One of the first images from Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, “The Parents’ Wedding Photo,” takes me back to my childhood, the house of a school friend whose parents were married before World War II. I half-remember their similar floral wallpaper, a console with louvered doors, a brass makeup mirror, an unadorned picture frame with the photograph of a Jewish-American groom standing behind a Jewish-American bride. A gulf exists between the romantic chiffon wedding dress in the photograph inside the photograph and the somber feeling in the spare suburban room. You know something sad has happened to the people who live inside. The image is intended as a cautionary icon but lasts only three or four seconds, leaving just a trace before the slide show whizzes on, a photographic diary of what Goldin has called her “re-created family,” a group of friends including artists (Andy Warhol makes an appearance in The Ballad and so does Jim Jarmusch), writers, drag queens, musicians, as well as body builders and skinheads in Boston, Provincetown, New York, and eventually West Berlin, London, Paris, and Mexico. For the most part, these are young people, in their 30s or early 30s, often caught on the fly.
Part of the brilliance of The Ballad (on view at MoMA through Feb. 12, 2017) lies in its defiantly uncontrolled control, growing organically from the punk aesthetic of its early days when, for fun, Goldin ran 35mm color slide projectors downtown at the Mudd Club and Rafik’s, and people would clap or cover their faces if they recognized themselves from a week or two before, stoned, making out, or sound asleep. At times the individual photos are compositionally staged like in “Trixie on the Cot,” which is a kind of fashion photograph, with an organdy party dress lit from above and spread open like butterfly wings. But often the stills are hardly structured, and the charm lies in the way Goldin has grabbed a photo in the split second before her subject has a chance to prepare for it, so you and she are included in the intimacy of a someone else’s unguarded moment.
Over time, you know by sight some of the main characters, like the performer Suzanne Fletcher, with her porcelain fine skin, the long, wide wedge of her nose, and the changeability of her expression—nervously thoughtful, serene, once with a tear on her cheek. Often a neutrality hovers over the images. As Goldin explains in the original catalog for The Ballad, “I sometimes don’t know how I feel about someone until I take his or her picture.” Unlike Diane Arbus, who photographed as an outsider looking in, Goldin photographs as an insider looking around, making a record, confirming what’s happening where she is. There don’t seem to be barriers among these friends. Most have lived, one time or another, in Goldin’s downtown loft, and the “family of friends,” as she’s called it, allowed Goldin everywhere, with the understanding that’s what you expect with this kind of photographing friend.
Falling within the snapshot tradition—familiar, ad hoc, a smidgen unfocused—the stills are filled with random details like the Band-Aid on Goldin’s chest in “Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours,” the wadded-up tissue in “Sandra at the Mirror,” or the dirty feet of her “Roommates in Bed.” Many of the pictures still pack a wallop; the stranger sitting next to me held his hands to his head for most of the show. They include photos of women sitting on the toilet (I’ve read there were no doors in the bathroom at Goldin’s loft), men masturbating, a whole sequence of people shooting up heroin, the fresh scar of an ectopic pregnancy above a woman’s shaved crotch.
One of the most powerful images, “Nan and Dickie in the New York Motel,” is a self-portrait in a mirror where Nan is half-naked and Dickie is fully dressed and the room appears to be tilted in the vertigo of sex. The images track Goldin and her friends engaged with the oppositional pride of reinvention that goes along with youth. Doing what young people have always done, they get high, they have intercourse, they’re pretty nocturnal (most of the photos were shot using flash, indoors and at night so that white walls show up with greenish tint or a red bedspread has gassy, orange overtone). As a viewer, I’m nostalgically reminded of the jumbled mishmash of apartments in the 1970s and early ’80s, devoid of technology except for a turntable stacked with Kurt Weill, Dionne Warwick, and Maria Callas, all part of The Ballad’s soundtrack. At the same time, it’s painful to see the bodies collapsed across beds, not knowing what’s ahead: AIDS, addiction, loneliness, impermanence. It’s like watching early videos of Amy Winehouse doing Back to Black—everything’s there, and Goldin has acknowledged their connection.
