It seems strange that art audiences that appreciatively linger over a Lautrec print or a Degas pastel might be taken aback by Nan Goldin’s powerful chronicle of downtown life in New York around 1980, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”
How different are Goldin’s subjects from Lautrec’s denizens of the demimonde or Degas’ absinthe drinkers? Yet, when Goldin’s ground-breaking work first came out, curators had to fight to have it shown. It still elicits gasps and involuntary shaking of heads.
“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” on view at MoMA through Feb. 12, takes its title from a song in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” its plot from Puccini’s bohemian opera, its soundtrack, setting and characters from any of the many chronicles of the dizzying mix of music, art and life that swirled around lower Manhattan 35 years ago. But the story Goldin tells with her camera is timeless.
Don’t think, if you’ve seen individual images, that you’ve seen “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” For that you have to step behind the curtain and let nearly 700 slides play out across 40 minutes in all their poignancy and passion, laughter and strife. The blunt reality Goldin presents as she endlessly snapped her friends, family, lovers, neighbors – her tribe – is so honest and specific that it transcends time and place and becomes universal. Anyone who remembers the world below 23rd Street in the late 1970s and early ’80s will recognize much of what they encounter. But so would Beat poets in San Francisco in the ’50s or the artists of Montmartre around 1900.
It’s a picture of youthful indiscretion played out in fast motion. Goldin’s paean to punk – “La Bohème” through a CBGB filter – shows young people finding themselves, daring themselves, pushing themselves to the edge, and sometimes destroying themselves in the process. They’re rites of passage that have been going on since the beginning of time, but few have portrayed them more immediately, immersively and intensely than Goldin.
The photographs show the grit of pre-gentrification New York during the AIDS crisis at its most unrelenting and tragic. It’s a slice of life with plenty of gristle, a short story with a predictable ending: live fast, die young. Before reality TV, selfies, Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram, Goldin brought her vision of the East Village, LGBT, rock and roll party scene to the art world through compassionate, if blurry, eyes.
Larger-than-life images fill a darkened room. They’re accompanied by music ranging from Maria Callas to the Velvet Underground. Mostly they’re tracks about relationships and refer back to the “Threepenny Opera” song, which suggests even the worst man can be brought down by women. Rather than some angry attempt at revenge, what unfolds is a tremendously moving portrait of humanity, told by a woman, through pictures of mainly women.
It’s a chronicle of love, longing, passion and loss. There are images of burnt-out, bored businessmen in bars. Guys in their best clothes with their arms around girls. But it’s mostly girls. We see them putting on makeup, waiting by the phone, crying their eyes out, passing through romances either supporting and loving, or dysfunctional to the point of abuse.
We move to women getting sad, then mad. There’s a fierce girl lounging in a hammock, a butcher knife in hand. Goldin’s girls build muscles, hold guns, and get Pit Bulls. And then, they move on. Life can be hard, ridiculous, maddening, but it’s still life, so they try anyway. There are hipster weddings, painful looking pregnancies, angelic children. And because the AIDS crisis was raging and these kids practically defined at-risk behavior, there is sickness and death. The show ends with two graffiti skeletons locked in an embrace, a memento mori for the late 20th century. It was meant to pack a wallop, and it does.
It’s hard to tell if Goldin was influenced by artists like Lautrec and Degas, or even Mary Cassatt. But it’s hard to imagine, looking at her thoughtfully composed albeit shot-in-a-moment pictures, that she wasn’t. It’s harder to imagine that she didn’t deeply affect generations of later artists.
Part confession, part proclamation, Nan Goldin’s “Ballad” is profoundly moving. Is it heartbreaking? Hopeful? That depends on your outlook. It’s life.