For better or worse, Nan Goldin is one of the most influential photographers of the last 20 years. Her nonchalant, psyched-up, sexy, blurry-glossy snapshot style is often in evidence in galleries and ubiquitous in fashion magazines. At 48, Goldin is the high priestess of the mystique of suicidal beauty. Her sprawling slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is, in some ways, a visual Book of the Dead. One of the most compelling portraits of crack-up and overindulgence since Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, it’s a work in progress that has the power to change lives.
Begun in the 1970s, Ballad now consists of more than 700 slides set to 45 minutes’ worth of music and depicts a group of people caught in a disintegrating death ray—cursed and blessed, drawn like moths to a flame, first to desire, then addiction. Tragically, many of her subjects were eventually stalked by AIDS. In Ballad, Goldin limns what the literary critic Charles Baxter said Lowry captured: “the way things radiate just before they turn to ash.” Essentially, she treats illness, in Anatole Broyard’s words, “not as a disaster, an occasion for depression or panic, but as a narrative, a story.” All Goldin’s pictures, good and bad, are outtakes and keepsakes from this one almost masterpiece. So perhaps, any discussion of her development is irrelevant.
Nevertheless, on target or off, Nan’s always an interesting subject. Can I call her Nan? I’ve only met her in passing, yet I feel like I know her. She set it up this way. There’s no other choice. She’s always foisting a false or forced intimacy on the viewer; she’s always in the picture—this unashamed, unstrung heroine. By the time you get through her current exhibition of 107 color photographs at Matthew Marks, you’ll know she’s still going through hell, that she spent 57 days last summer in some posh hospital, still knows a lot of people of ambiguous gender and sexuality, travels often, owns a house in the Hamptons, and hangs out with skinny bohemians half her age who let her into their bedrooms as they cavort naked with their children. But “Memory Lost!!,” as she calls this show, feels like the second time around for everyone: us, them, and her.
The title of the show’s first big photo—a 1999 image of the glassy-eyed artist sitting on some Sicilian outcropping—sums up her artistic predicament: Self-portrait on the rocks. At Marks, we see the artist falling back on the one thing she knows how to do when all else fails her: making photographs that pass for Nan Goldins. Five years after her retrospective at the Whitney, Goldin’s not searching for Ballad‘s lost thread so much as performing a karaoke rendition of it.
“Memory Lost!!” isn’t altogether emotionally empty. In some ways it’s solid. Goldin, who’s not a great artist but an ardent diarist, is also an instinctual recorder—willful, almost primitive. She’s been at this so long that even if weak, her exhibition has hints of her woozy color, gift for salon-style over-hanging, bad taste, good timing, sequencing, and her it’s-all-going-on-right-in-front-of-me mania. There are moments of pure ebullience, pathos without sentimentality, and images of couples so completely at ease with one another they can take your breath away. Joana, Valerie and Reine in the mirror, L’Hotel Paris, a picture of three partially clad women lounging around, is pretty steamy, as is the largest picture in the show, the almost startling nude, Joana’s back in the doorway, Chateauneuf de Gadagne, Avignon. Many—like Clemens and Jens making love, Paris; Aurele bent over to kiss Joana, NYC; or Joey in the bath tub, Sag Harbor—are classically Goldin-esque. But that’s part of the problem. Everybody’s wise to what’s going on. Her characters know how to act and what’s expected. They masturbate, make love, and loll in bathtubs; mothers suckle babies, friends commiserate, Nan shows up looking netherworldly. But even with all these images of life and death and desire, sex and birth and suffering, there’s almost nothing for us to get involved in, or worked up over. Not enough new ground is broken. This makes “Memory Lost!!” feel like self-parody or a made-for-TV version of Ballad.
But we can’t ask an artist to dazzle us or cook up something new every time out. In his 1996 MOMA catalog essay on Jasper Johns, Kirk Varnedoe reproduced a fabulous Robert Kraus New Yorker cartoon that gets to the root of the problem. A couple of cavemen glower at another who relaxes in the background. One sneers, “Oh, I give him full credit for inventing fire, but what’s he done since?” Goldin didn’t invent fire, it’s true. But she created something fertile, influential, and recognizable. At Marks, she may be attempting to soften her vision and move toward some sort of Book of Love. It’s hard to say. Diane Arbus also, in effect, had one subject. Yet every one of her pictures is different. Ditto Robert Frank’s shots of forlorn America. Arbus and Frank brought something searching and cerebral to every picture they made. Goldin isn’t condemned to repeat herself. But maybe it’s hard to move forward when you’re nothing but a raw nerve.