June 11, 2016-February 12, 2017 at The Museum of Modern Art
When I was sixteen, my older sister, who was dating a drummer in band, introduced me to the downtown music scene, namely CBGB’s. Around that time she received Nan Goldin’s TheBallad of Sexual Dependency (1986) as a gift. For a young imagination this book of snapshots held intense intrigue. The work was dark but not without a louche bohemian attraction. It was a glimpse of the city, and of the lives I sensed late at night in the streets of the lower east side. But, most importantly, it was my introduction to realism, especially for someone sequestered in the wooded acres of northern Westchester County.
At the same time, I came into contact with the directorial work of John Cassavetes and the writing of Doris Lessing. Gena Rowlands slipping into insanity in Woman Under the Influence and Ben Gazzara dealing with a mob debt in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie struck me as something all together new, revealing a certain psychological underbelly. My quiet suburban framework steeped in materialism and pretense was upset by this exposure to realism in art, giving me a better understanding of life in general. TheBallad of Sexual Dependency was Nan Goldin’s calling card and her very personal visual diary that she shared with the world. I disturbed many a peaceful sunlit afternoon trying to reconcile the overpowering darkness of it all with its palpable sense of undeniable love. The awful, aching realization that love is potentially destructive and dependency is a sinking condition.
Nan Goldin had an early childhood trauma that modeled the way she looked at the world. Her older sister’s suicide and the emotional “sweeping under the rug” conducted by her immediate family caused her opposition to rosy outlooks. Revealing imperfections was a kind of healing.
Not long after this tragic event, Goldin attended a free school modeled after Summerhill in England at age 15, where she ran around “naked and had sex.” It was there that she met her first muse, David Armstrong, a drag queen. She also found photography as a means of expression. Drag queens became an instant fascination and the focus of an early exhibition. Her own sexuality vacillated between gay and straight. After graduating from the Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Art in 1977, she moved to New York City where she began to live a life that was entirely excessive, nocturnal, and free of inhibition.
The 70’s and early 80’s were hard but relatively high times for artists in downtown Manhattan. Rent, drugs and alcohol were cheap. The pasteurized playground we live in today where blight reduction takes place on every horizon is a far cry from the rough and tumble transition out the 70’s to the gradual ramping materialism of the 80’s.
Goldin is roughly lumped into the Pictures Generation 1974-1984, but more specifically grouped together with David Armstrong and Mark Morrisoe, along with others in what is informally known as the Boston School. On one hand you had the Pictures Generation tapping into advertisements, playing dress-up, mimicking roles reflecting the state of culture in general, while the Boston School worked in the opposite direction towards an insular realism, portraits of peers.
Today, the posing and posturing of the selfie generation is antithetical to the candid representation of most of the work the Boston School. Imagery now portrays the best of our experience on social media. And fine art photography in the last decade has taken to a conceptual tendency, often research based, like the work Bernd and Hilla Becher or Taryn Simon. The precursor for Nan Goldin was Larry Clark, whose frank documentation of junkies and discontents compiled in the 1971 publication, Tulsa. The imagery is strikingly similar. Diane Arbus may also come to mind as a precedent but her subjects were hired, an entirely different set of circumstances with respect to photographic portraiture.
Even before The Ballad became widely famous Goldin would show her growing body of work in underground clubs to her peers. They were first exhibited publicly in the 1985 Whitney Biennial. Commercial interest followed and a definitive version came together in 1987. By then Nan Goldin was in throes of serious addiction to heroin and cocaine, so deep that for two years she said she barely saw the light of day nor spoke to anyone except her dealers. In 1988, she went into detox clinic and has remained mostly clean barring a few setbacks.
Goldin’s unadorned style was starkly against the grain of the commercial photography of the her time, the contrived setups and styling of Vanity Fair imagery from Liebowitz, Ritts and Weber. Under that smooth perfection lay the real world that surfaced in The Ballad. Her story is a struggle with many demons but mostly with a suburban upbringing that left her adamant to live a life of non-revisionism. The determination not to gloss of over anything in life and her imagery. A life of honesty, of love, and community. Unfortunately the community that she created was in large decimated by the AIDS epidemic. Even the hundreds of photographs cannot replace the physical presence of another, such is the void of death.
The snapshots in the exhibition at MoMA, some 700 in total, are projected with a sultry soundtrack from artists like James Brown and Nina Simone to name a few, providing a narrative to the 49 minute running time. The soundtrack provides the jubilant, Downtown by Petula Clark, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Velvet Underground & Nico, to the low down, Sweet Blood Call by Louisiana Red. Everything is revealed in these saturated, flash-lit images. The intimacy is almost claustrophobic at times, we witness bruises from battery, masturbation, the needle and the spoon, empty bottles of endless nights, the precariously pregnant, blurred morality and the psychological and physical interdependence. Guilty by Randy Newmanis particularly resonant with its telling final refrain: “You know, you know how it is, baby/You know, I can’t take care of myself/And it takes a whole lot of medicine/For me to pretend that I’m somebody else.”
In the fantasy digital realm we all live in today these works stand out with terrible potency. The strength of which comes from a shared understanding in the way the person behind the camera has affection for the one in front providing a sense of comfort and repose, when our true selves emerge.