THE WOMEN STRIDING purposefully across these pages, all but one, were created by Toronto artist Michael Snow. The exception is the girl from the Coca-Cola ad that appeared all over North America with the oddly appropriate slogan, “For extra fun—take more than one."
For Snow, who is probably Canada’s leading pop artist, the Coke ad was a sort of vindication. For the past five years he’s summed up his ideas about art and mass culture by painting only one subject, the walking woman, in an astonishing variety of ways.
He’s made small ones, dressed her up to the nines and stripped her down to a G-string. He’s cut her out of cardboard, plywood and stainless steel, pasted her into collages, twisted her into foldages, rubber-stamped her on coffee cups, T-shirts and boots, stitched her onto a quilt,
stood her out on downtown sidewalks to be gawked at by pedestrians, and filmed her being run over by a car.
Artists have had trademarks before — Degas had his ballet girls and Gauguin his Tahitian beauties — but never anything like this. You’d think Snow was trying to blanket the whole world.
When he and his wife Joyce Wieland left the Toronto art scene for New York four years ago, Snow immediately announced his presence by papering the town. He crept out in the middle of the night, like an advance man for a circus, with a pot of glue and a pile of walking women posters and stuck them up on hoardings along Wall Street. He made forays around Greenwich Village armed with hundreds of the seven-inch walking-woman stickers that
had been printed up for a one-man /
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When Snow left, she stayed —on walls, windows, In the tub
show at The Isaacs Gallery in Toronto. He inserted them into paperbacks in drugstores, made “compositions” on subway cars, and stuck them up on all the lampposts on Madison Avenue between 82nd and 56th Streets. When stopped by the cops late one night, he explained, straightfaced, that he was only putting up Christmas seals.
This encounter shook Snow, who doesn’t like cops, but did nothing to cure him of his strange obsession. Recently he went to a party at the New York home of Peter Jennings, ABC's Canadian-born TV newscaster. Jennings was not amused next morning to find the walking-women stickers glued on his curtains, his clothes, hidden in his pockets, books and even his bed, and stamped on walls, windows and bathtub. Wherever Snow goes he leaves his mark.
The odd part is that the habit is catching. Though Snow’s walking woman hasn’t earned him a fortune yet, her shape is familiar to thousands — people who don’t know anything about art, not even what they like. She’s turned up in Eaton's ads, a New York printmaker’s illustrations for a book of love poems, as column heading in The Village Voice, and in one of Sid Barron’s Toronto Star cartoons about suburbia. She's even traveled abroad. Two of Snow's friends spent this summer in Lebanon and the USSR, diligently papering walls and washrooms with WW stickers as they went.
Expo, here she comes
And then there was that Coke ad. When it appeared on the back cover Maclean’s last summer, both Snow and The Isaacs Gallery were besieged letters and inquiries from people who'd noticed the similarity. Some thought Snow should take legal action. The ad was photographed in New York in 1963, just after the time Joyce and Michael Snow were sneaking out of their downtown loft at night to plaster the town with posters. that where the admen got their idea? Coca-Cola isn’t saying.
Next year, however, Snow will be receiving more tangible recognition. He’s won a $24,000 competition for sculpture group representing “the true face of Ontario” at the province’s Expo 67 pavilion. If Expo’s attendance estimates are even close. Snow’s I-part Walking Woman design will be seen by several million people.
If you visit Ontario’s tent-shaped pavilion next year, traveling by Expo Minirail, your first sight of the walking woman might be just a glare of reflected light. If you approach on foot, you might suddenly find yourself walking beside a six-foot stainless-steel cut-out or mirrored in its shape. “The idea,” Snow explains, “is to work with all the color and activity in the area, rather than fight it.” The pieces will be spread out among the crowd to direct the traffic flow and frame the main entrance. In effect, the WW will act as a sign without words — a symbol of the urban, with-it image that Ontario is busily promoting.
Snow is more than with-it. Most of his life he’s been well ahead of it. Now fashion is finally catching up with him, and is bringing him the greatest popularity of his career.
