PRINT October 2002


A year ago this month NAN GOLDIN’s retrospective began a six-venue tour at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. As the exhibition draws to a close this winter, LISA LIEBMANN reexamines the career of an artist whose oeuvre is inextricably bound up with her biography.

Nan Goldin is more than a good or significant photographer, more than a widely celebrated one. She has over the past couple of decades become nothing less than a cultural force majeure—a “monstre,” in the sense of sacré, as she was described in Connaissance des arts last fall when her current traveling retrospective opened in Paris at the Centre Georges Pompidou. In America, Goldin’s vast and relentlessly personal body of images has often been jokingly referred to as “The Family of Nan,” in part because so many of the pictures convey, and even awaken, feelings, at once empathic and vicarious, of collective intimacy. Not, perhaps, since Edward Steichen spread his globalist’s honey in the mid-’50s has an accumulation of photographs connected with so many viewers on so deep an emotional level. Goldin’s signature shots—slices of a vie de bohème now all but extinct in Lower Manhattan—have been seen in literally hundreds of books, slide shows, and exhibitions on virtually every continent, by audiences typically full of young people whose rapt expressions suggest the solemn fervor of pilgrims at Lourdes.

There is no question that what Goldin offers encompasses a religious dimension. The aesthetic that suffuses many, if not most, of her best-known images is blatantly Catholic in both atmosphere and iconography. Her countless beds, for example, whether occupied or empty, New England plain or Berlin bordello chic, invariably evoke an Annunciatory pathos. A good many of her interiors are tantamount to ecclesiastical decors, inflected as they are (and indeed as decors often were in East Village walk-ups, circa 1980) by idiosyncratic shrines, santos, votives, crucifixes, and other devotional artifacts bought cheap at neighborhood botanicas. Her various rooms at detox clinics over the years are very much like convent cells, complete with simple cross placed over the cot, and her landscapes of recovery, from Path in the Woods at the Hospital, Belmont Ma., 1989, to Self-portrait on bridge at golden river, Silver Hill, 1998, are possessed of an otherworldly glow. Her recurring images of people floating or submerged in water suggest baptismal rites. Furthermore, the accumulated images of several of Goldin’s constant subjects from the ’70s and ’80s—protagonists of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her epochal Lustmord saga—amount to a sort of contemporary hagiography: Cookie, Vittorio, and Gilles, all dead of AIDS by the close of 1993, the year that for all purposes marks the end of this magnum opus (officially completed in 1995), are but three of Goldin’s latter-day saints à rebours.

Nan Goldin, Joana laughing, l’Hotel, Paris, 1999, color photograph, 30 x 40".

Begun around 1978 as an open-ended series of slide shows lasting roughly forty-five minutes each and set thematically to recorded music (from Bellini to Lou Reed, and including the Brecht and Weill number from The Threepenny Opera that lent the work its title), the Ballad, as many no doubt know, was initially presented to small audiences of familiars in clubs and makeshift venues in Lower Manhattan. But word soon spread, images proliferated, venues more closely skirted the mainstream, and by 1985, when it was shown in the Whitney Biennial, the Ballad had revealed itself to be a virtual monument, one that in its numerous incarnations would comprise something along the lines of a thousand pictures taken over a period of fifteen or so years. At the very least, these images of Goldin and her friends and lovers form a devastating period portrait of an artistic milieu, and a way of life, in crisis. The work’s low-rent glamour, like a true fleur du mal or a ’70s Fassbinder film, feeds more on defeat than on success, on squalor as well as on beauty, on death as on life, and on the myopia of self-absorption along with grand visions, however blinding, of love.

If the mood at those first slide séances more than twenty years ago was already tinged with a certain nostalgia—for the counterculture of a then still-recent past, and most pointedly for the social and creative atmosphere of Warhol’s Factory during its mid-’60s heyday—Goldin’s Ballad was nevertheless a catalyst, arguably the signal catalyst, for a sea change in the visual arts over the past decade and a half, one whose ripple effects are still being felt. By roughly 1993, an informal school of photography in pursuit of the snapshot verities of intimacy and spontaneity, actual or staged, had crystallized internationally in its wake. Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller, Richard Billingham, Rineke Dijkstra, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jack Pierson, David Armstrong, and Shellburne Thurber are some of the many widely recognized photographers whose work surfaced or found a broader audience at around that time. In painting, too, there was a rather dramatic shift in focus toward the figure in society, as artists including Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian), Hugh Steers, Billy Sullivan, Karen Kilimnik, Elizabeth Peyton, and others, as Suzy would say, too fabulous to mention contributed to what was suddenly an avalanche of tender, tawdry, talismanic works wherein specific individuals are depicted within the social context of specific relationships or fantasies, specific moments, specific clothes, and specific rooms.

