Skip to main content
  • Source: Ursula
  • Author: Glenn O'Brien and Bill Powers
  • Date: Spring 2019

I Don’t Believe in Masterpieces Anyway

Glenn O’Brien (1947–2017) on Dash Snow (1981–2009)

Dash Snow and Glenn O’Brien, September 2008. Photo: Tamara Weber. Courtesy the photographer and Purple Diary

I remember calling Glenn O’Brien from my car on speakerphone after his advice book How to Be a Man (2011) was published. He had skipped a chapter on cellphone etiquette, so I apologized, thinking speakerphone—even when dictated by law—might be in bad taste. He said, ‘Don’t worry. The rules don’t apply to you, Bill.’ Now, I knew that was just not true, but Glenn made me feel special in the moment. I suspect many of his friends felt the same way when they were around him. Glenn was an unspoken mentor. If I was working on a new project and he thought it was cool, that was all the validation I needed. So when I began doing interviews for an oral history of the late Dash Snow, I knew Glenn would have the culture to contextualize what Dash had meant to early 21st century art. We met at his apartment in NoHo, surrounded by paintings made by his contemporaries: abstracts by Christopher Wool and James Nares, a text painting by Rene Ricard and (my favorite) a scene of Jesus waterskiing by Robert Hawkins. Glenn reclined on his couch, odalisquely, shoes off. I want to remember him wearing an unfurled bow tie because, apart from David Bowie and William Eggleston, very few men can manage that look without it seeming contrived. He spoke with the fond exasperation of a scholar, puzzling together the pieces of a lost friend. Ultimately the Dash Snow book was shelved, sidelined by art-world politics. But Glenn’s words were wise and, in death, still carry his voice. The following is a transcript from our conversation. I excised my questions so he could have the last word. I owe Glenn that much. And more. -Bill Powers

Left: Dash Snow, Shoot-Out at Shit Creek, 2008. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive. Right: Dash Snow, Slime the Boogie, 2007. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive

I met Dash through Shawn Mortensen.1 It must have been after 9/11 because I was living on Bond Street by then. Shawn reminded me of Dash in a way, but if he had no money. Shawn would come by my place and ask to borrow $200 because he was headed to Ethiopia, that sort of thing. Anyway, I’d see Dash everywhere after that. I liked how he was off the grid. I thought it was a quality—if I’d been his age—that I would admire: being on the loose.

I used to play softball with Dash’s dad on Long Island years ago.2 We had this sort of famous softball game with Neil Jenney and Scott Cohen. We played at the public school in Amagansett mostly. I also knew Dash’s grandmother through the art world.3 I remember going to a party at Christophe’s apartment in Paris back in the ’80s. I didn’t see Dash’s problem as being from this big social family as much as coming from crazy people. My own mother was pretty crazy so I could relate to that, and it didn’t have anything to do with money or social standing.

For Dash, money was an option, which isn’t true for most people. But he was a refusenik. Dash might have had another life, but this was the path he chose. If he’d lived, who knows? I never really thought about money until I was 39. Coming from a background of wealth, though, he had a different understanding. Everyone sees it as this great thing, but maybe he could see the downside as well. Dash grew up around people with power, family who were on a first-name basis with Lyndon Johnson. There’s not that much difference, really, between Dash Snow’s background and George W. Bush’s.

Dash’s titles—Gang Bang at Ground Zero, Bin Laden Youth—were as much about politics as they were about rebellion. It’s how a biker might wear the Iron Cross just to offend people. It was Dash exploiting symbols of offensiveness, playing with the same subject matter that Fox News does, only showing it from a different angle, taking things one step farther. There’s a line in Naked Lunch where Burroughs talks about seeing what’s on the ‘end of the long newspaper spoon.’ I think that’s really missing from art today. We are living in this time when the world is a confrontational, scary place, and yet art has never been further away from that truth. It’s a dereliction of duty on the part of artists today. Not that all art should be political, but it is a part of life. And I do think that some of Dash’s art can be political. People try to make the events of 9/11 sacred or some holy thing, and Dash saw through that facade. You know, there’s a cultural center now at Ground Zero and I’m like: How does the World Trade Center have anything to do with culture? I don’t think Dash was alone in his perspective.

