• If you go: Viewer discretion is advised. Many of the
images contain sexual and drug-related content.
The photographer Nan Goldin has journeyed through addiction, depression,
violence and sexual dependency, which, she says, encompasses not just sex but
often unhealthy romantic attachments. She's buried a lot of friends, many of
whom she lost to AIDS. She's cheated death herself. And her camera has been
there for nearly all of it.
"People in the pictures say my camera is as much a part of being with me
as any other aspect of knowing me," she wrote in 1986.
Goldin: Stories Retold
• Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, 10
a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 12:15 p.m.-7 p.m. Sundays, through March 30.
On view through March 30, 2008
At the Caroline Wiess Law Building
This career-spanning exhibition charts the evocative and highly personal work
of one of America´s most significant artists.
How you feel about Nan Goldin: Stories Retold at the Museum of Fine Arts,
Houston, may be influenced by how you feel about diaristic art that records such
a life, along with those of friends and family members. But this career-spanning
exhibition of photographs, two slide shows and a video installation will
probably be a heavy dose even for those who love Goldin's work.
For one thing, although the show, drawn by MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene
from the museum's holdings and a local private collection, fills just three
smallish galleries and a short corridor, there are well over 1,000 images,
excluding the video. If you want to take everything in, you're easily looking at
a two-hour commitment. They may be a tough couple of hours, but, for the most
part, they're worth it.
The first slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is a new edit of what's
widely regarded as Goldin's magnum opus. It includes images shot as recently as
2006, but the bulk still come from the '80s, when she first presented the show
on the New York club circuit and in alternative art spaces.
Set to an eclectic soundtrack with blues, opera, disco, rap and Petula Clark,
the 45-minute Ballad presents thematically grouped, snapshot-style images that
explore gender roles and the dynamics between couples as played out in Goldin's
Bohemian New York East Village milieu and other places she's lived.
Without following a chronology or plot, the clusters form a narrative arc that
ends with Dean Martin crooning Memories Are Made of This against slides of
couples' tombstones, scenes from funerals and a painting on a door of skeletons
The six-minute All By Myself consists of self-portraits of Goldin alone and with
lovers, family and friends, set to Eartha Kitt's song of the same title. First
created in 1992, when Goldin was on the verge of turning 40, it's a reminder
that Goldin is one of her own most powerful subjects.
The storytelling is most explicit in the 2004 video installation Sisters, Saints
and Sibyls, which the MFAH and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York
jointly purchased this year. Throughout this 37-minute production, Goldin
projects still and moving images across a triptych of screens. She also narrates
as part of a soundtrack that incorporates dialogue and sound effects in addition
to her typically wide-ranging selection of songs.
Sisters combines three narratives. An introductory history of the martyrdom of
the early Christian St. Barbara segues into an account of the short, tortured
life of Goldin's older sister Barbara, who battled a stormy home life and rounds
of institutionalization only to commit suicide at 18, when Goldin was 11.
Goldin's story picks up there, starting with the prediction by her sister's
psychiatrist that she would meet the same fate.
Goldin's narration grows sparer as the video shifts its focus onto her life; she
wisely allows her rich archive of works to do most of the talking, inserting
only the minimum of biographical detail. The story takes you through her leaving
home at 14; creating her own family of artists, writers and Warhol-esque
superstars of every sexual orientation and gender identity; and being "set
free" by drugs, only later to find that "they became my prison."
Goldin takes us to hell and back, recording some of the most humiliating,
painful moments of her depression, addiction and hospitalization. The scenes in
which she staggers around, clearly out of her mind, and the ones in which,
echoing her sister's problems, she mutilates herself, are as excruciating as
anything I've seen in a museum.
She says and shows that she relapsed after six years of recovery, but she never
tells whether she got clean again, or if so, how many times.
A sense of forgiveness and redemption pervades the video's closing images. The
overall effect is devastating and exhilarating. With Sisters, Goldin has upped
the ante, producing what is both her most formally complex and intensely
intimate work to date.
Both Sisters and The Ballad screen at the top of each hour. If you're going to
see both on the same visit, avoid the mistake I made, which was watching Sisters
first. The video is both more technically advanced and more searingly personal
than the slide show, so much so that watching The Ballad afterward comes as a
On my second visit, I saw The Ballad first, letting its images wash over me, and
I found myself much more willing to experience it on its own terms. The
pioneering Ballad's home-movie charms, the rightness of its choices and Goldin's
thematic exploration of relationships between men and women deserve to be seen
by viewers who haven't just gone through the wrenching Sisters.
Perhaps inevitably, by moving away from its roots as a live presentation to a
museum installation — with cold, hard benches for seating — The Ballad loses
some energy as a happening. One pines for the days when many of its subjects
were in the audience while Goldin ran the projector and stood by with a pair of
tweezers in case it broke down.
The rest of the show consists mostly of a series of grids Goldin created during
the past seven years, with a few iconic images thrown in.
Composed of as few as three photographs and as many as 129, the grids present
images in combinations that allow viewers to consider them in new contexts.
Some, like PG Grid and X-Rated Grid, play off each other while revisiting images
from The Ballad.
The best grids, Trouble in Mind and Relapse/Detox, vary their imagery,
punctuating the raw evidence of drug abuse with self-portraits and bleak, dreamy
landscapes. The Other Side, Boston recaps the early glamour of Goldin's 1970s
portraits of drag queens and other gender benders, while The Plague and Positive
pay homage to lives affected by AIDS.
A few grids don't work. While some of the enormous Tokyo Spring Fever's 129
images are beautiful as individual photographs, the pictures seem crammed
together arbitrarily. The grids paying tribute to the Japanese photographer
Nobuyoshi Araki and to Goldin's dead cat, Milky, are boring compositions of one
dull image after another. A better way to use the space these grids take up
might be to create an area where visitors could sit and flip through Goldin's
photography books, lingering on the images that interest them most and looking
up to consider how their placement in grids enhances or detracts from their
That would be one way a museum could replicate the most intimate, and therefore,
ideal, way to experience the immediacy of Goldin's photographs — by placing
them in your hands, which is where they really belong.
Video clip on Nan Goldin film photography . Charlie Rose: December 17, 1996
First, an interview with actor/director Anjelica Huston about
her directorial debut with "Bastard Out of Carolina", a drama based on
the book by Dorothy Allison about a girl
who is sexually abused by her stepfather in South Carolina in the 1950s. Then,
curator Elisabeth Sussman, author and cultural critic Luc Sante, and
photographer NanGoldin discuss Goldin's photography
exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art,
"Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your
Mirror". 1 hr 0 min 40 sec