You walk into a room of somber paintings from the 1950s, and think you're at a "serious" art show, but soon that impression fades. Just to the right is Over and Under (1960), a crushed paper bag, partially painted blue. It resembles something you'd step over on a sidewalk, but the composition is as perfect as a Michelangelo sculpture. In the next room is Site (1969-2016) which looks like a stainless-steel rack for stacking chairs.
Could "Michael Snow" be a collective of 12 artists all working under the same name? In fact, Snow was a prolific artist whose multiple art forms nourished each other: painting, sculpture, photography, video, printmaking, collage, drawing. Plus, he was a professional jazz pianist! I wouldn't be surprised to hear that he also baked bread and rode a unicycle. "Michael Snow: A Life Survey (1955-2020)" will fill the School, a 30,000-square-foot gallery in Kinderhook, until December 16.
Michael James Aleck Snow was born in Toronto in 1928, the son of a civil engineer. He graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1952. Snow was one of the first artists to recognize the aesthetic possibilities of video. His film Wavelength (1967) was voted one of the hundred most important cinematic works of the 20th century by Village Voice critics. (This film, plus eight other videos, appears in the show.)
Serve, Deserve (2009) is a 13-minute video piece showing the setting for a meal: three plates on a tablecloth. After a while, salad falls onto one of the plates, followed by salad dressing. A clump of spaghetti lands on another plate; then orange sauce descends. Time passes, and suddenly the tape is played backwards. The salad dressing rises into the air, and the green leaves leap upwards. The orange sauce flies away, then the spaghetti. The plates are clean once more. Serve, Deserve is simple but mesmerizing.
Though he lived in New York City from 1963 until the `70s, Snow was not associated with a particular movement. He wasn't pop or Fluxist or a minimalist. Being in no school gave him a certain freedom. In 1961, Snow introduced his "walking woman" image, a silhouette of a female with a bouffant hairdo, leaning forward as she walked. This nameless person became the source of multiple drawings, sculptures, prints. In one painting entitled Banner (circa 1994), a silkscreened image of her, black on red, suggests a political movement: the Walking Woman Party.
"There's a lot of jokes in the work," observes Jack Shainman, director of The School. For example, two photographs titled Venetian Blind Revisited (1999) show the artist in Venice, closing his eyes in the bright Italian sunlight. (In other words, he's "Venetian" and "blind.") Warning: If you are "triggered" by puns, enter this show cautiously.Do you know the classic story of the fisherman who catches a fish, and each time he describes it, the fish gets larger? Fish Story (1979) alludes to this phenomenon. A tiny fish at the bottom is reproduced seven times, growing larger with each repetition.
The earliest work is Airplane Ace, a double-sided comic strip Snow drew when he was eight, in 1937. The most recent piece is from 2020. Not many art shows span 83 years. "I went to him with this idea for the exhibition, and he said yes right away," Shainman observes. "I was thrilled that we were going to work together on it."
What began as a retrospective has become a memorial. Snow died of pneumonia in Toronto on January 5. But his fruitful, witty, Zen-like spirit pervades the School.