Eventually the photos were organized in sequences and narrative. When music was added, first with a live band and then a soundtrack, the images began to work in associative “chapters” of a story (Goldin has called it “a book of film”) that became The Ballad first shown as a slideshow in 1985. There are now 10 versions following the same 42-minute soundtrack with 27 musical segments and one that is a recording of the voice of a man on the street. Each includes about 700 frames (the installation at MoMA has 690 slides dated 1979-2004. As they’ve been re-edited they tell slightly different stories. The result is a mélange of photography, operetta, tragic drama; Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, and Sholem Asch grafted to Goldin’s own biography.
Two intertwined traumatic events lie at the core of The Ballad and shaped everything that followed in Goldin’s life. In 1964, when she was 11, her sister Barbara, an 18-year-old pianist about to enroll at Peabody Conservatory, lay down on commuter rail tracks outside Washington, D.C., and committed suicide. During the shiva week, Goldin was seduced by an older relative who claimed he had been in love with her sister. The Ballad is dedicated to Barbara. Her tragedy resides both in the photograph of her grieving and guilt-ridden parents’ somber room and also in the other photographs that incorporate the reverse of middle-class, suburban Jewish life. One world reflected in the distorting mirror of the other.
After her sister’s suicide, Nan Goldin was convinced that if she stayed with her family, she’d suffer the same fate. She left home when she was 14 and she says, not jokingly, that she wanted to be a junkie. She lived with foster families and communes and eventually enrolled at what she refers to as the hippie, free school, Satya, outside Boston. The school was based on the pioneering British school Summerhill and her friends considered themselves a family of peers. They did drugs, had sex, went to the movies, and learned the lyrics to the romantic and happy songs of the 1930s. “We can share it all beneath a ceiling of blue,” could have been their motto. They watched all the films with Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. Rollo May’s daughter was on the school faculty and happened that year to write a grant that supplied them with Polaroids. As often happens after trauma, Goldin experienced memory loss after Barbara’s death and she couldn’t any longer bring the image of her sister’s face or voice to mind; the memory loss compounded her grief. She was mesmerized by the capacity of photography to salvage memory and began to think if she took enough pictures of the people she loved she wouldn’t lose anyone anymore. Goldin began to use the camera constantly and she says it restored her voice.
Loss is a constant theme of The Ballad of Sexual Dependence: the loss of Barbara, the loss of friends who died of AIDS, the loss that comes because of addiction and aggression, the loss of faith in the possibility of sexual reconciliation, the special loss of her friend Cookie Mueller, whom she called “a social light, a diva, a beauty, my idol.” In 1984, when Goldin and her longtime boyfriend and ex-Marine Brian were living in Berlin, something snapped. He attacked her, going for her face so ferociously that her eye was almost detached from its socket. In the self-portrait “Nan After Being Battered,” Goldin presents a different kind of loss, the profound loss of innocence emblemized in the full-frontal view of her mop of curls surrounding a bruised and swollen face. She looks straight ahead, half in shock, half with determination. Blood fills the eye that had been stitched up. You look at her bright-red angel-bow lips and they are a reminder of old parties and romantic dressing-up, the punk faux-glamour.
This is the iconic image that lies at the center of The Ballad, exhorting its viewers not to forget. Brian nearly blinded her in his rage and then scrawled the words “Jewish American Princess” in lipstick across her mirror. What should we make of the insult? Since Barbara’s death, Goldin, living the lurid downtown scene, had done everything in her power to deflect that image, and still it came back like a ricochet. I can’t help but think of her story as a variant of The God of Vengeance, a retelling of Asch’s punishing depiction of a Jewish daughter who chooses to go against the hypocrisy of the respectable world, settling instead on a life with a lesbian prostitute. The lyrics from “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” another song on the soundtrack, are prescient: “When you think the night has seen your mind/ That inside you’re twisted and unkind/ Let me stand to show that you are blind…” With her camera, Goldin had generously held a mirror up to the chosen world of her friendships, but there’s the other truth, that the Jewish middle-class world of her origins and the re-created world of her art are mirrors to one another.
To read more of Frances Brent’s art criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.