One day in 1967 the word came in from Belgium that a film festival in the Flemish town of Knokke-le-Zoute (pop. 30,000) had just given its grand prize to a Canadian.
The winning film was Wavelength, by the Toronto artist Michael Snow. It's a highly formalized and totally original piece in which a static camera slowly zooms across a small room. It's unhurried, taking about 45 minutes until finally it comes to rest on the far wall of a studio loft.
Few Canadians had heard of Knokke-le-Zoute until this event, but many of us soon learned what it meant for Snow. It changed the way many people, including critics and curators, thought about what he did. The world of experimental and abstract films paid attention to him, and over the next half a century or so his later work was seen in the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and various other places, including Tokyo and Lima.
This week the Art Gallery of Ontario has a tribute exhibition in Snow's honour, a celebration of his 90th birthday. He was born in Toronto on Dec. 10, 1928, and is still working, still planning. He loves finding new ways to use technology. In Bilbao he created a live video feed to bring a random burst of reality into his exhibition, naming it The Corner of Braque and Picasso Streets. From inside the museum people could look at the tourists and dogs on the nearby street.
In his home town the most elegant work of his art is Flight Stop, a 1979 piece in Toronto's Eaton Centre mall, which depicts 60 Canada Geese. This is also a project Snow had to defend, which he did. At Christmas 1982 someone had the idea that it would be cute to put Christmas bows on the geese. Snow considered that a bad idea. He sued, and the court decided that the Eaton Centre was violating Snow's moral rights as an artist. He set a high standard for all Canadian artists who cherish their freedom. The bows had to go.
A more extensive tribute from Toronto was the The Michael Snow Project, lasting several months of 1993. Two art galleries and several private dealers collaborated on a vast retrospective of Snow's work; that month his art was also the subject of four books. The whole city seemed to be alive with Snow and the objects he's made.
The Walking Woman is probably the best-known of his images, the same shape reproduced again and again; in the Ontario pavilion at Expo it seemed to be the most Snowish of his work. Its repetition evoked his personality, a combination of charm and efficiency.
Over the years Snow has developed as a kind of omniartist. In the 1950s he played piano in a Dixieland band. He made gorgeous paintings and lovely drawings. He exhibited at the Isaacs Gallery, where the younger artists viewed him with a mixture of envy and awe. He once said, "My paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a painter. Sometimes they all work together." He's won the freedom to go in any direction he chooses. He deserves it. I can't think of an artist who deserves it more.