Snow is a reluctant 37-year-old with the piercing blue eyes of an explorer, the vocabulary of a New York hippy and the ready irony of a stand-up
comic. At most times he also has a quizzical can -J ohnny - come - out - and -play? look that may come from his crazy mixture of backgrounds.
As a boy he spent his summers at the aristocratic manor home of his French-Canadian mother, then returned to Toronto in the winter to the solid Anglo-Saxon traditions of Rose-
dale and Upper Canada College, a boys’ private school. He hated it. especially the parades in uniform, and he used to escape to a record store after school to listen to Charlie Parker, and drink whisky from a thermos. By the time he graduated he was an enthusiastic jazz pianist and had decided to go to the Ontario College of Art.
In the late 1950s he became a romantic, almost legendary figure on the Toronto art scene. By night Snow played piano with Mike White’s Im-
WALKING WOMAN continued
She came from “20 years of ogling”
perial Jazz Band in Toronto saloons. By day he was an artist of good repute.
But it wasn’t until the appearance of the walking woman in 1961 that Snow began to catch on with the galleries and collectors who control the art world. By 1963 he was one of Canada’s best-known artists.
But in 1962 Toronto critics were greeting his latest WW works with a once-you’ve-seen-one-you've-seen -them-all weariness. People were asking, Why doesn’t he do something new? Snow left for New York, saying, “1 feel I'm manufacturing a product there’s no market for.”
Snow didn’t have to leave Canada to make good; he had to leave to make better. New York is both where the action is and where the reaction is. Snow got himself a prestigious New York gallery, the Poindexter, to handle his work; was invited to exhibit in international shows; and within two years had a painting bought by the Museum of Modern Art. (Title, Shot: a composition made just after the assassination of President Kennedy with dozens of three-inch-high, red, rubber-stamped walking women scattered as after an explosion.) Canada’s National Gallery waited another two years before deciding that Snow was worth including in its collection of Canadiana.
Who is she?
Perhaps part of the trouble was that Snow’s work wasn’t sufficiently “Canadian.” His walking woman has been called a heroine of pop-art’s Coke culture (before the ad), the model of emancipated womanhood, an abstract tart, sexless, a walking encyclopedia of current art ideas, a documentary on women’s fashions and a “modern American businesswoman, curvaceous, erect, blank.” The one thing no one has ever accused her of being is typically Canadian.
If her nationality is ambiguous, so are her origins. Even Snow doesn’t understand how he came to choose this particular figure. When pressed, he admits there’s a certain resemblance
to his wife, and to Boots, a comicstrip heroine who tended to walk in profile a lot. But above all, the choice was dictated by the fact that Snow likes women — ‘T suppose it has something to do with 20 years of ogling,” he says.
At first he had no idea of sticking to just one shape. He just thought he’d try out a few variations. But gradually he became intrigued by the challenge of limiting himself. And he discovered that there was no end to the ways he could make the walking woman work for him. Woman, after all. has infinite variety, even if women are all the same.
Meanwhile Snow’s one-man publicity campaign continues. Lately he’s created a TV commercial for the walking woman, and performed it in several galleries. He also sent a painting to a European show accompanied by a month’s supply of stickers and a little box marked, “Take one.” He is not doing all this simply for the hell of it. If he sticks up his art in public places it’s because he believes art is not something to be shut up in galleries, but should be put out into the real world. He once dreamt of putting the WW on the side of trucks that would drive around New York, and I’m sure if he could find a pilot willing to skywrite her outline in smoke trails over Manhattan, he’d jump at the chance. Snow had made publicity out of art, and art out of publicity.
This aspect of his work is one of the things that attracted the attention of one of the most powerful men on the New York art scene, Lawrence Alloway. Alloway is the man who coined the term “pop art” and he’s currently writing a “bigger-than-acoffee-table” Christmas book about pop art. Five pages will be devoted to Snow. This will make him the only Canadian artist besides Jean-Paul Riopelle to become part of a significant international art movement. And if Ontario’s patronage can lure him back to Toronto, Snow will be the first artist to make this kind of mark without leaving Canada for good. ★
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