Saturday, August 1, 2009

Exquisite Corpse

Dash Snow, on the High Line in Manhattan

I had never heard of Dash Snow when he died last month of a drug overdose in a Manhattan hotel. But when I read the story in the New York Times, I became immediately fascinated by him: here was a guy who was exactly my son's age, who had been living on his own in Manhattan since the age of 14 or so, and who was an established artist. What's more, he was a scion of the Menil family, the family someone has described as the American Medici because of their enormous patronage of the arts, especially contemporary art. But according to the article, he was in more or less constant conflict with his illustrious family, and he saw himself as a rebel against their patrician lifestyle. Was he? I wondered how much of Dash Snow's life and work could be understood in light of the family he came from.

In June, I visited the Dia Foundation's Dia Beacon gallery in upstate New York. The Dia Foundation was started by Phillipa de Menil, Dash Snow's great aunt. The Dia Foundation funded a lot of Donald Judd's work in Marfa; it takes care of De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico. Phillipa's sister, Christophe, is Dash Snow's grandmother. The family's money comes from oil, and their museum in Houston, the Menil, is the most beautiful buildings in the city. The collection centers around ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean, and Surrealist works from Europe.

Collage by Dash Snow

There is not a lot of Dash Snow's work to be seen on the internet. What I could find was a few photographs--Polaroids--and some collages. The collages did remind me of work I've seen in the Menil museum in Houston, in Mrs. de Menil's Surrealism galleries.

The polaroids seem to be more influenced by Dash Snow's immersion in the Bohemia of the downtown art scene than by the art that his family collected. There is almost a tradition now of photography about this scene, the most famous practitioner of that tradition being Nan Goldin, who photographed her friends shooting up and dying of AIDS and being starving artists. Dash Snow was no starving artist: he had inherited enough money to live without a job, it seems, and enough to do quite a lot of drugs, including heroin. His addiction was a cause of conflict with his mother in particular, but his grandmother seems to have remained close to him. There was some suggestion, in the stories I read online, that his mother thought that his grandmother was enabling his addiction.

It seems that Snow went into rehab multiple times, beginning when he was a young teenager. His most recent stint in rehab had been this past spring. When he got out, friends noted that he looked healthy and happy. He had a partner, and together they had a young daughter, age two. But by late May he had relapsed again, and it seems that the overdose might have been a suicide. Did he despair of ever breaking away from his dependence on his family? Or on heroin? Was he ashamed of his freedom, and his lack of real work in the world? He had a lot to live for: apparently he loved his partner and his daughter.

This sad story seems to suggest that there is such a thing as too much money and too much freedom, too early, even for an artist. Most artists dream of having unlimited time and resource to make things without worrying about whether the work would sell or not, and without having to work a day job. Dash Snow never worked a day job in his life, and sold little. But his oeuvre seems to have been pretty small. Granted, nowadays making a "hamster's nest" out of shredded phone books and living in it for a few days is an art work, as is running around spraying graffiti on the city; so maybe if you count those things, he worked harder at art than it seems. Still, one can't help wondering if a need to work could have saved Dash Snow from himself. A much older friend, Jack Wall, said in one of the Times articles, "In my day...when we wanted a fix, we had to go work--we couldn't just sit around getting high for three straight weeks."

Count your blessings, starving artists.