The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Don’t you love attending a high profile art opening on a Friday night and instead of getting a nice big glass of vino, you are handed a plastic cup of imported mineral water? Forget about TGIF. Obviously, we all have to suffer if the artist is in recovery and the legendary bad girl photographer Nan Goldin, now 58 years old, is trying to stay off the stuff.

One of the most notable aspects of her hugely successful career spanning almost four decades is her back-and-forth relationship with recreational drugs and booze. During part of that period, she was hooked on heroin or shitfaced drunk interspersed with other periods when she’s been sober. Like right now.

One reason Goldin’s work became so famous was it openly documented her doping it up with her friends in a gritty dysfunctional world. So as a result, we weren’t getting any potent libations. There’s nothing worse than teetotaler friends who won’t permit anyone to drink in their presence.

But back to the event, Scopophilia is derived from the Greek “scopo,” to look and “philia,” love of friends, or the love of looking. It’s an apt title because Goldin is an artist who provides a voyeuristic window into her own life and who captures the images of her friends and lovers with her camera, making her a perpetual outsider. The show debuted in Paris last winter and appeared at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesburg, Virginia in June. It’s her first solo show in New York City since 2007 and her eighth show at the Matthew Marks Gallery since 1992.

The artist has been under the radar for a while and in some self-imposed isolation from the art scene. She divides her time between New York and Europe but spends more time there, though she’s been quoting as saying she “hated” Paris. Apparently she no longer wants to document her own life. Dammit! She’s certainly going to disappoint her fans. Last year she told ArtInfo France, “I don’t want to show my life to the public this way anymore. It’s cost me a lot and I don’t want anyone to know anything about my life today.” Maybe that’s because her life today is a lot more boring. For some people, hitting the big five-oh is when the partying ends. Could it be that documenting a life spent idling with a bunch of middle-class middle-aged Eurotrashies in the throes of ennui doesn’t have the same resonance or visual appeal as some drag queens shooting up in a badass gay bar?

No matter what Goldin does, she will always have a hard time topping the work she did in her Ballad of Sexual Dependency show and perhaps that’s one reason why she often re-uses her photographs from the 1970s and 1980s. She was criticized in the art blog Spot for her 2008 Stories Retold show in Houston, which complained that she was “mashing and remixing old work to squeeze new life out of past glory.”

In Scopophilia, she again revisits her older work. Although billed as the first show of new photos by Goldin in a while, in actuality half of them are recycled from her earlier work, some of which haven’t been displayed and were dug out of her archives. Every Tuesday for eight months, when the Lourvre was officially closed, Goldin was allowed to freely wander around the galleries, occasionally barefoot, with her assistant and take thousands of pictures of the paintings and sculpture. Lucky bitch!

Let’s face facts, the Louvre isn’t going to let just anyone cavort around in their hallowed halls. The Mona Lisa alone is estimated to be worth around $743 million and that’s just one out of 35,000 artworks. Based upon Goldin’s exhaustive work in the museum, she chose 400 new photographs and paired them with her own images, many of which are autobiographical. The assembled images are compiled into an accompanying 25-minute long slide installation commissioned by the Louvre. Is it arrogance to place your own work smack dab in the middle of a grouping of some of the world’s most fabulous masterpieces? Some might say it’s hubris to juxtapose your own work next to a Rembrandt, Raphael, Renoir, Bronzino or Corot, but it could be viewed as an homage, a way to demonstrate that the themes of love and desire and sensuality are eternal and the high art we go to see in museums is closely linked to our own everyday realities. It attempts to mix high and low art together. Some of the comparisons work better than others and I’d say the sculptures are less effective. Goldin is especially skillful with light and golden dappled colors bathing accentuating an intimate scene and she’s picked some works that complement that aspect, for example her photo “Kim and Robin, Boston Sisters” works beautifully with the 1569 painting “Vanity, Modesty and Death” by Jan van der Straets, despite the several hundred years difference in age.

It’s become a cliché to say the French love to revere America’s castoffs, but in spite of her Jerry Lewis-like celebrity in Paris, she also enjoys a cult-like status here in the States, so naturally, this was a jam-packed opening stuffed with some prominent art scenesters like photographer Terry Richardson, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski and PS1 honcho Klaus Biesenbach.

There were your usual Chelsea gallery yuppies, some other artists, and the hard-core Goldin cultists — downtown club kids, out there artists and performers and the gay crowd. Of course, a lot of the old-timers from the 1970s and 1980s are dead now, and there were only a sprinkling of that generation present, though I did see Mudd Club alum Glenn O’Brien, who just published an adulatory piece about the artist in Harper’s. Film director Katrina Del Mar posed for me in front of the picture of her in the gallery. From 2006 to 2008, Katrina del Mar was Goldin’s studio manager and helped coordinate the Ballad of Sexual Dependency show for the Museum of Modern Art.

I’m personally interested in Goldin’s work because I am from her world. We both regularly attended The Other Side, the nightclub in Boston where she documented the drag queens, all of whom I had a passing acquaintance with. Although slightly younger than she is, I moved to New York City in 1974 and she followed later in 1978 after graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, where she earned both a BFA and a fifth year Certificate.

Our paths coincided again when my new roommate turned out to be the closest friend of one of her superstar models, Kenny Angelico (aka Ivy), a talented fashionista and hair stylist who also came from Boston to New York City to work at the cutting edge hair salon Jungle Red Studios downtown. Unfortunately, Angelico died of AIDS during the 1980s.

I would see Nan about town, with Cookie Mueller, or at the Mudd Club, and she even came over to my apartment a few times. Even then, she was already quite serious about her photography and we all admired her for her tenaciousness in documenting the times. She herself encouraged me to write, which I was attempting to do but finding it easy to be sidetracked by all the distractions so prevalent during that time. She soldiered on taking the photographs even though at the time there was no critical acclaim or monetary compensation. Indeed, it was tough in those days to survive in New York City at all and we all sacrificed in order to live there.

“Do you think Nan will be coming?” I asked Del Mar. “She’s coming, but she usually comes at the end,” she said.

The thought of seeing Goldin again after more than 25 years was a bit daunting. Would she acknowledge me or just give me the brush off? When someone from your group makes it big, and I mean REALLY big, you know that they might not stay your friend. They’ll be busy with everything major success has brought them. Nan was no different and I wasn’t at all surprised.

“Hi, Nan. Geraldine Visco. I haven’t seen you since the 1980s.” The artist gazed at me distantly and looked away. She was in the midst of talking to some fans and other artists and I’d just taken her photo.

“No, it was the 1970s,” she told me. And that was it.

“Well, do you remember Michael?” I persisted. Then her ears perked up and she become more interested.

“Yes, Kenny’s friend. I’d like to get in touch with him. Do you know where he is?” she asked.

Now she was listening. No doubt, when someone has reached the pinnacle of their career, they get constant annoying requests by people from the past looking to get a loan or a favor. It’s also more pleasant sometimes to just forget the past and the people we once knew. That’s especially true when you’ve had a ménage à quatre with them, although some of the details are even fuzzy to me.

Maybe she didn’t want to think about the past. After all, the walls were littered with the skeletons of her former life, many of them gone forever. Scopophilia is a show people should see because it acknowledges our mortality but also preserves it.

Nan Goldin’s Scopophilia continues at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until December 23.

by Geraldine Visco for Hyperallergic.