Dash Snow: Controversial artist and inhabitant of New York's demi-monde whose work championed excess

Dash Snow had everything any artist today could require, from that cool moniker to a spectacular look, hair down to his waist, a giant beard, dazzling shades, acres of full-body tatouage, and best of all his own gang of equally youthful and exotic fellow artist friends in deepest downtown Manhattan. His actual artwork was also guaranteed to gain attention thanks to his use of such provocative elements as his own semen, his own cocaine stash, his own blood and the torn or collaged detritus of throwaway modern life.

Excessive behaviour, especially involving recreational drugs, was a favoured theme of Snow's team, lovingly documented in his short films and polaroids, and having made narcotics central to his oeuvre it was perhaps inevitable they would return the favour and bring his career to a premature close. And thus it was that Snow died from a heroin overdose in an East Village hotel aged 27.

Opiates refuse to go out of style – indeed it is curious that in some 60 years since the bebop jazzers and Beatniks that nobody has come up with a better marker of hardcore hipster integrity than the taking of heroin – and Snow's habit was crucial to his cooler-than-thou legend. But his love of drugs may also have eased some aching.

For Snow's other advantage, or disadvantage, an ambiguity which was to haunt his reputation, was to come from an impeccable lineage of enormously wealthy haute bohemia, his direct family being among the most serious contemporary art patrons in America. Snow's grandfather was the high-society Buddhist guru Robert Thurman (his aunt, therefore, was Uma Thurman), his father Christopher Snow was a musician and his mother came from the legendary De Menil Schlumberger family, a French oil dynasty long settled in Houston, where they have their own museum designed by Renzo Piano.

Another of Snow's De Menil aunts set up the Dia art foundation, which diverted vast chunks of the family fortune into sponsoring contemporary artists with their most ambitious projects, whether Donald Judd buying his own town in Texas, Walter de Maria setting up his Lightning Field or Michael Heizer creating a giant desert earthwork. The Dia foundation has its own enormous museum in Beacon, upstate New York, but it also bought artists their own buildings, including the Dream House in Tribeca, a trippy installation by La Monte Young – a secret key to Snow's aesthetic as he even adopted the artist-musician's hippy-biker look of vast facial hair and constant sunglasses.

The fact that Snow was wealthy and well-connected was only so piquant because everything in his life and art was predicated upon a stance of rebellion, marginality, outlaw bravado and illegal behaviour. His loose group of other artists such as Dan Colen, Ryan McGinley, Nate Lowman and Terence Koh all lived and showed downtown, not least in the furthest reaches of Chinatown, exhibiting with such galleries as Peres Projects, Maccarone and Rivington Arms, work loaded with "Bad Boy" theatrics of sex and excess.

Part of their pleasure was to shred phone books and papers, turning hotel rooms into "hamster nests" of tactile squalour, even creating a version of such an installation at Deitch gallery in SoHo, where slackers and skaters were free to come linger, graffiti the walls, make their own fine mess. Every generation needs its own version of this same bohemia, often with surprisingly minor variants, but the fact that today one needs money, family money if necessary, to live this sort of life in Manhattan itself rather than some outer borough, added a comic twist to this set.

Likewise Snow's work may not have been startlingly original, his collages seeming especially vieux jeu, but their potency was largely charged by the narrative of his own creative existence, by the persona and aura of the artist, of key import in our media-led artworld. Some of his best works dealt directly with drugs, not least the memorable appearance at the 2006 Whitney Biennial of a jagged sculpture featuring a generous crusting of cocaine, though those who tested it for a taste could testify this coke was not the real thing.

Snow's rebel urge started early, including being sent away to a reform school in Georgia as a teenager, but really hit its stride when he was a very young artist in an increasingly conformist and conservative New York, where he first made his mark, literally, as a 15-year-old graffiti artist spraying the city with his trademark tag "SACE". Part of this neo-hippy, neo-hobo "Old Weird Amerika" aesthetic included a sartorial nod to such early '70s icons as The Band, where vast beards of Civil War era aura and Dylanesque weskits and preacher hats became de rigeur.

Such nostalgia, suggestive also of free-love communes, ensured not just an emphasis on sex but also young love and young parents, Snow marrying the artist Agathe Aparru at only 17. That idealistic union ended in divorce but last year with his new partner, the model Jade Berreau, he had a daughter with a name worthy of the Zappa clan, Secret Magic. That another given name should have been "Nico", as in the notoriously long-addicted singer, suggests the depths of this generation's respect for such previous icons of glacial decadence.

Snow was not only living out his own novel, or more probable VH1 Special, but that of all those alternative cultural maveriks who came before. Perhaps it is appropriate that instead of a classic OD at the Chelsea Hotel, Snow's own demise should have taken place, yes, in the East Village, but in an elegant and notably expensive boutique hotel symptomatic of that neighbourhood's complete gentrification.

Adrian Dannatt

Dash Snow, artist: born New York 27 July 1981; married 1999 Agathe Aparru (one daughter with Jade Berreau); died Manhattan 13 July 2009.

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