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Nan Goldin in a still from ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’Courtesy of HBO
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Nan Goldin Is Our Watteau

Cookie Mueller’s stories and a new documentary from Laura Poitras recreate the fashionable degeneracy of 1980s New York

Joe Fyfe
May 17, 2023
Courtesy of HBO
Nan Goldin in a still from ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’Courtesy of HBO

Sometime in the mid 1980s at the Aperture Foundation, which was then on 23rd Street, my friend Catherine was up on the platform with the photographer Nan Goldin as Nan was putting her slideshow together. Catherine came over to me and told me that Nan said, “I see you brought Joe along, he can’t seem to keep away from me.” “I heard about your letter,” Catherine said. “What letter?” “The one where you declared your undying love for her,” she said. “What? I sent her a check!” I said.

A few weeks earlier, I’d been at a party over at Catherine’s where we all ended up in the bathroom snorting drugs. Who knows why we were all in the bathroom, Catherine had a big place. I remember Nan on the toilet, peeing. She was charming even then, maybe more so. It was nice being around her in this little room getting higher and higher in the middle of the night. As Cookie Mueller wrote in her story “The Stone of New Orleans-1983,” “Nan laughed, like always. One feels great when Nan laughs.” Though Nan didn’t have a camera with her that time, the scene was like something out of one of her pictures. Nan was saying how the coke was doing nothing for her. I borrowed $20 from her to go get cigarettes and beer. I promised to pay her back, and later, when I mailed her the check, I may have enclosed a note saying it was nice to see you again or something like that. From this, she thought I was in love with her. I only saw her a few times after that, and it nagged at me that there had been a misconception somewhere. Thirty-three years went by and when I finally saw her again I went up to say hello. She didn’t remember me.

That night was the first time I saw the slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which, after its publication in book form, became one of the key works of art of the ’80s. Already by then, most of the elements of the collection were in place: an image of Nan’s swollen face and blackened eyes, titled “Nan one month after being battered” (1984), another of the boyfriend that did it looking moronically stoned, the gender fluidity of many in her crowd, their costuming, a kind of simultaneous dressing up and dressing down, and the emotive, lurid color that at the time may have reminded me of Fassbinder films. The soundtrack to the slideshow included at least one selection from Teresa Strata’s album of Kurt Weill songs and “The Hunter Is Captured by the Game” by the Marvelettes, among other beautiful, downbeat recordings.

Until that night, the slideshow had been shown mostly in downtown clubs and experimental film venues like the Millennium, but this was an old-school, serious photography crowd attuned to “camera culture.” During the question period, an audience member asked where Goldin “found her subjects.” Nan answered, adamantly and angrily, that the questioner must have heard before that these were not her “subjects” but her friends.

From the beginning of her photography career, Nan ran into problems: photography critics who said that autobiography wasn’t a fitting subject for the medium; or that her first pictures, of drag queens she befriended in Boston, were imitations of Diane Arbus; or that her craft lacked formal distance and “print quality.” She rejected all of this as a misunderstanding of what she was doing. But she was driven. In her dedication in Ballad, she revealed that her older sister had committed suicide, which she described as a brave act. Suicides often haunt survivors, and with Nan it was hard to decide if she was trying to find herself or flee herself. Whatever it was, she threw herself into photography completely.

The HBO documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, from director Laura Poitras, covers a lot that many who crossed paths with Nan didn’t know but may have suspected, like that she spent a period of time as a sex worker. It shows the narcissism and megalomania common among great artists, although it also shows Nan becoming a hero, first through her art, then as an AIDS activist and later by starting a movement against the billionaire Sackler family, who were chiefly responsible for the opioid epidemic. The film also features clips of Nan’s close friend Cookie Mueller, who died of AIDS in 1989, at age 40. Cookie is riveting in the film, and her stories Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, just republished by MIT Press, are a useful accompaniment to Nan’s photographs, in which Cookie often appears, lastly in her casket. Cookie and Nan met in Provincetown, and both of them were tough, curious bad girls, busy extending the boundaries of the feminine to the point of self-violation. Bob Dylan made Sam Shepard feel like a square. I am no Sam Shepard, but these two make me feel like a meek Catholic boy.

Mueller’s stories were taken from her life, and describe rape, lots of drinking, heroin use, travel by sail, hitch-hiking, go-go dancing, offers of sex with unattractive couples (“I hated threesomes. Somebody was always getting left out.”), and all kinds of awful jobs—in the theater and the rag trade, as an accounts manager in a Baltimore clothing store, as a house cleaner, and at a fish factory in Provincetown. Like Goldin’s photographs, Mueller’s stories feel vitalist despite their degradation, joyfully degenerate and full of a haptic engagement with the sensual world. Take this, one of the many descriptive passages:

We walked in the bitter cold across a glass-strewn parking lot; the pieces of broken bottles made it look like a huge field of fool’s gold. The cyclone fence we scaled had garbage and a lone ripped brassiere plastered to it in the stiff wind.

Other sections read as if they could only have been put together after experiences with drugs or their aftermath:

A very tall Dutch elm tree began to scream … she and the tree were just a bunch of swirling atoms, a jumbled chowder. … Everything seemed a bit more friendly once she knew it was her everywhere she looked.

