Melvin Charney is known for a series of large-scale installations such as Les maisons de la rue Sherbrooke, Montréal (1976), and A Chicago Construction, (1982), for the creation of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) Garden, Montréal (1987-91) — works widely acclaimed. He is also well known for his photo works, such as UN DICTIONNAIRE… (1970-2001), and his photo-based paintings. He executed major commissions for public sculpture, and won a number of competitions including the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, Ottawa (1991), which has become an important focal point of the National Capital, and a large-scale installation for the City of Montréal to celebrate its 350th anniversary in Parc Émilie-Gamelin (1992). In 2004, he completed a major commission for the City of Sherbrooke, Québec, comprising an esplanade, a square and integrated sculpture, marking the historic center of the town.
Works by Charney are included in public and private collections throughout Canada and in the U.S. Among the museums with extensive collections of works by Charney are the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.
Retrospective exhibitions of his work include: The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1978; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 1979; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1982; the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1991-92; the Israel Museum, 1994-95; the Fondation pour l’Architecture, Brussels, 1994; Frac Basse-Normandie, Caen, France, 1998; Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2002; and Americas Society, New York, 2008.
Among the books about his work are: Parables and Other Allegories: The work of Melvin Charney, 1975-1991, (CCA/MIT Press, 1991); MELVIN CHARNEY: PARCOURS de la réinvention / About Reinvention, (Frac Basse-Normandie, France, 1998) Tracking Images / Melvin Charney : UN DICTIONNAIRE (CCA, 2000).; MELVIN CHARNEY, (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2002); The Painted Photographs of Melvin Charney, From Observation to Intervention (DAP, 2009).
Charney wrote and lectured on his work, and was a visiting critic at many universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Rice, The University of California at Berkeley, University of Melbourne, Australia; University College, London; and the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris. An anthology of his writings, On Architecture: Melvin Charney, A Critical Anthology, was published by McGill-Queens Press in 2013.
He received the Berliner Künstler Programme, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) Award, 1982; senior arts awards from the Canada Arts Council; the Prix du Québec Paul-Emile Borduas in the visual arts, 1996; and the Canada Arts Council Lynch-Stanton Award to distinguished artists, 1997. In 2003, he was named Chevalier of the Ordre national du Québec for his outstanding accomplishments and his contribution to Québec culture and in March, 2006, he was named Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, the highest honour bestowed by the French government for individual contributions to culture. He received an honorary degree from McGill University in 2009.
A native of Montréal, Charney studied at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, and was a graduate of McGill and Yale Universities. He lived and worked in Paris and in New York, before returning to live and teach in Montreal. He died in September 2012.