The artist Dash Snow rammed a screwdriver into his buzzer the other day. He has no phone. He doesn’t use e-mail. So now, if you want to speak to him, you have to go by his apartment on Bowery and yell up. Lorax-like, he won’t come to the window to let you see that he sees you: He has a periscope he puts up so he can check you out first.
Partly, it comes from his graffiti days, this elusiveness, the recent adolescence the 25-year-old Snow spent tagging the city and dodging the police. “He’s pretty paranoid about lots of things in general, and some of it was dished out to him, but others he’s created himself,” says Snow’s friend, the 27-year-old artist Dan Colen, who—like so many of their friends—has made significant artistic contributions to the ever-expanding mythology of Dash Snow. Colen and Snow went to London together this fall for the Saatchi show in which they both had work. (Saatchi had bought one of Colen’s sculptures for $500,000.) Saatchi got them a fancy hotel room on Piccadilly. They had to flee it in the middle of the night with their suitcases before it was discovered that they’d created one of their Hamster’s Nests, which they’ve done quite a few times before. To make a Hamster’s Nest, Snow and Colen shred up 30 to 50 phone books, yank around all the blankets and drapes, turn on the taps, take off their clothes, and do drugs—mushrooms, coke, ecstasy—until they feel like hamsters.
If you want to find Snow, you have to find Colen, or Snow’s other best friend, the 29-year-old photographer Ryan McGinley, who four years ago became the youngest person ever to have a solo show at the Whitney. That show, “The Kids Are Alright,” depicted a downtown neverland where people are thrilled and naked, leaping in front of graffiti on the street, sacked out in heaps of flannel shirts—everything very debauched and drug-addled and decadent, like Nan Goldin hit with a happy wand. Part of what made McGinley so famous (like Goldin before him) was that he offered not just an artist’s vision of a free and rebellious alternative life but also the promise that he was actually living it, through photos that looked spontaneous, stolen, of an intimate cast of characters, a family of friends, and in McGinley’s case, of Snow in particular. In some ways, Snow has been his muse.
“I guess I get obsessed with people, and I really became fascinated by Dash,” says McGinley, who shares a Chinatown loft a few blocks away from Snow’s apartment with Dan Colen, whom McGinley has known since they were teenage skateboarders in New Jersey. The apartment used to be a brothel; for a long time, Chinese men would come to the door and be disappointed when McGinley or Colen answered it. McGinley shows me his photos of Snow over the years, dozens and dozens of them. Snow with cornrows, with a shaved head, with a black eye. There is one photo called Dash Bombing that was in the Whitney show: a shadowy shot of Snow out on a ledge, tagging a building in the night sky, Manhattan spread out below him. It’s an image of anarchic freedom, one that seems anachronistic and almost magical in this city of hermetically sealed glass-cocoon condo towers. It’s as if Snow were an animal—prevalent in the seventies, now thought to be extinct—that was spotted high over the city.
“I actually don’t like graffiti,” McGinley says. “I was just interested in the person that would write their name thousands and thousands and thousands of times. These kids that would go up on a rooftop, 40 stories up, and go out on a ledge to write their name—it’s just, like, the insanity of it all!” McGinley smiles his clean smile. “It’s funny to me that Dash has become like a rock star, but he’s so paranoid. That comes from graffiti culture—like, you want everybody to know who you are and you’re going to write your name all over the city, but you can’t let anyone know who you really are. It’s, like, this idea of being notorious.”
And because notoriety is crucial to something much larger than graffiti culture, Dash Snow is becoming a kind of sensation. Young people poured out onto Joey Ramone Place waiting to get into his last show at Rivington Arms gallery. He had a piece in the Whitney Biennial—a picture of a dog licking his lips in a pile of trash and several other Polaroids. You may not be able to find him, but you can hear his name, that zooming syllable—Dash!—punctuating conversations in Chelsea galleries and Lower East Side coke parties and Miami art fairs and the offices of underground newspapers in Copenhagen and Berlin, like a kind of supercool international Morse code. Because the art world loves infamy. Downtown New York City loves infamy—needs it, in fact, to exist.
