontological status of any work of art is not immanent to its component material parts but determined by its context, whether physical, social, semantic, or otherwise. The period in art’s history animated by this principle is the period of contemporary art. For fifty years, contemporary artists have worked less as creators than as montagists of images, objects, and ideas. Snow’s career began in the fifties, hit its stride the following decade, and lasted till his death this year. It is therefore more or less coterminous with contemporary art.
Given the fact that many of his most significant films don’t depend much on cutting for their effects, it’s unsurprising that Snow characterized his philosophical investments in the medium in terms not of montage, but of the frame. In a 1967 interview, Snow said: “For the last three or four years I have been influenced by films and by the camera. When you narrow down your range and are looking through just that narrow aperture of the lens, the intensity of what you see is so much greater.” To this end, the exhibition in Kinderhook demonstrates that Snow understood his task as an artist to be one of framing objects and observations—frequently banal ones—in just such a way as to make them perceptible as open-ended and experientially infinite. The gulf between the banality of Snow’s images or physical objects and the richness of their conceptual frameworks is where his art’s humor (which is often the flavor of its aesthetic effect) comes from.
Tellingly, Snow made the above quip about framing during a conversation not about his film, but about his sculpture, three pieces of which (along with an ebullient and weird oil-painted photograph from 1983, Handed to Eyes) take up a gallery in the exhibition at The School. The most recent of these, 1982’s Monocular Abyss, is the most germane to that quote, and also the weakest of the bunch. This is perhaps because its physical form is almost totally in thrall to the point it’s making. An oculus at the top of a tilted hollow pyramid compels you to peer dumbly into the object’s unlit innards. Since this aperture takes up such a small percentage of the sculpture’s overall form, and since the object itself has a shape and a texture that seem potentially worth looking at, the whole thing’s a riff on the possibility for excess latent in that “intensity” of perception which Snow saw film to be offering up. (He once described his most famous film, 1967’s single-shot Wavelength, as akin to a drug.) But since Monocular Abyss contains little that isn’t in direct service to the joke, it feels like it’s mostly punchline at the expense of set-up.
Snow was at his best when he managed to establish more than just a correspondence but a reciprocity between his visual creations and their conceptual scaffolding. Such relations seem to have come to him automatically in film (and later video). This is demonstrated by the range of moving image works—not just single channel films and videos but a slew of uncategorizable installations and other peripherally filmic stuff—on view at The School. A piece like the three-channel That/Cela/Dat (2000), for instance, doesn’t simply state something about untranslatability and the slipperiness of linguistic reference, but uses the precise affordances of motion pictures to simulate absolute communicability and turn it into an artistic effect. Slidelength (1969–71), an automatic slideshow, uses its projector’s clicks and rhythms to establish awareness of the film’s temporal dimension as an unavoidable sensual component of one’s experience of it as a work of art. (Not to mention that Slidelength’s visuals—ambivalent process shots from the making of Wavelength intercut with monochromes—are slow and stunning.)
But Snow was capable of imbricating idea and optics in artworks of any medium—especially bespoke, one-off, pseudo-, or blended mediums—as the best of the sculptures at the Kinderhook show proves. Site, from 1969, is a metal bar structure that looks like something you would do exercises or hang clothes on. It’s installed against a wall, and on the wall there’s a little plaque that reads: “I considered using, here, an image of the sea, of waves, but I finally decided to use this.” Here, the joke’s more explicit than in Monocular Abyss—unavoidable in the text’s wry self-referentiality and the title’s double entendre—but also less circumscribed. Site is both visually and conceptually guileless. But it combines these two guileless elements of its form—idea and physical structure—in such a way that, through your experience of the work, each becomes complexified by the other, and irresolvably so. Site, in other words, sets up a situation whereby unlike structures accrue new and evolving meanings by means of careful juxtapositions, activated through experience. This is a version of the montaging of objects and ideas that typifies contemporary art, just taking place within a semi-closed, controlled aesthetic system.
Snow’s greatest project, while not his single best work of art, is more deliberately and apparently an aesthetic system, though one whose boundaries are vanishing and whose form is therefore more unresolved, even infinite. This irresolution governs the aesthetic engine of this particular project—the “Walking Woman” (1961–67) series—but it’s also the source of the notable degree of success it manages. In 1961, Snow devised a simple form: the silhouette of a woman, curvy and with a mod bob, cropped at the left wrist, right elbow, both ankles, and crown. Over the next five decades, he’d permute this form ad infinitum. Posters, drawings, sculptures, paintings, guerilla installations, films, press releases, photos, newspaper ads, and so on. Worth close to nothing in its one-off instantiations, the silhouette manages a panoply of surprising effects once it’s been multiplied and networked. The curators in Kinderhook did well by concentrating a bunch of unchallenging “Walking Women” in one long corridor where they could play off each other, while sprinkling her more significant iterations throughout the show.
The single best utilization of the silhouette comes in Little Walk, a 1964–2005 installation. In it, a staccato film (looped on DVD at The School) is projected onto a wall in front of which stands a plywood cutout of the “Walking Woman.” A good part of this work’s effect is purely visual, deriving from the dissonance between the action in the movie and the shape of the screen. Women and woman-like shapes and figures rush from side to side, frequently coming close to aligning with the cut-out, but never quite doing so. The implication that, if they did, there would be some kind of ultimate resolution, paired with the fact that they never do, exacerbates the rhythms of the film itself. But within the context of the series—as a “shot” or a “frame” spliced into the total work that is “Walking Woman”—Little Walk has other resonances. Acquaintance with the figure’s many other permutations makes the rush of images moving across her seem like more than a nod to the infinite possibilities for variation latent in even such a simple shape: Little Walk comes to seem like that infinity put to form.
Not everything in the exhibition so successfully interweaves a conception with the way it’s been made manifest: Snow’s early paintings are middling mostly because they seem to predate his conceptualism; his two-sided photo-screens are too one-sidedly brainy; some of the films, like Solar Breath (2002), fail to fuse the thoughts around them into their form. But even these misses, placed alongside the hits in quick succession at The School, contribute to a sense of the basic unity of Snow’s art, a unity much less visual than ideational. One gets the sense that even a work of his that bores you to death, Snow would have considered a success. In his art, transcendence is usually just boredom reframed.