Dash Snow, the New York artist, who overdosed on heroin at the age of 27 in the Lafayette House, a hotel on East 4th Street, on July 13, was one of the most intensely watched figures in Manhattan’s hyperactive Downtown art world. So his death has had the same convulsive impact as that of Jean-Michel Basquiat who died one year older in 1988. “Things are in uproar,” said Sarah Braman, an artist partner in Canada, the Chrystie Street gallery, when I called to get a number for Terence Koh’s gallery, Asia Song Society, where I last saw Snow. “People are upset. Everybody’s in shock.”
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Snow and his coterie, primarily Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, were usually described as art world’s comers—the so-called “The Bowery School.” Snow was the dominant presence, if by no means their best-regarded art-maker. Short, dirty-blond, with the hair of a boho Botticelli angel, a hobo brushbeard, and tattoos (including one of Saddam Hussein), Snow was at once bratty and engaging. And he had been the object of much attention ever since the publication of “ Chasing Dash Snow,” a 2007 article by Ariel Levy in New York magazine that asked: At 25 he is a growing downtown legend, a graffiti writer turned artist with a beautiful face and a De Menil pedigree, elusive even to the two friends who created his myth. What happens if he’s caught?
Well, Snow had a record. He went into juvenile detention at the age of 13, then lived on the streets for a while, and has been more or less cut off from his family ever since, not only the de Menils but his mother’s family. And the streets became part of what he was, a part of his growing myth.
The other part of the myth, of course, was what New York called Snow’s “de Menil legacy.” The significance of this was not that the de Menils were rich, which they were—Snow’s great-grandmother being Domique Schlumberger, heiress to a Houston oil fortune, which like the Hughes fortune wasn’t based on drilling but upon technology. What lent the Dash Snow story its special dimension, a dark resonance, is that Dominique and her husband were world class art collectors. They were purists, true believers in the spiritual function of art.
The de Menils housed their collection in a Renzo Piano building which they opened in 1987. They had three daughters and a son, all of whom have lived art-penetrated lives. One of the daughters, Philippa, and her husband Heiner Friedrich funded the Dia Foundation, which opened in 1974, and which itself funds such Sacred Spaces of post-war art as Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in Albuquerque and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jerry on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. And it was another daughter, Christophe, a designer and greatly liked presence in the art world, who made the official announcement of her grandson’s death. He had, she said, recently been in rehab.
With such a family mythos—incidentally, Snow’s maternal grandfather, Robert Thurman, runs Tibet House, making Uma Thurman his aunt—it might have seemed preordained that Snow would enter the art world in some manner or other. But, unlike Colen and McGinley who were determined to make art careers, Snow had no such ambitions. But both Colen and McGinley saw that Snow’s raw, messy work—the Polaroids that envelop you in something like Nan Goldin’s young bohemia, a Downtownscape of affectless squalor and non-committal sex, the tabloid collages—was a good fit in a marketplace hungry for the raw, the messy (Think Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy). So Dash Snow became an artist. And an increasingly noticed one.
Charles Saatchi flew Snow and Colen over to London for his USA Today show at the Royal Academy. He put them up at a Mayfair hotel where they holed up in their suite and created a specialty, a “Hamster’s Nest.” This was an installation though one less reminiscent of, say, Ilya Kabakov than of Led Zeppelin in the Hyatt House, ripping a great many telephone directories to bitty bits, swirling the bedding everywhere and doing enough drugs to hamsterize their crania. They decamped from the hotel in the middle of the night, apparently just ahead of the long arm of the law,In October 2007, Snow and Colen did another Next at New York’s Deitch Projects on Grand Street. Along with 30 volunteers, they ripped up 2,000 telephone books, gouged the walls and scrawled them with street-dumb drawings—an ejaculating penis—and rude texts. It seemed to me a stylish piece of Street-Dada showbiz, a deliberately unholy reference to another of the Dia Foundation’s Sacred Spaces, Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room, which is just around the corner on Wooster. Snow’s work was entering what one might call his maturely immature phase—lots of semen, including a New York Post covers coated with ejaculate and glitter—and his collectors included Anita Zabludowicz and Dakis Joannou. But then he just downed and died.
Dash Snow’s death would seem to ensure the myth, including the surely inevitable movie, and the coverage has trotted out all the inevitables from Janis Joplin via James Dean to Kurt Cobain. But some are angered by what they see as the enabling mechanisms of the art world, the support offered by those delighted with the energy pumped in by Bad Boys.
“I think some people encouraged this kind of scene, “ says Charles Finch, the acidulous ArtNet columnist. “With all the overdoses and everything that we have had in the art world and the music world, is extremely irresponsible.
“First of all, does anyone learn any lessons over the years? There’s this whole idea of watching a train wreck happen and not pulling a switch to prevent it.”
Finch’s second point relates to the art made by somebody who might easily be called an accidental artist.
“Was Dash a legitimate artist? In terms of his practice? No!” He singles out the Polaroids. “Nan Goldin, of course, is all about suffering. Dash had a sense of self-satisfaction about everything he did. That somehow he was in on something and everybody else should join.”
Neville Wakefield, the Manhattan-based British curator, included Snow in several shows, including Defamation of Character at PS1. “The excess was certainly a side of it,” he says. “But what he made, his art, was very traditional. It was American art coming from the late ‘50s and the ‘60s. People like Wallace Berman and George Herms. And the paradox is that he did walk this line of excess throughout his life but he was the sweetest, nicest guy you could imagine. He was completely charming. He touched and affected a lot of people.
“And at the same time he obviously had his demons. Which to some extent became the subject of his giant tabloid collages. And obviously weren’t finally sublimated in his art.”
Anthony Haden-Guest writes a weekly column on art collecting for the Financial Times. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Times (London), and many other publications. He is the author of several books, including True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World. He lives in New York and London.