When I type “27” into Google, “Dash Snow Dead, Monday, July 13” appears third in the results. I plugged the number into the search engine after speaking to his former lover Kathryn Garcia, about his recent death. “Twenty-seven,” she said, without explaining the term. She was referring to the age at which drug-addicted icons like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin died. Many who knew Dash Snow, or were familiar with his work, now see him taking his place among the legendary “27 club.”
But the art world, and the larger sphere of culture consumers, have been reluctant to embrace his art. Even Snow himself didn’t initially consider his practice fine art. “I mean, I remember the first time I hung out with him and went to his house,” the artist’s dealer Javier Peres recalled. “He didn’t consider himself an artist per se. He was, at that point, just taking photographs to sort of remember and document what he and his friends were getting up to. And it was more like he was creating a scrapbook for everybody’s benefit, you know?”
As his exhibition history grew, Snow naturally came to think of himself as an artist. Not that this did much to convince critics; anyone who knows his work and pedigree would recognize the difficulty in taming the media. After all, Dash Snow was a member of the prominent de Menil family, described by New York Magazine as art collector “royalty.” And in the same way his privileged lineage met with raised eyebrows, Snow’s art was viewed with no small amount of skepticism. Polaroids of the artist having sex with multiple women, coke-lined turntables and ejaculate-drenched newspapers with cop headlines aren’t usually crowd-pleasers, even if they make a good media story. The artwork seems a product of excessive lifestyles, which people frequently begrudge.
Certainly, I’ve had my own reservations about Snow’s work. I don’t trust press-magnet art. I’m also not immune to the biases of the art world, though I may recognize they contain absurd double standards. For instance, we regularly place greater faith in art made by the mentally unstable than that made by people with debilitating drug addictions. Almost without fail, the latter appears lazy and indulgent whereas the former is a unique deviation pregnant with creative potential.
But people like Peres Projects owner Javier Peres see the artist’s reputation for partying as a common misconception. “He comes from a complicated history,” Peres told New York Magazine. “As a result, he dealt with his life as best he could. And fought to survive as long as he could. The things he did to cope with the strain of his own life were often misunderstood as partying.”
Kathryn Garcia identified a perhaps more specific label commonly misapplied to Snow’s work: “Lifestyle artist.” “It bothers me when I see people write, ‘It was about the drugs, it was about the nightlife’ — it wasn’t, it was about his feeling,” she said. “I think [Snow’s was] a common feeling in New York at the time, it was dark. I mean, it was post-9/11… you know? Everyone had this feeling of loss, and aloneness, and not understanding, and they were rebelling against everything, every structure they could think of. And Dash was one of those people. Dash was a free spirit in a world that wasn’t kind to free spirits.”
According to Garcia, Snow’s means of coping with feeling like an outsider was to document and develop new families with people who felt the same way. The Lower East Side she describes — Dash’s community — is comprised of a small number of artists and dealers, including performance artist and Dash Snow’s ex-wife Agathe Snow, mixed-media artist Terence Koh, photographers Ryan McGinley and Dan Colen, and dealer Javier Peres. It’s hard to quantify influence while it’s happening, but the number of national and international museum shows and exhibitions the crowd has accrued is significant, to say the least. “These guys are all getting various degrees of attention,” Javier Peres told me, running down an impressive list of shows for each. “I think things are still moving in this upwardly mobile direction.”
Indeed, intense interest in Snow’s work had been building internationally over the last several years (though his notoriety remained mostly that of a local celebrity). Canada Gallery co-owner Phil Grauer was in Berlin during Snow’s first major exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts, The End of Living... The Beginning of Survival, in 2007, and recalled the excitement. “It was a thorough, big show… it really did hold down Berlin. I was kind of proud.”
Only a few days ago, I might not have fully understood what Grauer meant. Sure, it’s nice to see New York artists draw crowds elsewhere, but at that point, Snow attracted media just by showing up. And like many, I was more familiar with the fact that he used his own ejaculate and shot Polaroids of his friends, than with how the work actually functioned. Certainly, I was not aware that the few Polaroids I had seen were just a small sample of his work. “He would take hundreds of Polaroids,” Peres told me, still astounded by his productivity, “and film was running out. We bought $1,500, maybe $2,500 worth of film. We just kept stocking it up whenever we found a large quantity of it so we would have access to it.”
This rapid acquisition of Polaroid film is indicative, to some, of an era rapidly approaching an end. Grauer saw the photos as evidence of a time not long past: “He got those Polaroid shots in when you could still buy film at the end of that chemical life cycle,” he told me. “And so they’re kind of real, and because of that. I mean… they’re not snapshots from a night, or a couple parties. They’re not. This camera was obviously kind of carried around and cared about. And Polaroids are hard; you go through a lot of film to arrive at that kind of edit. At a time when film was done, he kind of gravitated to it, and it’s a pretty beautiful thing to see.” Grauer paused for a moment before he added, resolutely, “Beyond that, the collage work had an otherworldly, and very tender, and thorough touch.”
Discontent also permeated the work, and friends said his series of ejaculate-spattered newspaper clippings reporting police brutality illustrated the artist’s deep distaste for the world around him. “He was just angry, upset like all of us are, at the way things are,” said Garcia. “He was political in his own personal way.”
Resistance to communication technologies might be seen as one such stance. Snow notoriously ran without a cellphone or email, maintaining connections with friends organically. “I think he was a very special guy,” said Bruce LaBruce, an artist who worked with him briefly for a recent issue of Purple Fashion Magazine. “He somehow managed to live in the world entirely in his own way, at his own pace, and with his own sense of how things should be.”
Speaking to this unique sensitivity, virtually everyone I talked with described Snow as an intensely gentle individual. “He was one of those really pure souls — he was affected by everything, mentally, he was reacting to things constantly,” Garcia said. Peres and Garcia both expressed the belief that his work revealed this vulnerability and generosity. I, too, was more taken by the implicit sweetness of his art than I had been previously while writing his obituary earlier in the week. Even if I wasn’t alone, I felt ashamed for not having looked at the work more closely prior to his death. Perhaps Snow has left us more than we realize. “This is New York arts getting some of the attention it finally deserves,” Grauer told me, noting the inherent sadness in the fact that it took such extremes to make people actually stop and look at the work. “I don’t think it was a weak-minded era of over-drugged, or over-partied, or any of those things. I contend that if you go to the work and you really open your mind and your history books, you’ll find a way of caring about it at a pretty intense level.”
Notably, the work may speak more potently not as testament to an era (in this case, that of extreme consumption) but rather to a place. “I like it because it’s the city, and I don’t know if it could have happened anywhere else,” Grauer explained. “And its not just Dash, it’s the whole community. I just don’t know if another city could have supported it.”Images courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin Los Angeles. Dash Snow portrait by Mordechai S. Rubinstein.