Nan Goldin, Memory Lost @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 color photographs exhibited in three groups on the fourth floor.

One group (16 dye sublimation prints on aluminum, dated 1997-2020) is displayed on facing dark-blue painted walls along a corridor in the North Gallery. All are 20×30 inches and in editions of 15 (except for one in an edition of 7.)

Another group (9 dye sublimation prints on aluminum) surrounds the four walls in a small room in the middle of the gallery. All are 30×40 inches and in editions of 7.

The final group (6 archival pigments prints mounted on 2mm Dibond with chassis) is hung on five walls of the South gallery. All are 59×88 inches and in editions of 3+1AP.

Playing in a darkened room with benches off the corridor in the North Gallery is a 16 min. 1 sec. single-channel video Sirens (2019-2021), black-and-white as well as color. It is issued in an edition of 5+1AP.

Playing in another darkened room with benches is a 24 min. 16 sec. digital slideshow Memory Lost (2019-2021) of color photographs. It is issued in a edition of 5+1AP.

In addition, exhibited in a viewing room on the third floor are 10 black-and-white silver gelatin prints. Dated 1972-73, with 8 sized 20×16 inches and 2 sized 18×12 inches, all are available in editions of 18.

Finally, the 16 min. 46 sec. slideshow The Other Side, dated 1993-2021, consists of black-and-white as well as color photographs. It is issued in an edition of 5+1AP.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over the last four years Nan Goldin has become as prominent for her social activism as for her photography. Unlike other political artists in these times, who have protested against communist repression in their home countries, police brutality in the U.S., or various manifestations of inequality, Goldin has targeted capitalism itself, specifically the global pharmacology industry that has abetted and reaped obscene profits from the opioid epidemic. In speeches and at demonstrations, she has campaigned to expose the insidious marketing of pain medication and to shame art museums into refusing philanthropic donations from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma.

Propelling the movement, which she has labeled P.A.I.N. (Prescription Awareness Intervention Now), has been testimony about her own accidental addiction to Oxycontin and struggles in rehab. This latest phase of her life as a spokeswoman for increased spending on drug treatment is in keeping with her earlier career as a reporter from inside places few of us have visited. Her words, like her photographs, have exceptional credibility because behind them is her gritty survivor’s history and well-earned reputation as a truth-teller. She’s been there, wherever there happens to be.

Devoting oneself to any cause while in recovery leaves time for little else, however, and the blade on the pendulum in the pit descends more perilously with age. Goldin is 67 and has begun looking backward, reediting her vast archive so that the pictures in it from her past might better reflect her current state of mind. For several years, until the COVID lockdown, she had stopped photographing people.

The enormous and chronologically diverse body of work spread across two floors at Marian Goodman —photographs, two slideshows, and a video—is her first solo exhibition in New York in five years, and her first at this august uptown gallery since leaving Matthew Marks in Chelsea.

Scenes of drug addiction are largely confined to the room on the fourth floor where the slideshow Memory Lost is playing. On top of a slow wordless lament can be heard the voices of interviewees and Goldin’s portraits of anonymous men and women and their chaotic indoors surroundings. “The worst thing would be when you would have to talk to somebody,” a man confesses. “You don’t ever go out. It’s all about the drug. It just takes over.” A woman tells of being locked in a house for five days by her addict boyfriend. “It’s like being suffocated. It’s exactly like being buried alive.”

Elsewhere, the mood is brighter. The video Sirens (an updated version of the one from 2019 that she showed at Marian Goodman in London) is an assembly of film excerpts by some of her favorite directors—Kenneth Anger, Lynne Ramsey, Federico Fellini, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Carmelo Bene. Edited to the accompaniment of a score by Mica Levi, the fragments depict her attraction to characters in extremis, operatic verging on camp.

None of her photographs on the walls, however, deal directly with her own troubles or those of others. Her instincts, like William Eggleston’s, are diaristic, with each facing a similar problem: how to combine offhand, personal images of fleeting desire or curiosity so that they read like a story or novel.

