Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A multimedia installation with 690 slides and a programmed soundtrack, 43 minutes, #5 (unique) of an edition of 10, 1979-2004, shown in a darkened viewing room on the second floor of the museum.

The show also includes 15 silver dye bleach prints, each sized roughly 16×23 (or reverse), made in 1976-1985 and printed in 2006-2009 or 2016, and a selection of 16 posters, postcards, and pamphlets promoting the original show, made between 1981 and 1989. A mock-up of the original photobook published by Aperture is on view in a vitrine. (A 2012 reprint of the monograph is available here.) (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s been more than thirty years since Nan Goldin started putting on her first performances in New York city night clubs, weaving a selection of sequenced photographic slides and recorded music into a carefully distilled essence of her early 1980s downtown life that she called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. And from those tentative trials and humble beginnings, in the decades since, Goldin’s unflinchingly diaristic project has evolved to become a largely undisputed photographic landmark, both for the intensity of the raw personal emotions it puts on view and for the stylistic approach it took in documenting the details.

Sitting in the darkened viewing room at the MoMA and seeing The Ballad once again (it has been reshown here and there in the intervening years), I was struck by a strong then-and-now dichotomy that runs through the artwork in its current form. Back in the early 1980s, Goldin’s work was a bit more spontaneous and improvisational, with the family, friends, and lovers in the pictures more than likely in the audience as well, giving the performances the warmth and intimacy of a shared experience – The Ballad was a real time expression of what it was like to be living in that place at that moment, struggling with the joys and tensions of real relationships.

But here in the mid 2010s, in the pristine halls of an art museum, the work takes on a different character, adding a wedge of emotional distance and critical discourse between the artist and the viewer. Now we don’t so much participate as insiders, we watch as unknown voyeurs, and do so with the grim knowledge of what would come later, particularly the ravages of AIDS and drug addiction that decimated so many of the principal players in this story. So in today’s form, The Ballad becomes something more like a time capsule, a historical look back that can’t help but be tinged by traces of wistfulness and melancholy.

While so many of the single images from The Ballad have taken on iconic status in the history of photography, from Goldin’s battered eyes and the heart-shaped bruise to her saturated yellow glance at her boyfriend smoking on the bed, it’s easy to forget the The Ballad is first and foremost a flow. Single snapshots can of course give us indelible individual moments, but Goldin’s grouped accumulation of impressions and associations, enhanced by well-selected music, creates a sense of three-dimensional roundness and complexity that digs much deeper into the back-and-forth nuances of her life. In many ways, it’s the slow build-up of faces, bodies, and tender touches (and all they represent or misrepresent) that ultimately delivers the gut wrenching blow.

At its core, The Ballad is an attentive study of couples – of distinctly male and female roles and behaviors, of friendships, of sexual attraction (both gay and straight), and of the subtleties of how relationships seem to succeed and fail, all seen from Goldin’s vantage point. The arc of the investigation is bookended by photographs of couples, at the beginning, in pairs on park benches and rooftops and in family snaps, the epitome of togetherness, and at the end, on tombstones and as embracing skeletons, the pairs extending onward toward (and beyond) death.

In between, Goldin follows small rhythms and visual themes that give her a chance to examine different facets of relationships. Portraits dominate her vision, starting with pictures of women – she catches searching faces in mirrors (with the Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror as a soundtrack), wild girls in party dresses, longing looks out train windows, pairs of women on couches and in bars, women on the toilet or with their wet hair in towels, and women marked by the bruises and black eyes of domestic abuse. The patterns and refrains continue as she shows us women with guns and bulging muscles, nudes in the shower or bathtub, and “working” girls bathed in street neon, and then transitions to festive weddings and brides (in an array of unexpected gowns and outfits), quickly followed by pregnant bellies, nursing children, and kids in Halloween costumes. This whole first section finds Goldin looking hard at women and their various roles, and finding extremes of playfulness and risk taking, sadness and vulnerability, loneliness and repose, the powerful pull of families, friends, and motherhood constantly testing the development of an individual identity.

With the soulful lyrics of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World as the connecting musical transition, Goldin then moves on to looking at men, and it’s obvious from her images that the motivations of the men around her weren’t always clear, at least to her. Masculine roles get covered first in these portraits, with images of boxing and weight lifting turning to fresh tattoos and dangling cool guy cigarettes, the hard looks, distant gazes, and scowling faces repeated too often to be a coincidence. Naked hairy men lounge in grim bedrooms, and then gather up a few buddies and hit the bars for lively rounds of drinking that run far into the night. And while there is brotherly camaraderie in many of these pictures, most of these images have an undercurrent of lingering incomplete sadness – Goldin looks on with almost furrowed brow fascination at these inscrutable characters, seeming to genuinely wonder what was going on in their heads. Then the heroin cooking spoons, syringes, and pipes show up, and we get a sense for where the downside of this boy-girl narrative is going.

Happily, Petula Clark’s Downtown intervenes and lifts the mood a bit, giving us a flavor of the dancing, drinking, and general stylishness of the good times, with exotic sparkly fashions, convertibles, and eccentric local celebrities adding a splash of verve to the proceedings. As Goldin’s images transition once again back to couples, she centers in on tender touches and gestures, with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You ringing in the background. Laughing embraces give way to arm-in-arm friendship, and on to more longing glances at each other over drinks. These pictures feel like a thoughtful catalog of almost imperceptible human interaction, each one a fraction of a moment when two people try to connect, sometimes in joyful supportive glee and other times across an abyss of dejected spaced out distance.

This familiarity and physical closeness leads where we might expect – to holding hands, to nuzzling, to groping and fooling around, and on to kisses and sex, in both straight and gay combinations. With Sheila Hylton’s reggae cover of The Bed’s Too Big Without You echoing in the background, we see bodies before, during, and after episodes of love and lust, the explicit vulnerability of naked embraces resonating with both passion and desperation. Beds are both made and messy, with sunsets and twilight angling in through the windows.

Stylistically, The Ballad elevates the snapshot aesthetic into the realm of the poetic. Goldin had a strong eye for color, was comfortable with painterly blur, and was able to consistently fill a frame with intimacy and tension without overfilling it. The raw, confessional nature of her subject matter undeniably draws us in, but it is the way she made her pictures that has led to their durability – they are alternately rough and lush, harsh and romantic, classic and modern, creating a sense of immediacy without feeling tossed off. We’re right there in the midst of the trauma, but the action has been slowed down and clarified by Goldin’s organizing eye.

With three decades of space between the original events and today’s audience, we might expect Goldin’s masterwork to feel dated. But while these images now represent distant memories rather than recent events, the yearning and sadness embedded in their stories is as vibrant and heart-rending as ever. Goldin’s brave openness brought us inside her tumultuous world, and that gift continues to give even now. While we might see the setting of downtown bohemia with a tint of nostalgia at this point, her perceptive examination of couples and relationships feels enduringly insightful and honest. The human longing to feel connected never wanes, and regardless of how many years pass, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency will always be an aching valentine to the elusive hope for love, with the painful truth of loss hiding in the shadows.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Nan Goldin is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in New York (here) and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). Goldin’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images available at auction every year; recent prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $40000.

Read more about: Nan Goldin, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Aperture

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