The Ruined Prince of the Downtown School

dashsnow The Ruined Prince of the Downtown SchoolI am only guessing here, but the memorial show for artist Dash Snow on display at Deitch Projects on Grand Street is as likely as not to be remembered as a send-off to the youth craze that has seized the art world this decade.

More legend than man, and dead at 27, Dash Snow’s trajectory as an artist was self-destructive, and the destruction was abrupt: On July 13, he died in New York City of a heroin overdose.

The elliptical show devoted to the theme of Dash Snow includes artwork from his friends and family—T-shirts, flowers, messages straight from the heart—and lots of photography.

You could be forgiven for having missed him: Snow first appeared in New York around 1997 as part of a street-graffiti team working under the tag of SACER. The camera-toting Snow went on to capture the period in countless Polaroids, a number of which are included in the Deitch memorial. These remain his best-known work, and they are rough stuff, if enlivened here and there with a touch of glamour: the artist and his friends, in varying states of intoxication and undress, creating a frame-by-frame document of strung-out nights on the Lower East Side at the millennium. Several were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

By then Snow had gone on to drawing, collage, video and installation pieces, all of which were indebted to the Dadaist techniques of appropriation and found art that is periodically revived in the youth culture, as with the 1960s “Happenings,” revivals of which Snow and his friends were also prone to mount.

But Snow’s career made a direct appeal to some cultural follies that seem particularly contemporary: the art-world’s appetite for hot young talent and, in general, New York’s idea of itself as a city that will always be capable of fielding a homegrown avant-garde no matter how expensive the rent gets.

Snow was not a street kid himself: He was, in fact, a scion of the De Menil family, as in the De Menils of Houston. A famous family heightened the street glamour of Snow’s output in a way that has always been peculiar to the Lower Manhattan art scene: He was the ruined prince of the downtown school. In 2007, at the peak of his career, Snow made the cover of New York magazine with the photographer Ryan McGinley and the artist Dan Colen. The piece was mostly about their “lifestyle.”

Messrs. McGinley and Colen contributed to the show, as did the artists Nate Lowman and Hanna Liden, the artist’s ex-wife, Agathe Snow, as well as Snow’s former kindergarten teacher at the Trinity School, whose contribution was a touching letter. There was also a letter from a big shot at Sotheby’s to Snow’s grandmother, Christophe de Menil, a big shot’s big shot. He sent his condolences.

Snow, the abiding subject of his own artwork, appears in most of the material on display here: bearded, tattooed, lovely to look at and doing his thing for the camera. In others, the artist is seen—heartbreakingly—keeping happy company with his girlfriend, Jade Berreau, and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Secret. One work in particular stays with you, while others recede: McGinley’s Dash Bombing (2000), of an 18- or 19-year-old Snow tagging a wall against a lit-up city sky. It’s youth’s magic.

Snow’s own work may survive, or it may not. Snow never looked like he was going to turn out to be an especially good artist, and the sampling on display here does not rewrite that assessment. The drugs sealed the deal. He leaves behind a body of work, already yellowing with age, that is academically unconventional in a way that is hard to square with wild-man mythmaking. “Grisly Find in Subway,” reads an enlarged photograph of a newspaper column. The hot young artist of 2007 was working with Polaroids, Super-8 film and clippings from a city tabloid.

Judging from the show, his talent was probably for graffiti. A reproduction SACER tag, emblazoned over the gallery’s front entrance, like a benediction, has more aesthetic kick. Snow’s reputation for life far outran his accomplishments in art. It will be difficult for future generations to understand, as arduous folly usually is in passing. Dash? Dash Snow? You had to be there.

editorial@observer.com