Goldin states in the documentary that rebellion was her starting point, first of all against the “banality and deadening grip of suburbia.” Her sister committed suicide when Nan was 11, and from age 14, she began living with other families and at schools and institutions. In the latter part of the film, she visits her parents in a clip from an earlier unreleased documentary project. They have their daughter Nan’s photographs on their walls, but, like the family in a Duras novel, they are “a family of stone, petrified into a density that offers no access … A density has no interior space, offers nothing for others to try to understand.” Goldin finally found some stability and discovered photography in an open school based on Summerhill, then went on to Boston and then Provincetown.

After Provincetown was New York. Nan set up on the Bowery in a room with windows that let in very little daylight, which she blackened further so that no one inside would know the time. Much of her first series of photographs was taken there. Though the pictures were casual and taken on the wing, and despite critic and curator Marvin Heiferman’s description of them as “portraits of people living their lives,” a lot of performing is evident in them, principally the conscious performance of gender, brought out through Nan’s selection. The rawness of the first impressions of many years past has been replaced by a foundational form deep in the Western canon that was there all along. These are not simply images but compositions, they have pictorial structure.

I bring this up due to a moment several years ago when I was reviewing a small show at the Met, Watteau, Music, and Theater. In my research I came across a book by the art critic Jed Perl, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, that I didn’t particularly like. I wrote that Samuel Beckett, Henry James, and Serge Diaghilev make appearances, but not one living artist is mentioned in the book. It made me consider that the most fitting comparison to Jean-Antoine Watteau among contemporary artists was Nan Goldin. As I wrote at the time, “Thinking back on these images of Goldin’s languorous, embracing and lollygagging consorts, all very visually self-aware, slyly exhibitionistic and doomed, the conceptual gap from Watteau to the present seems to once again narrow considerably.”

According to some histories of modernism, the properties of the traditional European oil painting—narrative, depiction, drama—are gradually removed from painting by the incursions of photography and then film. When I saw the images that I was so familiar with again, floating by in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, I was astonished at how the film seemed to replenish them. These seemingly sloppy photographs were in fact both painterly and filmic; each had the emotional tenor of a Watteau in their rich, strange color, their underlying pictorial complexity and elusive quasi-literary narrative. Goldin’s continual use of the flash had its counterpart in Watteau’s foreground figures that are illuminated from a source just below an implied proscenium, a holdover from his first paintings from within the theater. The French painter used his friends, a group of louche minor aristocrats, in figure sketches that he kept with him in a binder as he moved from place to place, and combined them, using them over and over in his figural painted tableaux. Similarly, we see in Nan Goldin’s work the same figures in individual portraits and group scenes.

Art historians have described the general iconography of transience in Watteau’s works, which depict love’s fleeting charms. Erwin Panofsky describes how, in Watteau’s work, “Existence itself seems to be the subject of transience.” In the film, Marvin Heiferman describes Nan’s photographs as “grubby,” and Watteau, too, was known as a slovenly painter, not at all interested in the careful methodologies that the guilds of his time prescribed. The writer and art historian Anita Brookner describes Watteau as fashioning “a fairly melancholy world of high-class nomads, slightly overdressed … translated onto canvas by his notoriously dirty brush.” But Watteau’s imagery survived and was disseminated throughout France and beyond due to a series of engravings that were executed after his early death. Similarly, Goldin’s original and slightly scuffed slides were eventually given second then third lives by transformation via the printing lab and then digital.

The genealogy of Nan Goldin’s work then, can be traced back a few centuries. If Jed Perl is correct that Watteau may have been the first artist to depict bohemians, then Nan might have been the last. No one can afford to be a bohemian anymore: Urban life has gotten too expensive and most aspects of it have been homogenized into the general culture.

But this is beside the point, which has to do with how Goldin took a form from the past, Watteau’s fêtes galantes, and moved it into the present, while also extending it and populating it with new characters. At the time she was taking her photographs, the people who were her friends—drag queens, sex workers, gays and lesbians, habitual drug users, suicides, people who die from AIDS—were seen as outside of society. By depicting them in gloriously aesthetic terms, Goldin was both making art and engaging in social critique. The critic Raymond Williams coined the term “structures of feeling” to describe “a social experience that is still in process … not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, even isolating.” Works of art can bring these structures of feeling into a new whole form in relation to the population.

Williams gives the example of how the novels of Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë showed that poverty and debt were not caused by social failure and moral deviance, as was commonly thought, but were connected to general social conditions and therefore could affect anyone. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, as in the stories of Cookie Mueller, we find an exposure of the destructive power of stigma, including that of the sexual abuse she herself had been subject to as well as the repeated abuse in her mother’s history, the stigma of drug dependence, and the stigma of homosexual sex and intravenous drug abuse that propelled the AIDS epidemic.

To make one final comparison, when Watteau’s most avid collector, Jean de Jullienne, assembled a folio of engravings of his entire body of work, that he conceived as a vessel for his continued life, his introductory epitaph read: “He lives in his friends, he lives in his works.”

Joe Fyfe is a painter living in New York who often writes on art. He is working on a biography of John Coplans.