Goldin has stated somewhat majestically that she “isn’t interested in photography,” she is “interested in art.” This is misleading. Not many of her peers (except perhaps Uta Barth and David Levinthal) have explored, say, the possibilities of blur more assiduously. Beloved by the Pictorialists because it obscured the sharp contours of things so that photographs might resemble Monet’s paintings, the technique has multiple uses in Goldin’s hands. As her photographs seem generated more by immediate reactions rather than a wish for candid description, she may soften the outlines of a person or an object to signal mixed emotions—that she didn’t know at the time how she felt about them and anticipated changing her mind. Or from a longing to embrace friends or lovers and fix moments in a swaying romantic glow. So much of her work is about the elusiveness of reality as well as memory, and about her frustrations with the single photograph as insufficient to represent the process of her thinking and feeling.

Her sense of color is likewise reliant on the palette available via photographic film or pixilation. No painter would see her cat (Electric Gaja, Paris, 2010) as her camera did, when the animal’s lower jaw, whiskers, and the tips of ears were bleached white by light from below. The smeary splash of greenish yellow in Falling Buildings (Rome, 2004) is achievable only by the upward, wayward tilt of her lens at night. The undifferentiated figures in The Crowd (Paternó, Sicily, 2004) are a swirling mass because her fingers have twisted the focus on her lens to transform into a blotchy patchwork of browns.

Her penchant for keeping things out of focus can still seem arty and evasive, however, as if she were afraid by bringing into clarifying detail what often captures her attention—a couple on a beach, the moon over a Paris garden, a leopard in a zoo—would make them too easy to dismiss as clichés. A sense of insecurity is especially pronounced in the South gallery where she has hung the largest prints in the show: six abstracted sunsets shot between 1997 and 2004. Much as I commend Goldin’s bravery in trying to reclaim this trope from newlywed tourists on their honeymoon—photographers should be free to take pictures of almost anything their heart desires—her international array of misty horizons appear to be, in the sober light of dawn, merely pretty, not transcendent Turners.

From her beginnings in Boston during the 1970s, when she photographed her fellow aspiring artist David Armstrong, Goldin has always recognized the erotic element in friendship. Whether her subjects have been men or women, straight or gay, she has tried to portray people as they would like to be seen so that the mutual trust between them, born out of the sexual charge that derives from shared experience, becomes as eloquent a theme of the picture as what it describes.

The centerpiece of her new show, literally, is a series of portraits from 2020 taken in Goldin’s Brooklyn apartment. Her subject is the 30 year-old writer and trans woman Thora Siemsen. According to a story in the New York Times, they met in a Tribeca bar and after several hours of conversation, backgammon games, exchanges about films, Goldin invited Siemsen to join her in COVID quarantine.

Goldin is more than 35 years older but during their time together Siemsen felt free to pose nude on numerous occasions, at Goldin’s vanity table and on her bed. The photographs are so intimate that Goldin has been asked if the two were lovers, a question she prefers not to answer, as if people should understand that protective feelings for someone do not exclude other kinds.

It would be incautious for viewers to read too much into this relationship, but it signals a revival of Goldin’s desire to photograph people again, and in her new Brooklyn home, which may mean an end or at least a tapering off of her documenting her transitive life in European hotel rooms.

The general mood of the show is one of optimism. I don’t remember so many photographs by her of the outdoors. The skies may be overcast, with the likelihood of showers, but she seems to view the years ahead and behind as suffused by inter-mittent breaks of redemptive sunshine and moonlight.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The photographs range from $20000 to $82000, based on size, while the slide shows and videos range between $200000 and $575000. Goldin’s photographs are routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images available at auction every year; recent prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $60000.

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One comment

  1. peter /

    Useful review, thank you.

    Just to correct: The gallery is on the 4th + 3rd floor, not 8+3.

    Thanks.

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