With its manifold visual, aural, spiritual, and worldly attributes, the Ballad will surely hold its own through time. My experience of it, however, last winter in Paris, was, well, transitional. It produced in me a peculiar combination of tristesse and hard-boiled impatience—a real craving for new horizons and fresh saints. The organizers of the Beaubourg show (no doubt including the artist herself) seem actually to have predicted this kind of response, for the Ballad was positioned archivally, within the peripheral first sections of the exhibition, in a darkened chamber behind a corridor installation of some of Goldin’s earliest works, in black-and-white, from her student days around Boston in the early ’70s: The time had come to let the dead ease on out of bardo into tranquility and to let the living get on with the task of getting old.

Although images predating 1994 occurred throughout the rest of this expansive yet tightly edited and orchestrated exhibition, they seemed to have been subordinated to the broader goal of sculpting the Goldin opus into rhythmic arcs, with an eye to her continued relevance and career. Sections labeled “The Ballad,” “Friends,” and “Queens” naturally involved the highest concentrations of the old, familiar imagery. But landscapes and interiors, long-supporting presences in Goldin’s work, exerted greater magnetism from within Beaubourg’s googie-industrial shell. Indeed the show’s grand finale, in a massive cubic gallery painted pale turquoise and labeled “Elements,” was a veritable landscape thesis, for which the varied pictorial scales, tones, and formats (including, somewhat self-consciously, big unframed prints mounted on board) were entered as supporting arguments. Goldinized slices of nature, from moody images of the sulfurous Stromboli to visions so Nordic as to channel Lynn Davis, all vied for one’s attention and respect.

Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC, 1983, color photograph, 30 x 40".

I felt very much at home amid Goldin’s wistful arcadias and jaded nirvanas. Some were even images I felt I almost needed to see, a little like needing to visit a spa. I especially appreciated the magical, golden-hued Silver Hill pictures, a sort of fall-foliage album for the overly sensitive; also the distinguished European hotel rooms, with their crisp, Carravaggesque linens and shiny services and bowls of fruit; and pretty much all of the people in cathartic waters—the Pre-Raphaelitic Ophelias, the sirens of the Mediterranean and Carribean, the skanky bathroom nudes. The message in these almost ostentatiously contemplative works, many of which are uninhabited by actual figures (though often haunted by them, e.g., The sky on the twilight of Philippine’s death, Winterthur, 1997), seemed positively therapeutic, with light acting as a sort of all-healing, homeopathic balm. Goldin’s tender-is-the-light approach to chiaroscuro, on which much emphasis is being placed, in effect sends her to the opposite end of the spectrum from the recently dominant “Another Girl, Another Planet” brigade, with their daughters-of-Spielberg, brides-of-Crewdson aesthetic. Not that there aren’t little ironies involved. The distanced, indeed unearthly lucidity that informs pictures by “Girls” like Katy Grannan and Dana Hoey has upstaged Goldin’s symbolist fogs, frosts, dawns, and dusks—and even her more recent agonies (My wrist after surgery, Zurich, 2000), memento mori (Fatima candles, Portugal, 1998), and poignantly esoteric shrines (Ex-Voto of Mastectomy, Madonna dell’Arco, Somma Vesuviana, 1996, from a church outside Naples). But their staged, techno-etherized social studies feel like direct oedipal reactions to, rather than negations of, Nan & Family, like a cool color-field school nipping at the heels of expressionistic flamboyance.

Goldin, in any case, bites back. By far the biggest internal change in her work since 1994 is revealed in her recent pictures of people. Goldin’s human subjects have always been willing collaborators in the process of their own creation. They have at times also betrayed self-conscious foreboding and self-historicizing intent. Over the past few years, however, many seem more nearly to have become actors outright, cast in some auteurish version of their own life. In one of my favorite recent portraits, David on the street in his hood, Sag Harbor, 2001, Goldin’s longtime muse and friend, David Armstrong, a little grizzled and Yankee-direct, peers right at us from a wintry small-town streetscape straight out of Russell Banks—or more precisely Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film based on Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter. A great many of these recent subjects, furthermore, are only recent friends, and French to boot. With little shared history to embody, these tyros must instead rely on establishing their own personae within the opus, in full awareness of its funky, American-vérité style, not to mention its hard acts to follow.