Left: Dash Snow, Hate, 2006–2007. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive. Right: Dash Snow, Have Fun, 2006–2007. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive

Dash had a neo-shamanistic approach to art. He was drawn to magic in a psychological sense. It was about being an artist without means, using humble materials. Basquiat had that, too, the ability to make art out of anything. A lot of Basquiat’s early stuff was on found objects: refrigerator doors, window frames, plumbing. Do you know about No!Art from the ’60s?4 They were these communist radicals who made art most people perceived as rude. They weren’t into money, which was easier then because New York was so cheap.

There aren’t too many romantic artists, but I think Dash was one of them. I don’t see a difference between being a rebel and a romantic. I see them as being intimately connected. I mean, that’s why people walk around in Che Guevara T-shirts. If you go back to the roots of romanticism, back to poets like Shelley, they were romantics creating their own lifestyle. They weren’t on the barricades because they were aristocrats, but they were politically radical. In that sense, there’s a link there with Dash. He had a privileged childhood, but it didn’t come free.

Being a dad strongly affected Dash, but it would have changed him a lot more if he’d stuck around longer. Kids, for the first couple of years, it’s mostly about life support. Things really get interesting when they hit seven or eight.

I think if Dash hadn’t been on such an emotional roller coaster, he could have ended up a lot like Rauschenberg. Work by both is magical and political, and for Rauschenberg, money was a means to an end. Rauschenberg used to make more money than Warhol, but what did he do with it? He helped other artists or flew to Africa to do shit. Rauschenberg wasn’t looking to live the high life.

I think the pictures Dash took of people sleeping relates to the getting-high thing; being lost in this mysterious part of our consciousness. In ancient Greece, they had ritual outcasts, the pharmakoi. Like Kurt Cobain, Dash was a version of the pharmakos, the sacrificial victim, but willingly so…like all those dead rock stars. It’s kind of an American thing, too, which you can trace back to the pre-­Columbian civilizations. It’s an ancient way for a society to purge itself and a way to control the population. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that they flooded the ghettos with heroin in the 1960s, and then they flooded the art ghettos. The best way to cripple your enemy is to get them to kill themselves.

Dash Snow, The Government That Will Bring Paradise, 2006–2007. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive

I remember seeing Dash the day after that New York magazine story came out.5 The thing I didn’t get was the title, ‘Warhol’s Children.’ Where does that come from? Although there was some element of the Superstars in them: Dan, Dash and Ryan. They might have been people Andy would have wanted to photograph. There’s definitely some Andy in Ryan, the idea of having the most beautiful boys and the most beautiful girls around you. And creating a scene that other people will want to be around.

Dash and David Hammons are both artists with a witch-doctor feel to their work, which is important, because ultimately what is the value of art? Is it purely financial? Something to be bought and sold? In an increasingly secular society, it’s even more important as people try to form their belief systems. If you’re not going the readymade route, then you look around for the tools available to make something of your own. That’s a big part of the artist’s job or the writer’s job. It’s found in the moment, not in an academic way. You find it in the practice. I think the academic and institutional part of the art world is a big problem. Artists often collaborate with them to their detriment, because they think they need the institution as a go-between, a translator for the public. Dash, like David Hammons, understood that you don’t need the middleman. Cut out the middleman. Make him wait in line with everyone else. It has to be on the artist’s terms.

Dan Colen asked me to read something at Dash’s memorial, but I thought it was more important that he eulogize his friend. I could have said a lot of the stuff that I wrote in my essay, but Dan was such an integral part of his life. I encouraged Dan to do it himself, because he was at a vulnerable moment himself. I don’t want to be the obituary writer for my generation. I said a lot when Basquiat died, and I didn’t feel like it was my place with Dash. But, you know, I don’t really believe in generations so much. I’ve been connected to people of all ages. I had a relationship with Brion Gysin that was really important to me.6 He was a great teacher. Dash’s beautiful collages relate a lot to Burroughs, but also to Gysin. I remember showing Dash all my Gysin books and showing him the cut-up newspaper pieces and how, just by shifting the columns of type, you could create new meanings, which Dash had already arrived at independently. I remember talking about abstract painting with Dash and just general bullshit, too.

