Nan Goldin, Memory Lost, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 24 minutes 16 seconds.

Nan Goldin, Memory Lost, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 24 minutes 16 seconds.

Nan Goldin

I first discovered Nan Goldin’s work when I was a teenager. Her slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986–, was a passport to a damaged fairy tale. Her camera lens was a magic mirror that inverted the values of the straight suburban world: ugliness as beauty, the profane rendered sacred.

Like Andy Warhol, Goldin inhabits a downtown world of junkies, drag queens, artists, and prostitutes, bearing witness to their lives with her cool gaze. Unlike Diane Arbus’s images, with their passing flashes of empathy, Goldin’s portraits are of her people. In documenting her adopted family, Goldin’s photographs, in their diaristic intimacy, may be less about looking than about being seen_. _She transforms the lostness of her subjects—banished from the hostile daylight—into something found, by lending an alienated majesty to their hard-lived nocturnal universe.

This show, “Sirens,” was Goldin’s first since her solo presentation at London’s Tate Modern last year. Among the works on view, the approximately seventeen-minute-long digital slideshow The Other Side, 1994–2019—named after the Boston drag club Goldin frequented in the 1970s—is a tender and moving portrait of gender nonconformity. Wigstock spills out of New York’s Tompkins Square Park and the Hudson River piers; we see the transgender performer Kim Harlow dancing in a Paris cabaret and a Madonna impersonator in Bangkok. There’s countercultural royalty: the trans artist Greer Lankton, for instance, toothy grin and wraithlike arms outstretched.

While many of Goldin’s photographs appear to catch people unaware—interrupted mid-flash—the spontaneity is belied by a rigorous formalism. Trans women and drag queens pose in various stages of metamorphosis, framed by sweating nightclub walls and dressing-room mirrors, like modern-day Caravaggios displaced into a world of dive bars and rented Bowery rooms. 

The fourteen-minute-long title video, Sirens, 2019, is a lush ode to intoxication. A montage of found movie clips bombards us with a string of potent visual metaphors for getting high: an overflowing glass, widened eyes, strobe-lit nightclubs, a man shielding his eyes in a blank-white desert. The bacchanalian rush of the three-minute, three-channel Salome, 2019, reprises this sense of hedonistic self-dissolution. The digital slideshow Memory Lost, 2019, meanwhile, serves those works’ obverse, offering a catalogue of addiction’s desperation and squalor: scattered pills, a burnt mattress, woozy selfies in elevator mirrors. Shots are sometimes bathed in a fish-tank-green murk. We see a string of lights through a speeding tunnel, slipped halos of cigarette smoke. The audio bleakly emphasizes the obliteration of time. We hear missed phone calls of people scoring and despairing through dark nights of the soul: “Wake up, wake up!”; “I’ve been trying to miss my whole life.” The work is a harrowing lament to those lost to AIDS and drugs: the twin specters that cycloned through this bohemian underworld. “When I got to forty, I stopped [counting],” Lankton says of her dead friends.

Goldin’s art—wrenching, pungent—packs an activist punch. It’s also a personal crusade. In the wake of her own yearslong addiction to OxyContin, she has tirelessly campaigned for museums and universities to confront their own complicity in taking money from the Sackler family, who founded Purdue Pharma, the company that developed the drug. The point was driven home at the gallery entrance with a display of pill bottles and posters for her activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Goldin’s public campaign is both courageous and rare, considering how many artists of her generation either disappear into wealthy, high-profile irrelevance or merely trade in transgressive nostalgia.

What hope remains? Upstairs, the gallery exhibited blown-up shots of the sky, swelling from bruise-like purple to pink. They reflected a fragile, haunting dawn: a becoming that felt both inevitable and charged with possibility.