When an artist dies before he can figure it out

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From Underfoot
  • Irving Penn
  • From "Underfoot"
Perhaps there's no good reason why the image of masticated gum on a New York City sidewalk should remind me of a grainy Polaroid depicting a drug-fueled orgy, but it does.

Irving Penn shot the gum—several pieces of it, actually, each crushed into a tiny, self-contained world on the city's filthy pavement. He came to the subject late in life, after spending decades as a celebrated fashion photographer for Vogue.

Dash Snow shot the orgy. He was also its star. He died of a heroin overdose in a Manhattan hotel—his brief, explosive existence culminating in the most expected of ways.

Penn also died in New York, at the age of 92. Snow was exactly two weeks shy of turning 28.

Penn forged his style in the years following World War II, and it's not difficult to read the ordered minimalism of his photographs as a response to historical bedlam. Snow was a self-styled derelict, an anxious product of graffiti culture, consumed—literally and figuratively—by a need to leave his mark.

Penn was control, Snow was chaos. Penn was precision, Snow was abandon. Penn was meticulously rendered portraits of historical luminaries—Duchamp, O'Keefe, JFK. Snow was a spray of ejaculate across a histrionic headline in the New York Post.

Penn will rest eternally in the pantheon. Snow is buried on the fringe.

An artist's life tends to be viewed as a three-act structure—emerging, midcareer, and late. Irving Penn could have been remembered as a man who took pretty pictures, had he not lived to explore far-flung cultures, urban detritus, and the peculiar beauty of flesh. But because he lived a long life, a measured life, both he and his work evolved. Dash Snow was born into the American equivalent of the House of Medici. The great-grandson of famed art patrons John and Dominique de Menil, he spent his short life pushing back against privilege and forsaking his pedigree, fighting demons that he could never quite explain. The work that he did produce—the hedonistic Polaroids, the semen stains, the hamster nests—feels both juvenile and inherently privileged, the art of someone who can afford not to give a fuck. But Snow was an artist in the first act, and his story ended before it was complete.

In an artist like Penn, you can see the full arc—a career that began with conventional representations of glamor and ended in an attempt to find beauty in the ugliness of the world. Had Dash Snow given himself more time, maybe he could have found meaning in the meaningless of the world. But he couldn't hold out—and now we'll never know.

Irving Penn's series of sidewalk photographs, "Underfoot," is on exhibit at the Art Institute through 5/12.

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