I saw him at the Margiela show in 2008 during Paris fashion week. It was the label’s last show with Martin Margiela at the helm, so it was kind of a hot ticket. It was great to see Dash there. If I ever wanted to see him, I’d just think about him and he’d appear.

I think Dash embraced contradiction, in most cases, as a reaction to political correctness. There’s something really great about the ability to see the good and the bad in any particular situation or person instead of damning a whole class of people; to have the guts to explore.

Left: Dash Snow, Forgot More Than You Will Ever Know, 2006–2007. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive. Right: Dash Snow, Newspaper 2, 2006. Courtesy Dash Snow Archive

There’s isn’t one masterpiece by Dash. But that makes me think about an artist like Ray Johnson7, whose lack of a masterpiece was in itself a masterpiece. Besides, I don’t believe in masterpieces anyway; they’re about marketing and the market. Ray, similar to Basquiat and Dash, would test people, test their integrity. See how far he could push them. I think Dash wanted to psychically win any exchange he had with people. Dash saw the transactional aspect to being an artist, and he wanted to be on the winning side. Which is maybe why he didn’t make more work.

I remember going to his show at Rivington Arms, and it was funny to see who turned up.8 I was used to seeing Dash intruding into other people’s milieu. His opening was kind of a freak show: all these people you’d never expect to be in the same room.

I think Dash loved Polaroids because he was into instant gratification. Yes, there were digital cameras and camera phones, but you couldn’t hold those images in your hand. The Polaroid was still this magic thing.

I was in high school when Kennedy was assassinated, which might have been a similar feeling to Dash at 20 years old living through 9/11. Both were formative to the attitudes of young people. I remember that the night Kennedy died we were already reacting to the mass mourning, the official seizing of everyone’s emotions, and kind of making fun of Kennedy even though we liked him. The experience hardened us to emotional manipulation by the press. That’s what the media does; it tries to train us in these attitudes, and I think that’s what a lot of Dash’s work is about: to play off knee-jerk reactions you associate with The New York Post or the Daily News or Fox News; to be skeptical of what the media says. I think the Bin Laden Youth thing was trying to force people to pick sides, as if you really could or that it would make any difference.

You get into art because you want to change the world or do something different. You don’t want to just sell a painting for $100,000 that immediately goes into storage. You want an audience. I think that’s something younger artists understand—that Dash understood—the importance of having it be public. I talked to Basquiat about this; he wasn’t making work for Bruno Bischofberger or Peter Brant. He wanted to be Jimi Hendrix. He wanted to be Picasso. He wanted a mass audience.

Glenn O’Brien was an editor, television producer, screenwriter, critic and influential cultural scene maker who began his career at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.

Selections from the Dash Snow Archive will be presented in ‘Dash Snow. The Drowned World‘, on view at PARTICIPANT INC, New York NY, from 31 March – 12 May 2019. The exhibition will include a screening of Snow’s film ‘Familae Erase‘ (2008) on Sunday 14 April 2019, 7pm.

1-American photographer, photojournalist and activist (1965–2009), revered for his portraits of artists and musicians.

2-Christopher Snow (1953–2013), artist, musician and composer; in 1981 married Taya Thurman, daughter of Christophe de Menil.

3-Christophe de Menil, costume and jewelry designer, arts patron; daughter of John and Dominique de Menil, founders of the Menil Collection in Houston.

4-A radical art movement founded in New York in the early 1960s by Boris Lurie, Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher, whose work often used provocative, violent and pornographic imagery.

5-‘Warhol’s Children,’ a 2007 cover article by Ariel Levy about the downtown scene that developed around Snow and fellow artists Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley.

6-The shamanistic Canadian-English artist and writer (1916–1986) best known for his influence on the ‘cutup’ writing method of William Burroughs and for his creation of the Dreamachine, a stroboscopic light device designed to induce a hypnagogic state.

7-Collagist, early Pop artist and pioneer of the mail-art movement (1927–1995). His work developed a cult-like following, but he disdained traditional commercial or critical success.

8-‘Moments Like This Never Last,’ February – March 2005. Rivington Arms gallery operated on the Lower East Side from 2001 to 2009.