What makes the legend richer is that Dash Snow could very easily have lived a different kind of life, been a different kind of artist. Snow’s maternal grandmother is a De Menil, which is to say art-world royalty, the closest thing to the Medicis in the United States. His mother made headlines a few years ago for charging what was then the highest rent ever asked on a house in the Hamptons: $750,000 a season. And his brother, Maxwell Snow, is a budding member of New York society who has dated Mary-Kate Olsen. But Snow has concocted something else for himself. He has been living as hard as a person can—in and out of jail, doing drugs, running from the police—for a decade. He’s unschooled, self-taught. And in much the same way that Andy Warhol used the life force of young artists and assorted beautiful people to keep himself inspired, sharing his own talents and imprimatur in return, McGinley and Colen have adopted Snow as the mascot of their message.
Ryan McGinley wasn’t an artsy sissy growing up; he was a jock, and his green-eyed confidence is working on all cylinders. McGinley is the youngest of eight children of a father who worked for Owens Corning and a mother who goes to church every single day, and he’ll give you an answer to anything you ask. McGinley is big on family, community, and he is his scene’s court hagiographer. Instead of Warhol’s test shoots, McGinley took Polaroids of every person who would walk into the apartment he and Colen used to share on East 7th Street, a place that became locally famous in the nineties as somewhere to hang out and get wasted and be bad. People fall in love with McGinley’s work because it tells a story about liberation and hedonism: Where Goldin and Larry Clark were saying something painful and anxiety-producing about Kids and what happens when they take drugs and have sex in an ungoverned urban underworld, McGinley started out announcing that “The Kids Are Alright,” fantastic, really, and suggested that a gleeful, unfettered subculture was just around the corner—still—if only you knew where to look.
In actuality, McGinley is methodical, calculating, disciplined. He can barely drink anymore and follows a strict dairy- and sugar- and caffeine-free diet to reduce his tinnitus, a chronic ringing in the ears. One long wall of his apartment is lined with shelves on which he keeps his alphabetized collection of art books and binders cataloguing all of his work and Snow’s. “Because you never know what’s going to happen with Dash,” McGinley says and gets up on a ladder to pull down some of Snow’s old Polaroids.
There is a shot of Snow’s bloodied face: a self-portrait. “I think he jumped through a window? I’m not sure what happened that night.” Next is a photograph of a glorious girl grinning in a hat on the boardwalk. “That’s Dash’s wife, Agathe.” They married when they were 18, and Agathe, who is Corsican, needed papers to stay in the country.
“But Dash was totally in love,” Dan Colen tells me later. “They were like husband and wife for a long time, and they still have a really strong bond, as much as either one of them likes to ignore it or pretend or whatever. They were like the coolest couple ever.”
There is a picture of someone snorting a line of coke off an erect penis, and then one of Snow naked with an Asian girl wearing red ski goggles. “She must be a hooker because he’s wearing a condom,” says McGinley. Many of the same people are pictured in Snow’s photos as in McGinley’s early work, doing the same kinds of things, but Snow sees something very different. “I’m into freedom and a celebration of life, and Dash is more about the fall of humanity,” McGinley says. “Hells, yeah. He’s into some dark shit: S&M, crack, corrupt cops...”
McGinley and Colen met Snow when they were in art school (at Parsons and RISD, respectively) and Snow was 16 and living on 13th Street in Alphabet City and starting a graffiti crew called Irak (in graffiti slang, to “rak” is to steal, which they did) with a guy named Ace Boon Kunle, “a big, black homosexual,” as McGinley describes him, whose tag is Earsnot.
“Dash was like me, a polished derel”—a polished derelict, says Kunle. “He got that twinkle in the eye that lets you know. But Dash wasn’t like a lot of the derels I was hanging out with who would run out of stores with clothes in their hands. Dash would steal, but it’s the way you steal: I go in and I’m really friendly with the help and I’m smooth. I’ll make it sweet, so the next three or four times I come in the store, it’s all good with the help. Dash got really good at it. One of the things I always say is that a really good graffiti writer will make a good shoplifter—someone who’s used to breaking the law fifteen or twenty times a day.”
