Artwork by Michael Snow,  Off Minor

Michael Snow
Off Minor

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1958 upper left; signed, titled and inscribed “Completed April 1958” on the reverse
60 x 36 ins ( 152.4 x 91.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $60,000.00$40,000.00 - $60,000.00

Price Realized $57,500.00
Sale date: November 23rd 2017

Acquired directly from the artist
Joseph Gladstone, Toronto
Dennis Reid, “Exploring Plane and Contour: The Drawing, Painting, Collage, Foldage, Photo-Work, Sculpture and Film of Michael Snow from 1951 – 1967,” The Michael Snow Project: Visual Art 1951-1993, Toronto, 1994, pages 100 and 121
John Porter, “Artists Discovering Film: Post-War Toronto,” Vanguard, Volume 13, Numbers 5-6, Summer 1984
Michael Snow, “Surfaces: A Selection of Paintings from 1952 - 1961,” Michael Snow – Sequences – A History of His Art, Barcelona, 2015, page 65
Hugo McPherson, “The Autumn Season: 1958 Toronto,” Canadian Art, February 16, 1959, page 57
Barrie Hale and Dennis Reid, Toronto Painting: 1953 – 1965, The National Gallery, Ottawa, 1972, page 28
Liz Hubbell, “Snow: Impressionist,” The University College Gargoyle, December 19, 1958, page 3
The mid-to-late 1950s were groundbreaking years for the Toronto art scene, during which time Michael Snow exhibited at the city's avant garde gallery, Greenwich Gallery, in Toronto's “miniature bohemia.” Snow recalls: “The years 1956-60 were a period of 'try this, try that' in my work, part of which came from attempting to deal with the excitement of New York art. De Kooning, Gorky, Kline, Rothko, Newman and Reinhardt were of special interest to me.” During this short period, the artist produced an important series of “purely surface, abstract paintings” which emerged just prior to the Walking Woman Works.

“Off Minor” was exhibited at the Greenwich Gallery in October 1958 with eight large abstract paintings, a sculpture and several drawings. This show at the gallery on Bay Street was Snow's second solo exhibition. Commenting on this exhibition in “Canadian Art” magazine, Hugo McPherson asserted that the paintings were “the wittiest, most arresting canvases of the season”, praising Snow's style as “alert and nervous – at once conscious of fine shades of meaning and capable of reducing experience to its large, essential outlines.” In “Off Minor” Michael Snow presents heavily applied grounds with vivid blue and green rectangles embedded within. Although he uses a variety of shapes and a rougher application of paint, the composition is remarkably unified. This visible brushwork and surface texture reveal Snow's primary concern for the art-making process.

When viewing “Off Minor” it is possible to perceive a serene landscape: a snow-filled foreground, smoky blue sky and orange slivers of paint defining the horizon, bringing to mind what Barrie Hale described as “the power, the stillness and grandeur of the north” present in several Toronto artists' paintings of the period. Snow's paintings exhibited at Greenwich in October 1958 engage the viewer “at the formal level with dynamic balance, rhythmic movement and seductive employment of paint, while spinning off visual associations that are richly multi-levelled.” In an interview later that year with Liz Hubbell for “The University College Gargoyle” paper, Michael Snow insisted that these abstracts “should puzzle...[and] it is good if [they are] a little enigmatic.” “Off Minor” is a signature work that commands the viewer to follow Snow's advice and simply “sit in front of the painting and let it come to you.”

The sole owner of “Off Minor” was Joseph Gladstone, the brother of Toronto artist Gerald Gladstone. Gerald was one of the artists exhibiting at Avrom Isaacs' gallery in the 1950s. Joseph was a young entrepreneur who staged the exhibition “Toronto '61” at the Toronto Board of Education on College Street in 1961. This modern art exhibition travelled to four North American locations and works by Toronto artists Michael Snow, Jack Bush, Kazuo Nakamura and Harold Town, among others, were on display. Joseph Gladstone acquired this painting directly from Michael Snow in his studio.

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Michael Snow
(1928 - 2023) RCA

One of Canada’s most celebrated artists, Michael Snow’s career spans decades, artistic movements, and mediums; and his renown is global. However, his creative pursuits did not begin in visual art, but rather in jazz. Born in 1928 in Toronto, Snow fell in love with jazz as a teenager and taught himself to play the piano. When deciding what to study, Snow felt a pull between art and jazz, but eventually decided to study design at the Ontario College of Art (now, OCAD University). His artistic talent was immediately recognized by his teacher, John Martin, who encouraged him to submit his work to the Canadian Society of Artists exhibition. Snow became the first student artist in the Society’s history to be exhibited. Despite his early success as an artist, Snow never abandoned his pursuit of jazz. In 1953, the twenty-five year old took a trip to Europe and worked as a musician in France, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Upon returning, Snow developed an interest in film and animation, in part, due to his experience as a musician.

Discussing his first film “A to Z”, Snow says:

“I was inspired at that time by studying the music and visual art that moved me the most and then imitating and modifying it. In art, the examples of Klee, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and others were models to consider. But my fascination with film came about through my introduction to it as a particular process — learning what it was/is from the inside, as it were, adding frame to frame, twenty four frames passing in one second on the screen.”

By the late 1950s, Snow was painting in the abstract expressionist style. Snow sees this period as a response to the New York art scene, where he would ‘try this try that’, taking his inspiration from Newman, Reinhardt and Rothko. Art critic Elisabeth Kilbourn said of his abstract expressionist works:

“Like experimental jazz, Michael Snow’s work is ‘cool’. The classical underpinnings are never denied; the formal structure is firm and sure but (it is) stripped down to the absolute essentials.”

In 1961, Snow began using a cut-out silhouette of a woman walking in various works. In his first piece using the black cut out, “Four to Five”, he placed what would become famously known as “The Walking Woman” around Toronto in various locations and then filmed it. “The Walking Woman” became a motif that reemerges throughout his career, in all forms, including on canvas, in photographs, and even on vinyl records.

Despite rejecting the notion of himself as a Pop artist, Snow was clearly influenced by Pop Art during his time in New York from 1962-1970. He experimented with bright colours, comic book graphics, and repeating images. In 1970, he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale and the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited a retrospective of his work, although his career was far from over. Over the next 40 years, Snow would continue to develop his practice, finding recognition around the world that very few Canadian artists have ever achieved.

Literature Source - James King and Michael Snow, Michael Snow - Lives and Works, Toronto, Dundurn, 2019

We extend our thanks to Scarlett Larry, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.