New York

Nan Goldin

Whitney Museum of American Art

There can be little doubt that Nan Goldin has over the last decade become a cultural and commercial force majeure. Whether in galleries or museums, Goldin’s dramatically naturalistic pictures of herself, her friends, and their variously charmed and scabrous, festive and tragic lives draw rapt crowds. If The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1981–96, the artist’s evolving slide-show-set-to-music, is on the program, a fervor of expectancy seems to permeate the environment as viewers—many of them young, many looking like would-be members of Goldin’s elective bohemian “family”—flock into a dark sanctuary as if pilgrims at Lourdes. On the last day of “Nan Goldin: I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the artist’s recent Whitney Museum retrospective, I found myself having to plead in order to squeeze into a jam-packed room for a final look at All by Myself, 1995–96, a five-and-a-half-minute-long slide show of Goldin self-portraits, and something of an autobiographical Stations of the Cross.

There is in fact much in the Goldin oeuvre that suggests a raunchy, Latino-Catholic inflected religiosity—from the often carnivalesque mood of the artist’s Cibachrome hues, to the crucifixes and corazones sagrados that turn up as costume jewelry or apartment decor, to the martyrlike faces of those portrayed in extremis, dying or just-dead of AIDS. Beginning with Goldin’s work from the early ’70s, the era of Cabaret and “divine decadence,” the pictures convey a hothouse ambience of ironic high style that can be described as Weimaresque. Echoes of German art from the 1910s and ’20s—photographs, of course, by August Sander and others, but also paintings by artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix—can be sensed in diverse pictures like Suzanne as a Ghost, Fayette St., Boston, 1972, elegantly spare and black and white, and Cookie at Sharon’s birthday party with Genaro and Lisette, Provincetown, 1976, wherein Goldin’s expressionistic sense of color and composition are already apparent. These converging strains are thoroughly integrated: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, for example, can in its totality be taken as a neo-Brechtian “Lives of the Saints” in which the Marys are all Magdalens.

Goldin, who gained approval early on from such pillars as Lisette Model and Joel Meyrowitz, has in the last couple of years become the Official Voice of Otherness at The New York Times, both as a photographer and writer (her remembrance of the late artist Greer Lankton recently ran in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section). She has become a presence in mainstream fashion as well: The Spring ’96 collection of the French designer Jean Colonna was an homage to the photographer staged as a series of tableaux vivants inspired by her photographs.

There seems not only to be a “Family of Nan” but a quite elaborate Court of Nan. The artist’s support system is vast. Her profuse acknowledgments in the book published on the occasion of the show—with essays by Darryl Pinckney, James Fenton, and Luc Sante, among others—conjure up a positively Rabelaisian vision of hearty human intercourse and loyal deeds of derring-do.

Goldin seems to wield some curatorial clout, too. In a rather unusual arrangement, for instance, the Whitney retrospective, organized by Elisabeth Sussman, was cocurated by the photographer David Armstrong, Goldin’s longtime best friend. There is also her more ambiguous role as a catalyst for the emergence of the “Boston School,” as it was retroactively defined in a fall ’95 exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which included Goldin and Armstrong, Jack Pierson, Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian), the late Mark Morrisroe, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Shellburne Thurber, who all attended either the School of the Museum of Fine Arts or the Massachusetts College of Art at various times during the ’70s and early ’80s.

Much in Goldin’s content-intensive work comes close to my own experience of the last twenty-five years, both in a broadly generational sense and, often enough, a more acutely personal one as well. The first piece in the Whitney show, for instance, a bulletin-board-style arrangement of late ’60s and early ’70s snapshots of the teenage artist and her friends in and around Boston, hit me with the mournful force of self-recognition. Beginning just a few years later, when Goldin moved to New York, the subjects of the pictures arc sometimes people I actually know or knew. (I didn’t meet the photographer herself until the early ’90s.) Goldin’s many photographs of the incandescently tawdry and stylish Cookie Mueller—the C. Z. Guest of downtown Manhattan in its short-lived heyday—who died of AIDS in 1989, are especially wrenching. Cookie in her Casket, NYC, November 15, 1989, 1989, reminiscent of funerary portraits by James Van der Zee of the Harlem Renaissance and taken during her funeral at St. Marks in the Bowery—the most extraordinarily theatrical and emotionally affecting community ritual I have ever witnessed—momentarily eclipsed the entire Whitney ecosystem.

Unlike many of the museum’s recent, trend-fueled, midcareer retrospectives, Goldin’s hit the mark. It traced a big, voluptuously eventful arc that brought us to a point of potential departure: serene, subtly idiosyncratic landscapes, and portraits of children that evoked both Diane Arbus and the painter Alice Neel.

My only critical objection to the show, in fact, has to do with its relentlessly thematic structure, within which all pictures were discreetly grouped by type and accompanied by explanations. This taxonomic principle emphasized the documentary aspects of Goldin’s work to the exclusion of almost everything else, and precluded surprise (the gallery of drag queens, especially, seemed overfamiliar). Nevertheless, the exhibition left me wanting more, and wondering what that more will be.

“Nan Goldin: I’ll Be Your Mirror” travels to the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg from 15 February–4 May; the Stedelijk from 31 May–17 August; and to the Fotomuseum, Winterthur, from 30 August–9 November.

Lisa Liebmann