Not everyone in their circle was comfortable with Snow’s vespertine prowlings. “Ryan and Dan, I understand their success, but Dash, to me? As far as I was concerned, he was just a vandal,” says Jack Walls, an artist and writer whom Snow, McGinley, and Colen all refer to as a father figure and who was for many years the boyfriend and sometime subject of Robert Mapplethorpe. “There would be times I’d be hanging out with everybody drinking and Dash would go off into the night and I would be so worried about him falling off a bridge. I would just stand there watching until he was out of sight, wondering if I’d ever see him again.”
Walls met Snow one day when he was walking down Prince Street with Patti Smith’s son Jackson. “It was wintertime, and there’s this kid. He went out of his way to say hi to me. Jackson said, ‘That’s Dash, I went to school with him.’ At the Little Red Schoolhouse. And then later I was at Ryan’s and I was looking at his Polaroids and I said, ‘Who is this? What’s his story?’ Ryan said, ‘That’s Dash; he does graft.’ ”
Snow and Irak crew were always pissing people off. They used to pay bums to let them tag their backs. Another crew member named Simon Curtis got his group into trouble with the police when he drunkenly stole a topless photograph of a girl he was obsessed with from a gallery opening in Williamsburg. Two of the gallery’s owners chased him, and depending on whom you ask, one of them either jumped or was yanked into the getaway car, and the other ended up clinging to the hood as the driver sped down the street and eventually got out to punch him. McGinley was in the passenger seat, taking photographs. Curtis went to jail. McGinley was arrested but wasn’t charged—as usual, he was near the center of the action, turning it into art, one step removed from the danger. “When it comes down to it,” says McGinley, “Dash is wild, a wild kid. I have my moments? But for me, it’s always sort of about creating a fantasy. It’s, like, the life I wish that I was living. For Dash, it’s really the life.”
Snow was sent to juvenile detention when he was 13, and since then he has lived on his own and shunned his wealthy family. His friends are the ones who encouraged him to make the transition from thief to artist. Of course, rebelling against your famous art family by becoming a famous artist is a pretty interesting way to rebel.
“I think Ryan and I are blatantly ambitious, and we didn’t come from a place where we could coast by, by any means,” says Colen. “We had to make money for ourselves, and we had to figure out how to do it. And neither of us could really do anything except make art. The reason I’m not including Dash is that he more stumbled upon art, whereas Ryan and I pursued it.
“Dash started doing some things that were kind of like art, and Ryan and I used to encourage him. I used to have these long talks with him because he grew up in this art family and he met a lot of crazy people, but he was a little ignorant about stuff. He had all these weird, really amazing opportunities, like he met Robert Rauschenberg when he was 5, but maybe he didn’t know who Matthew Barney was. Me and him spent like a lot of time really late at night just talking about it.”
Colen says he introduced Snow to his former gallerists Melissa Bent and Mirabelle Marden at Rivington Arms (Colen has since switched to Peres Projects) and urged them to take on Snow, “which was, like, a bit of a struggle.” (“I’m sure Dan probably thinks he started the whole fucking gallery,” says Bent.) In any case, Snow refused to call himself an artist for a long time. He used to boast that he’d been Polaroiding his night wanderings since he stole a camera at age 13, just so he’d know where he’d been when he sobered up. More recently Snow has been into collage, but either way some see in his work a kind of radical authenticity that parts of the art world are desperate for. “Whether it’s total bullshit and he’s running around trying to get in trouble with the police, it kind of doesn’t matter,” says art agent and consultant Molly Logan. “As a case study, here’s a creature who’s just reacting. I think that for the last five years or so, there is a larger desire for the personal: something that has the hand of a person in it. It’s not I’m going to do this so people will think I’m crazy. I am crazy! I think he’s genuinely and completely self-destructive.” Which is, of course, what the art world has always wanted, especially in New York City, what Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning supplied, along with genius. That magic flash of insanity, framed and for sale.
Ariel Levy, New York Magazine.
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