New York

Nan Goldin

Four years ago Nan Goldin published The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the record of a slide-show that documented the mostly unhappy practices of her friends and herself with a series of sickly colored vérité-style images. The themes were the pursuit of pleasure, drugs, and sex, and the kind of tears, violence and garish disarray that accompanied this lifestyle; the most memorable image from the book is a startlingly direct picture of Goldin with her face puffed and bruised from a beating by her lover.

Today many or most of Goldin’s friends are dead, and though she has spent time in a detox program, Goldin has recently emerged with a new portfolio of photographs that is apparently intended as a reassertion of her power to keep on with her life and work. It has ended up as a sad meditation on her medium’s limitations as a form of solace and salvation.

The first gallery of the exhibition contains a collection of portraits of herself and her roommate in the rehabilitation clinic, and a series of portraits of those friends who have so far managed to survive the AIDS epidemic. There is a very funny portrait of John Heys got up as a dead ringer for Diana Vreeland, and a series of uncharacteristically lovely portraits of a woman named Siobhan. On the whole the pictures are stagier and less garish than Goldin’s first work. The subjects are, again, presented matter-of-factly in their flesh, but the images have a more muted and more purposeful feel—they depict more muted and purposeful lives.

The second room functions as a shrine to Cookie Mueller, a longtime friend of the artist’s who died last year from AIDS. The photos go back to 1976: Mueller at the artist’s birthday party, at the Mudd Club, at her own wedding. One from 1986 is starkly titled Cookie with me after I was beaten up, Baltimore, Maryland. In each of them Mueller looks like good company and a good friend—but there she is before the open coffin of her husband, and there being X-rayed, there wasting away, and finally dead, a waxy figure in a beautiful dress pressed into the satin of her casket. The last photo shows Mueller’s empty living room the Christmas after she died.

The purpose of this sort of documentary photography seems to be to preserve lives, to render the past as the present—whence the rhetoric of realism that wants to wring sentiment out of unsentimentality. And if such a thing were possible, perhaps Goldin would have managed it. At no point are her images either tougher or more maudlin than they ought to be; at no point does the viewer feel either manipulated or off the hook. But by Goldin’s own admission photographs do not maintain life; memento mori are about death, and about our impossible travels through time in its nearly unendurable march forward. In a statement accompanying the exhibition Goldin scrawled a few remarks on lined paper about Mueller, ending with the words, “I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone or anything if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pictures of Cookie . . . in order to keep her with me. In fact it shows me how much I’ve lost.” I don’t know which is sadder, the original, naive faith Goldin invested in her medium, or the inconsolable grief she is left with.

James Lewis