It must be impossible innocently or even casually to be Goldin’s subject at this point: Cookie must loom large even, or perhaps especially, if one is simply lolling around one’s own rumpled bed nursing a pimple, or horsing around in desultory fashion with one’s spouse or child, or having one’s morning coffee, feeling just a wee bit stale. One must somehow, concertedly, engage in the act of becoming a Goldin subject, having already sacrificed a considerable amount of privacy toward that end. Goldin’s most recent pictures of people, including her French friends, suggest a new, cooler kind of paean to domesticity, more seamlessly cinematic and, if you will, soft-core than all those hotheaded East Village Apache dances from the old days. These thoughts pressed hardest while I was looking at photographs in sections labeled “The French Family,” “Maternity and Kids,” and “First Love.” Many suggested nothing so much as a nouvelle nouvelle vague, ineffably Americanized but vaguely in the manner of Eric Rohmer. “Simon and Jessica,” for instance, the young lovers in question, have, for all their nudity and armpit hair, a clean, almost bland attractiveness—as well as what appears to be a straight and generally harmonious eroticism—that is pretty well unprecedented in the Goldin oeuvre.

The two focal French families Goldin has been tracking, “Aurèle, Joana, and Lou” and “Valérie, Bruno, and Mel,” each a heterosexual couple with a young son, were more pungent than the twenty-or-so-year-old French lovers, while being no less cinematic. Of the two, I preferred “Valérie, Bruno, and Mel.” Whereas Joana came across as civetlike and self-involved, Valérie conveyed some of the sexy, prematurely seasoned charm of a young Glenda Jackson. Likewise Bruno projected soulful character and sexual heft, while Aurèle seemed ephebic, unformed, a little peevish—think David Warner in Morgan, the mid-’60s film classic.

Top: Nan Goldin, Nan at her bottom, Bowery, NYC, 1988, color photograph, 30 x 40“. Bottom: Nan Goldin, Self-portrait on bridge at golden river, Silver Hill, 1998, color photograph, 30 x 40”.

Goldin herself seems to be empathically and perhaps vicariously involved with Valérie, who in certain pictures could be a surrogate for Goldin’s earlier self. In one photograph Valérie is a bruised odalisque, posed on her bed. The contusion on her thigh might very well be innocent, due to some accident. But this lowly black-and-blue mark conjures up images of other, more agonistic bruises, namely, those sustained by Goldin and shown in a number of famous self-portraits from the mid-’80s. Somewhat similarly, the intimate presence of the child Mel in Valérie and Bruno’s bed suggests a classic, allegorical trope (real-boy-as-Cupid) but also a deliberate metaphor for Goldin’s own insidiously intimate presence in the room. (Many of the artist’s recent child portraits—very memorably Bruno with tattoo, Naples, 1995; Alana and Edda Belly Dancing, Berlin, 1996; and Julia lying on Maria, Paris, 2001—also allude to earlier adult subjects, from Brian to Cookie.)

The retrospective featured a new slide show, Heartbeat, 2001, as a dramatic climax, a buoyant contemporary coda to the tired old Ballad. If the Ballad is—consummately—a torch song, Heartbeat, with its specially commissioned sound track of Christian sacred music composed by John Tavener and performed by Björk, lies somewhere between a requiem and an anthem. The memory of pain, given substance by Björk’s techno-primordial keening and constant invocations of Christ, is the emotional background for Heartbeat, and yet there is no violence, no suffering, no drama, really, anywhere in sight, just a long line of couples in their domestic habitats, illustrating the notion that love exists and that that’s not nothing. Heartbeat is an oxymoron of sorts: a tabula rasa full of people. And somehow, right now, that seems apt.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer and critic who lives in Paris and New York.

Nan Goldin: Devil’s Playground” debuted at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Oct. 11–Dec. 31, 2001; traveled to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Jan. 25–Apr. 1, 2002; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Apr. 25–June 30, 2002. It is currently on view at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, through Oct. 6, under the title “Still on Earth,” and travels to the Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Oct. 21, 2002–Jan. 15, 2003; Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Feb. 14–Mar. 30, 2003.