The Amazing Adventures of Michael Snow: an uncensored history of Toronto’s most notorious art star

The Amazing Adventures of Michael Snow: an uncensored history of Toronto’s most notorious art star

Fifty years ago, Snow’s iconic Walking Woman sculptures made him an international art star. That was just the start of a rich life full of famous friends, bohemian bacchanals and city-wide scandals. His latest work, a dancing light beam on the Trump tower, is his most flamboyant feat yet

The Amazing Adventures of Michael Snow


One afternoon last summer, Michael Snow stood on an upper floor of the Sheraton hotel examining his latest creation from a distance. It was a test run of Lightline, a 65-storey light sculpture he designed for the new Trump hotel. A glowing white spire, made up of thousands of LED lights, snaked up the seam of the tower like a stripe on a marching band uniform. Then it began to move. A blast of light shot up about 20 storeys and flickered in staccato bursts. “It waltzes,” Snow tells me. “The light jumps up and down in a rhythm—buh-bum, buh-bum.” Sometimes the computer-operated animation will flash like a strobe light, or mimic the stop-and-go of traffic, or a rainfall or snow. “The snow is really quite beautiful,” says Snow.

But the sculpture had mechanical problems, and, shortly after the test, it was shut off. It was still out of order as of this February. “Guess they have other things to worry about first,” Snow grumbles, a coy reference to the panes of glass that have been falling off the building.

Of all the works Snow has produced over the years, Lightline is the only one that wasn’t his idea. Eb Zeidler, the architect responsible for the tower—and the Eaton Centre and Ontario Place—called Snow up in 2009 and asked him to devise a light beam on the side of the building. Snow happily accepted and transformed it into a kind of cinema, controlling the movement of the lights with a computer program. That the hotel was named for the tackiest man in North America didn’t faze him. Donald Trump and Snow actually have a lot in common: unshakable ego, wilful disregard for public opinion and a knack for stoking controversy.

Over the course of his career, Snow has hopped from painting to sculpture to film to holographs to jazz. He achieved stardom in the ’60s, first with his iconic, vaguely lecherous Walking Woman project—a proto pop art cut-out whose silhouette appeared on streets, gallery walls and T-shirts—and then with Wavelength, a cinematic stunt whose voyeuristic, 45-minute zoom enchanted and infuriated the film world in equal measure. He single-handedly transformed Toronto from a Group of Seven–worshipping, landscape-loving hayseed backwater into a hub of high-stakes, high-concept art.

It would have been easy for him to stop there and leave a tidy legacy as Toronto’s artistic godfather. But that’s never been enough for Snow. In January, he flitted off to Montreal for a multimedia exhibit of his work, then to Rotterdam for a showcase of his experimental films, then Paris for another exhibition. Last month, he wrapped up an eight-month-long sculpture show at the AGO. Later this year, he’ll be in Pennsylvania for a solo retro­spective exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At 83 years old, he’s still goaded by a colonialist need to conquer every medium, a relentless curiosity that drives him to experiment with new technologies and concepts, a restless ambition to make sure he never gets left behind. So far it’s worked—his compelling, confounding art has consistently dovetailed with major moments in the city’s history. More than that, it’s been prophetic: he pushes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to think about art and how we perceive it, using the city as a public canvas for his vision. In the waltzing beams of the Trump tower’s Lightline, Michael Snow sees Toronto’s future.

As a young man, Snow resembled a hardened Jimmy Stewart—tall and slender, with an ostrich neck and flinty features. Now, when he opens the door to his house on the southern edge of Rosedale, I see that age has softened him. He looks like he’s been painted over in watercolours—a corona of white hair, peeling, petal-pink skin and clouded blue eyes—and he speaks with a dignified Canadian hoser accent so specific to old Toronto that Henry Higgins could identify its provenance.

