New York

Nan Goldin

Matthew Marks Gallery

To enjoy sex as glamorous apotheosis and still have the comforts of a messy, cozy, family-filled life; to have the cake of a hot fuck and the daily bread of long-standing intimate cohabitation too: Well, who wouldn’t want a life like that? Fix all this homage to flesh and spirit into gorgeous Cibachrome, impressively sized and interestingly cropped, splash it across the walls—and who wouldn’t be seduced?

As it turns out, it was impossible to remain entirely unmoved by Nan Goldin’s recent exhibition “Heartbeat,” which included forty-four lush photographs and a fifteen-minute slide show depicting couples gay and straight (including, apparently, the photographer’s nephew and his girlfriend) enacting love. And yet the show wasn’t really that good. Goldin appreciates the two things born of the fusion of friendship and desire: more-than-familial bonds and unavoidable pain. This understanding is what’s made her work wonderful. Her best pictures are vérité, not only in the sense that they have arisen out of and documented assorted demimondes but also because she uses illusion—low light in tarted-up rooms, bathwater, mirrors—to report absolutely frankly about a human need for fantasy that’s as urgent as any other bodily drive. It’s true that Goldin’s formal abilities are as strong as ever. The drenched color, the wistful Manet stares, the attention to textures like bad wallpaper, rumpled bedclothes, and naked flesh are all in place. Sir John Tavener’s score as sung by Björk during the slide installation rings its changes on baroque emotions like anguish and ecstasy. What’s missing, though, is the piercing closeness. Goldin has long been able to convince us that she’s behind the camera in the same way that we’re inside our own heads, and this allows her images to function as externalizations or freeze frames in an ever-spooling interior yet collective movie. But here, she has stepped outside, or isolated, or maybe gotten bored with herself. The hand on the ass is sharply recorded, but the atmosphere of personal revelation and invitation, the sense of provocative touch, has been drained. In fact, “Heartbeat” describes an emptiness, as if the artist had made a mental note—“try to shoot happiness”—but found her heart wasn’t in it. Taken together, the work looks like an elaborate spread in a lifestyle magazine for the arty Ph.D. ex-junkie who’s gotten married, has a kid, and lives in Europe. It’s Harlequin romance for people who read Gide and Genet.

Hovering in my observations is the old allegation that happy families are all alike and its rock ’n’ roll correlative that sad love songs are the best ones. Of course, Goldin shouldn’t be expected to continually reproduce The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981–86) if what she’s interested in now is the mantra of erotic interrelationship. It’s just that what we miss in “Heartbeat” is Goldin’s own role in the story—the way her gossipy, worshipful, directorial eye created a milieu and let us discover that we were, or would like to have been, part of it. Human longing, i.e., bliss-cum-alienation, has always been her text, but now the alienation has moved outside the frame. And bliss uncoupled from its shadow, we discover once again, isn’t so compelling.

Frances Richard