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Cookie on my
bed, Bowery, NYC, 1987.
Stromboli at dawn,
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 retrospective. 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 bedroom. 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 balls. 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 10021.