Snow grew up a few blocks north on Roxborough Street with his parents and older sister, Denyse. He has a prestigious lineage: his father, Gerald Bradley Snow, was a civil engineer and the grandson of former Toronto mayor James Beaty; his mother, the haughtily mannered and fabulously named Marie-Antoinette Françoise Carmen Lévesque, was the daughter of a former Chicoutimi mayor named Elzear Lévesque.

Now, after a life spent in illegal New York lofts, dive bars and smoky cinematheques, Snow has become what he tried so hard to run away from: a white-haired Toronto patrician in an ivy-blanketed Rosedale Victorian, which he shares with his wife, Peggy Gale, and their 31-year-old son, Alexander. (When I ask what his son does, Michael hesitates. “He’s probably a writer,” he says slowly. The younger Snow—a taciturn balding man with a ring of shoulder-length hair—tells me he’s trying to get his speculative fiction published, and that he has designed a collection of geometric modular clothes.)

Snow’s house is full of treasures: Walking Woman sculptures, his mother’s gleaming black Steinway grand, a Qing dynasty cast iron Chinese guardian lion that Snow inherited from his step­father, Roberto Roig, a Toronto art dealer who sold pieces to Mackenzie King.

Hanging above the couch is a framed painting of a jazz ensemble rendered in swirling strokes, the musicians’ bodies puffed up like beach balls as they prepare to toot their horns. It’s the first real piece of art Snow ever produced, finished in 1947, when he was an 18-year-old student at Upper Canada College. Before then, he’d done some drawing (including a comic strip called Aeroplane Ace), but he hadn’t considered pursuing art—or anything, really—until he won a prize for the painting. Without any agenda, he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art, where he studied design.

That first painting was inspired by the New Orleans jazz with which Snow had become obsessed—Dixielanders like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Snow taught himself the blues on an old upright piano and began playing in bands with his friend Bob Hackborn, a drummer and fellow OCA student. They’d book gigs at U of T frat parties and at Centre Island’s yacht clubs, which at that time were the Toronto equivalent of the Catskills in Dirty Dancing. “The weekend was a great big party,” Snow recalls. “People used to come, listen, get drunk. It was terrific.”

After he graduated from OCA—and endured a brief, failed stint at an ad agency—Snow bummed around Europe for a year, eventually landing a spot in a band of all-black tango musicians who toured along the Tuscan and Adriatic seacoasts. Snow, who was marauding as a trumpeter, says he’d play three or four tunes—“the fewest I could get away with”—then go get drunk and try to get laid. “Did you succeed?” I ask. “Yep,” he responds with a smile.

For the most part, Snow put his art on hold while he travelled, limiting his work to some drawings and one large oil canvas entitled “Colin Curd About to Play,” which became his first big sale. He sent the painting, a kind of Picasso-Chagall mash-up in greens and blues, back across the Atlantic, where it was snatched up by the eminent Toronto art dealers Sam and Ayala Zacks. (Ayala donated it to the AGO in 1971, along with 300 other works by Modigliani, Chagall and Matisse.)

Snow returned from Europe and, after a show of his paintings at Hart House in 1954, received a call from George Dunning, an animator who’d worked with the NFB visionary Norman McLaren and was starting up his own animation studio, Graphic Associates, at Yonge and College. Dunning offered Snow a job ani­mating TV commercials for things like toothpaste and tea. A few months after he was hired, Snow started dating his co-worker, Joyce Wieland, a young artist with ferocious eyes and an elfin chin, whom Dunning had also recruited as an animator. Wieland would become Snow’s first wife. Where his art was austere and controlled, hers was sensual and uninhibited. By all accounts, the same dynamic played out in their relationship: Snow was cold and aloof, Wieland passionate and insecure.

These days, Snow avoids discussing Wieland altogether. If he has to bring her up when he tells a story, he’ll use her full name, as if they were strangers. When I ask Snow how he and Wieland got involved, he shrugs and says, “We worked late.”

