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Brian's face,
Berlin, 1984.

Cookie on my
bed, Bowery
, NYC, 1987.

Carmen's second
birthday party
Berlin, 1991.

Tomoyuki in
his room
Tokyo, 1994.

Stromboli at dawn,
Italy 1996.

the nan 
goldin story

by Mia Fineman
The Nan Goldin Story--with its chemical 

highs and gut-wrenching lows, its 

passionate loves and tragic losses--is by 

now a familiar staple of the romantic 

mythology of urban bohemia. If you missed 

Goldin's early screenings of her signature 

slide show, The Ballad of Sexual 

Dependency, at places like the Mudd Club 

and the O/P screening room in the early 

'80s, chances are you caught up with it 

vicariously by leafing through the book 

version (recently reissued by Aperture in 

a triumphant tenth-anniversary edition). 

Goldin's mid-career retrospective at the 

Whitney, along with its lavish catalogue 

(weighing in at a hefty 492 pages), is a 

not-to-be-missed event of this season, 

despite the criticism it's drawn about 

its excessively autobiographical focus. 

Goldin's life story--from her sister's 

early suicide to her experiences in a drug 

rehab clinic--is polemically offered up as 

the single, indispensable key for 

deciphering the powerful impact of her 

images. "And she's not even dead yet," as 

my friend Rachel snapped. 

To a certain extent, the emphasis on 

autobiography was unavoidable. Goldin has 

always encouraged this reading of her work, 

famously describing The Ballad of Sexual 

Dependency as "the diary I let people 

read." She's an artist obsessed with taking 

control of her own personal history, with 

preserving memory from the ravages of time 

and the inevitable erosion of retrospective 

revision; her work and her life are locked 

together in a great big symbiotic bear hug. 

So to completely divorce her work from her 

personal trajectory would be, at best, 

capricious. At worst, it would invite 

accusations of desiccated formalism that so 

often crop up when photography tries to 

deny its anecdotal legacy. 

Goldin's photographs, covering a nearly 30-

year span from the late '60s up to the 

present, make up an organic, evolving, 

open-ended oeuvre that readily lends itself 

to the mix-and-match game of curating. The 

Whitney show, selected by Elisabeth Sussman 

along with Goldin's long-time friend and 

subject, the photographer David Armstrong, 

may err on the side of anecdote, but the 

images themselves, with their raw intensity 

and luxuriant surfaces, exceed even the 

artist's own attempts to frame them within 

a clear-cut, linear narrative. The museum 

is screening a recently revised version of 

the Ballad, as well as a new six-minute 

montage of self-portraits from childhood to 

the present, orchestrated to Eartha Kitt's 

camp classic All By Myself/Beautiful at 40. 

I'd like to think that Goldin, who is 43, 

intended this sappy and slightly 

embarrassing celebration of self as a sort 

of tongue-in-cheek parody of the odd 

curatorial convention of the mid-life 


Like Diane Arbus and Larry Clark, to whom 

she is often compared, Goldin expands and 

embellishes on the informal, content-driven 

esthetic of the snapshot. Her style is one 

of sensuous immediacy, fueled by a potent 

fusion of opulent, saturated colors and 

artificial light. Her preferred settings 

are the interior spaces in which private 

dramas get played out: cluttered kitchens 

and bathrooms, downtown bars and rumpled 

beds. And her eye is acutely attuned to the 

intricate negotiations between people and 

their surroundings: women scrutinize their 

images in bathroom mirrors, men gaze 

pensively out of car windows, couples 

colonize the intimate geography of the 


Among Goldin's greatest strengths is her 

use of color as a catalyst for amplifying 

the emotional tenor of the moment. In one 

of her better-known images, Nan and Brian 

in Bed, NYC, 1983, the scene is suffused 

with a crepuscular orange glow that 

palpably captures the lugubrious mood of a 

dying relationship. Brian, her lover at the 

time, sits naked on the edge of the bed, 

smoking a cigarette; Goldin lies behind 

him, her face an ambivalent mixture of 

affection, vulnerability and weariness. The 

relationship ended in a storm of abusive 

violence, as the next image, Nan One Month 

after Being Battered, NYC, 1984, 

dramatically bears out. Here color is 

pressed into the service of expressive 

melodrama, with Goldin's scarlet lipstick 

vividly echoing the blood-red stain of her 

injured eye. 

As the show progresses, the tawdry glamour 

of addiction, abuse and ecstatic extremes 

that characterized Goldin's milieu in the 

late '70s and early '80s gradually yields 

to a more somber reflection on the 

emotional fallout of survival and loss in 

the age of AIDS. "Life was bleak on the 

Lower East Side in the late 1970s," writes 

Luc Sante in the show's catalogue, "but it 

was a purposeful bleakness. We liked it 

that way." Life in the late '80s and early 

'90s was also bleak, but it was less 

purposeful, less glamorous and a lot less 

likable. Goldin's camera empathetically 

accompanies her friends from bedside to 

graveside, while dubiously reflecting on 

her earlier embrace of photography of a 

kind of "healing art." 

The last room of the exhibition tentatively 

presents some of Goldin's latest portraits, 

as well as a series of landscapes on 

display for the first time. "When I look at 

a landscape, I see a postcard," she 

modestly claims in the wall label, but the 

images themselves show a fresh command of 

color and form that conscientiously 

sidesteps the pitfalls of the picturesque. 

One of the last and most memorable images 

in the show is a recent portrait of the 

artist's mother sitting on a bed, her head 

thrown back in laughter, mouth open, eyes 

closed, her presumably arthritic hands 

clenching a pair of bright yellow foam 


A few blocks away at Matthew Marks Gallery, 

Goldin has assembled a kinky collection of 

her photographs of children, from newborn 

babies to sullen teenagers, taken over the 

last 20 years. In these photographs, she 

continues to explore many of the same 

themes that run throughout her work: 

sexuality and self-reflection, eroticism 

and the subtle shadings of gender, the 

effects of time on the appearance and 

bearing of her subjects. In one picture we 

see Lily, the newborn daughter of a friend, 

as a barely human, blood-and-goo-encrusted 

fetus; the next shot, taken about a year 

later, shows us little Lily embarking on a 

heady voyage of narcissistic self-discovery 

as she happily kisses her own mirror image. 

Carmen's Second Birthday Party, Berlin, 

1991 records the beginnings of sociability 

(and what may turn out to be lifelong 

friendships) as three naked party girls get 

down and dirty. 

Goldin's images are imbued with a 

sensibility--a style--that deftly avoids 

gratuitous stylization. Perhaps this is why 

her photographs of drag queens (an 

ostensibly "subversive" subject) now seem 

less interesting, less challenging because 

they're so vigilantly posed. Goldin grants 

her subjects a generous amount of 

collaborative freedom. But rather than 

trying to get behind the mask, she 

documents appearances as eloquent and 

essential expressions of self. And as Susan 

Sontag once remarked, "In almost every 

case, our manner of appearing is our manner 

of being. The mask is the face." 

"Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your Mirror" at the 

Whitney Museum, Oct. 3,1 996-Jan. 5, 1997, 

945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

MIA FINEMAN is a New York writer.

Nan Goldin at Matthew Marks, Oct. 18-Dec. 

21, 1996, 1018 Madison Avenue, New York, NY