Wieland wrote about him extensively in her diaries, which are excerpted in two Wieland biographies. She was deeply in love from the start, describing his eyes as “cold and yet glittering, if wicked evil and almost passionate” and his back as “beautiful and delicately moulded like a modern sculpture in wood.” While they were seeing each other, though, he kept up his compulsive skirt chasing. Wieland was devastated by his indifference. Still, she stayed with him, and they soon moved into an apartment on College Street. They got married at city hall in September 1956 and held a wedding reception in Snow’s parents’ basement.

Graphic Associates folded that year, and Snow focused on his art. He began to produce work unlike anything that had been shown in Toronto—hulking room-sized sculptures, conceptual paintings, mixed media collages. His first solo show of these large, monochromatic paintings and sculptures that resembled lumbering wooden leviathans was held in 1960 at the Isaacs ­Gallery. His work wasn’t traditionally beautiful or commercial, but it spoke to an idea that had already taken hold in New York and Europe: that art was an intellectual pursuit as well as an aesthetic one. It was the moment that launched contemporary art in Toronto.

Just as the art scene began to follow his lead, Snow turned his back on Toronto and moved to New York. “I wanted to go there and see what I could become,” he recalls. In the late fall of 1962, he and Wieland rented two lofts at 191 Greenwich Street on the Lower West Side—one downstairs for Snow’s studio, and one upstairs for Wieland’s studio and their home (though it was illegal to live in those loft buildings at the time). It was a lively district full of oddballs, like the zoo animal dealer who lived across the street—frequently Snow would hear mysterious roars coming from his storefront, and one morning he saw an elephant standing in the road. As Snow and Wieland settled in, they realized they’d landed in the midst of a grassroots uprising: the local businesspeople were fighting against expropriation. Eventually, developers razed the whole neighbourhood for the construction of the World Trade Center and the couple moved a few blocks north to another illegal loft in Tribeca.

It was a watershed period for Snow. He’d moved away from abstract expressionist painting and started working on the Walking Woman. He sketched out the figure of a woman on cardboard with a curvaceous Marilyn Monroe silhouette and chin-length bob, marching purposefully in mid-stride, her hands and feet amputated from the form. After he cut out the figure, he realized it could be used as a stencil, and quickly got to work cloning. It was a chance for him to experiment with repetition—something he hadn’t been able to do when he was making enormous one-off sculptures and collages—and an opportunity for him to play with negative space, since he could work with both the figure itself and the void around her body. When I mentioned the Walking Woman to Snow, I made the mistake of using the feminine pronoun. Snow looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s not a she,” he corrected. “It’s a figure.” Still, it’s impossible to separate the figurative from the visceral—even Snow, when he was making them, wasn’t so chaste, telling Maclean’s in 1966 that the piece came from “20 years of ogling.”

In a way, she became Snow’s mistress, consuming all his energy and passion for the next six years. She hung on gallery walls nude and clothed, appeared on embroidered pillows, photobombed streetscapes and popped up all over Toronto like a travelling garden gnome. She also lived in the New York loft with Snow and Wieland—stencilled on the wall, on the wallpaper, and in a Walking Woman–shaped coffee table. The phenomenon culminated with Snow’s exhibit for Expo 67 in Montreal, when 11 enormous stainless steel Walking Women occupied the Ontario pavilion, shimmering like mirrored Amazons. The Walking Woman became Snow’s logo, a visual marker that branded his name into the public consciousness. It was a cross-pollination of high culture, pop culture and consumer culture, and it made him a star.

At the same time, he and Wieland were falling under the spell of the city’s nascent experimental film scene. “We had made films as artists before we got to New York. We didn’t know that other artists did that. We didn’t know there was such a thing as experimental film,” he says. He started attending screenings, many organized by Jonas Mekas, a famously incendiary avant-garde filmmaker and Village Voice columnist. Mekas is one of those people whose proximity to greatness has overshadowed his own success. He helped Andy Warhol shoot Empire, let the Velvet Underground rehearse in his loft and found a New York job for Yoko Ono.

Mekas used to rent small movie theatres, where filmmakers and students would gather for late-night underground viewings. Wieland and Snow became regulars and grew close to the film­makers Hollis Frampton, Ken and Flo Jacobs and Ernie Gehr. “Hollis was living nearby on Franklin Street, and Ken and Flo were a block away,” Snow says. “We started looking at each other’s work. Historically, it turns out we were sort of a school.” They took a structuralist approach to movie making that cast a lens on the medium itself and all its technical parts—frames, zooms, time lapses and sound.

In 1967, Snow shot Wavelength in his studio at Canal and Broadway. The 45-minute film consists of a single shot zooming progressively tighter on a framed photo of a stormy sea on the other side of an 80-foot loft. “Strawberry Fields Forever” plays, and then a pair of women—Wieland and the film critic Amy Taubin—drift in and out of the frame, and a man, played by Hollis Frampton, falls down, apparently dead. Eventually, the shot is so tight that the photo fills the screen. (The final frame echoes Lac Clair, a major monochromatic painting Snow sold in the 1960 Isaacs show.) Snow says the film was meant to be the cinematic equivalent of high-concept sculptures he was making at the time. “I wanted to create a kind of time shape in the viewer’s mind,” he explains. “The shape of the zoom was the equivalent to a projection beam.”

Mekas held the first private viewing of Snow’s Wavelength at one of his Saturday night screenings in 1967, later telling the press that it was “a landmark event in cinema.” The following year, Wavelength won the $4,000 grand prix at the Experimental Film Festival in Belgium, then the world’s most prestigious experimental film award—it placed Snow at the forefront of avant-garde film. Reports of his success travelled to Canada and, combined with his installation at Expo 67, reinforced his art stardom back home. The composer Philip Glass and the sculptor Richard Serra were big fans of his work (they were working as plumbers at the time, and met Snow when he hired them to install an illegal bathtub in his loft). So was the composer Steve Reich, who became so enamoured with the film that he wrote Snow a fan letter asking to meet him. Turns out he also lived in the artist loft ghetto, and they became close friends; Snow would often drop by Reich’s studio and watch him rehearse. Even John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw and admired the film. Before Wavelength, film was a strictly narrative medium. Now it could be a sculpture, a thesis, an idea—it turned the entire technology on its head.

The movie was difficult and divisive. Once, when he was showing it to a university class, the audience spent the whole screening growling and heckling. “People couldn’t believe it,” Snow laughs. “They mocked it, said it was just a 45-minute zoom. Sometimes they threw things at the screen.” Serra and Glass got the same reaction when they borrowed a print and screened it. “Richard told me he’d had to fight off people who were trying to rip the screen down,” says Snow. “One guy even went up to the projection booth and picked a fight with the projectionist.” The film world split into two factions: those who believed cinema should be a conduit for storytelling, and those who decided that film was the story. Snow sat smugly in the centre of the conflict.

The more famous Snow became, the more Wieland, who was also producing experimental films, began to feel lost in his shadow. While Snow was single-mindedly devoted to conceptual art, Wieland became increasingly political—one of her most ambitious films, Rat Life and Diet in North America, dramatized the plight of Vietnam War draft dodgers using the metaphor of pet gerbils imprisoned by cats.

Wieland also developed a fascination with Pierre Trudeau, who had recently been elected prime minister. She got in touch with Marc Lalonde, Trudeau’s principal secretary, and volunteered to host a party for Trudeau during a visit to New York in November 1969. It was a glorious event: Wieland prepared a menu of Oka cheese, tourtière and maple cookies, and kept glasses full of Canadian rye. Aside from the usual experimental film wonks—Mekas, the Jacobses, Frampton—the guest list included representatives from the literary scene, like Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy, as well as the sculptor Carl Andre, the actor Eli Wallach and a young, dazzlingly beautiful Gloria Steinem, who spent a large part of the evening dancing with the prime ­minister.

“I was really impressed with Trudeau. He knew everything that was going on in New York,” Snow remembers. It was his job to keep the prime minister circulating among the guests, though he was more interested in listening to the wild drummer Milford Graves, who performed with a free jazz quartet.

Wieland was so consumed by the Liberal wave that she convinced Snow they had to move back to Toronto. “What we were getting involved in in the U.S. was important in every way, but we were Canadians,” he explains. “We started thinking that if we were going to be active politically, it might as well be here.”

By the time Snow and Wieland returned to Toronto in 1972, he was a national icon. His paintings and sculptures filled the Art Gallery of Ontario and shifted the museum’s focus from the past to the present. Prominent art patrons were collecting his work. And even though few people understood his films—the latest being La Région Centrale, a three-hour aerial pan over a northern Quebec mountain range—everyone was talking about them.

But instead of sidling up to the city’s elite establishment figures, Snow spent most of his time with his old friends from art school and the jazz scene. “Snow’s buddies in the art world were not fancy people, and neither was Snow,” explains Bart Testa, a U of T lecturer and film historian. “They smoked dope, hung out and played really hopping jazz, and didn’t give a flying fig what people thought of them.”

Snow and his friends performed as the Artists’ Jazz Band. They spent most nights jamming and partying at the artist Gord Rayner’s Spadina loft, where they were often joined by a young Ydessa Hendeles, Rayner’s then-girlfriend, who would eventually open a vaunted King West gallery. She also played a Duke Ellington tune on the violin for one of Snow’s films, the bizarre five-hour series of vignettes, Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanks to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen. “There was excessive stimulation at those parties,” Snow admits: pot, booze, acid. “And how was that?” I ask. “It was just fine,” he responds primly.

Out of the Artists’ Jazz Band came another group: the Canadian Creative Music Collective. It was an experimental jazz ensemble that used as many instruments as its members could find to create their improvisational sound—xylophones, timpani and synthesizers, as well as the requisite pianos, drums and trumpets. Eventually, CCMC created the Music Gallery, which is still the home for Toronto’s free-improvisational jazz movement. Free-form jazz was the total opposite of Snow’s other work—his films and art were cerebral and composed, and jazz was an outlet for instinct and spontaneity.

By the late ’70s, his marriage was disintegrating. Though Snow admits his infidelities were a factor, he blames the split on the couple growing apart. “It was sad because our marriage was an incredible thing,” he says with the same matter-of-factness he might use to talk about one of his public art installations. “She liked my work and I liked hers. We didn’t work together, but we always shared what was happening.” (Wieland later suffered from Alzheimer’s and died in 1998.)

Snow took up with Peggy Gale, an independent curator and art critic 15 years younger than him. She’d first become acquainted with his work in 1967, when she was a 24-year-old U of T grad working in the AGO’s audio-visual department. The American film critic Manny Farber had come to the gallery to see Wavelength, and he forced Gale to play it seven times. “Oh, it was fabulous,” she rhapsodizes. “I had studied art history, so I knew all about the past and nothing about the present. It was just revelatory—mysterious, but you didn’t need to know all the answers. It just turned on all your receptors.” She met Snow a couple of years later, when he visited the AGO for the museum’s first major exhibit of his work. They kept in touch throughout the ’70s and, after his divorce from Wieland was finalized, had their son, Alexander, when Snow was 52.

Snow marked this new phase of his life by creating two famously controversial public sculptures. The first was Flight Stop, a gaggle of 60 fibreglass geese soaring under the domed glass roof of the Eaton Centre. “There was all this empty air up there. I thought, what goes in the air?” Snow recalls. In 1982, in an act of holiday cheer, the owners of the Eaton Centre tied red Christmas ribbons to each goose. Snow, playing the Grinch to their Whovillians, sued the corporation for breaching the copyright act and defacing his work. “The plaintiff is adamant in his belief that his naturalistic composition has been made to look ridiculous by the addition of ribbons and suggests it is not unlike dangling earrings from the Venus de Milo,” read the ­decision. The court ruled in Snow’s favour. There was no cash award, but the mall removed the offending ribbons, and students now study the case in law schools across the country. (He’s ­currently embroiled in a million-dollar lawsuit against the ­Daniels Corporation; he claims they commissioned a large-scale work for the TIFF tower, then backed out without explanation. Daniels says that it had no contract with Snow and denies the allegations.)

His next big public commission came in 1987, when his design was selected as the flagship piece in the new SkyDome. It was an ungainly 20-foot bronze-painted fibreglass sculpture of 14 beer-guzzling, hot-dog-deep-throating baseball hecklers called The Audience—a $710,000 commission co-funded by the ­municipal and provincial governments. For Snow, it was a high-minded conceptual piece about the reversal of the spectator’s gaze: “The idea was that the people who were going to attend an event would also be appraised and judged, just as they were about to do at the concert or baseball game. It’s a whole range of acceptance and rejection.”

The Audience was an epic failure. It crystallized everything that was wrong with the SkyDome, especially the exorbitant public spending that quickly spiralled into a $360-million provincial debt. Moreover, the public loathed the piece itself—I remember, as a four-year-old, hearing my mother complain that it looked like a giant booger. The Globe and Mail quoted two anonymous critics condemning the figures. “They look like they were squeezed from a tube of toothpaste,” said one, while another called the work “a disaster” and “an insult to the public.” When I ask Snow how he felt about the backlash, he sounds puzzled. “People didn’t like it? I don’t remember that.” The next day, he calls me back, apparently unsettled by the exchange. “It’s a piece I’m very proud of, and it’s upsetting that people didn’t engage with it the way I’d intended.”

For the city’s busiest artist, Snow spends little time making art. Most mornings he wakes up and deals with business: responding to emails from colleagues and curators, coordinating the mechanics of his light shows and sculptures, fielding interviews from people like me. He keeps a studio at King and Dufferin, but it’s mostly just a storage space for old paintings, since he barely has time to trek to work. The only time he ever gets any art done is in the summer, when he cloisters himself away at his log cabin in rural Newfoundland.

That’s where he made his latest piece, which he shows me one January afternoon. “You’re the first one who’s going to see this,” he teases. He reveals a photo triptych with each panel depicting a hand drawing of red lines, one in red crayon, one in red pencil, one in red Sharpie. I realize it’s one of Snow’s works that’s so esoteric it circles back to mundane. Snow can tell I don’t get it and tries to help me out. “The act of drawing is forever incomplete,” he explains, taken with his own piece.

I am much more interested in a large canvas on the wall of his kitchen, which had caught my eye while we spoke. It’s one of Snow’s, a manipulated photo print of a framed piece by the ­19th-century French painter Jacques Réattu. The scene depicts Alcibiades, an Athenian statesman, splayed nude on the ground after being assassinated, while his mistress, Timandra, reaches out in grief. Only the right side of the piece was finished before Réattu died in 1833—on the other side, the assassins are faintly sketched, barely perceptible opposite the lush realism filling the rest of the canvas. In 1996, Snow photographed the painting and filled in some of the unfinished sketches with abstract shapes—the negative space behind one of the figures, a horse blending into the dome of a helmet, the curve of muscle on a soldier’s torso. “I’m glad you asked about this one,” he tells me, tracing the ­contours with his finger. “Because I lived through the age of abstract painting, I could see it in a way Réattu couldn’t.”

Of all Snow’s pieces, this is my favourite. It hits all the traditional Snow sweet spots—it mixes old and new, cheekily subverts the rules of the canon and unhinges how we perceive traditional art. But it also thrums with a hot-blooded vitality that elevates the work from striking to sublime. We look at the piece for a few minutes, and for those few minutes, Michael Snow stands still.