The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Photographs by Nan Goldin
At The Museum of Modern Art, New York, through February 12, 2017
Downtown New York in the late Seventies and early Eighties looms larger than ever in public imagination. We’re bombarded by photo collections in social media, newspaper features, and novels by people who weren’t even born yet, but whose academic writing commands seven-figure advances.
Nan Goldin’s iconic photographic portrayal of downtown in the late 70s, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, takes its name from a song in The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In the air was a feeling of Germany, 1933, and that most famous dramatic work from Weimar seemed appropriate at the time. And, it seems, once again.
Nan Goldin started taking pictures while in high school in the town of Lexington, Massachusetts. She soon started photographing the drag and transsexual community in Boston, work that earned her a solo show at the tender age of 20. She graduated the School of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University in 1978, and soon thereafter decamped to New York’s East Village (“EV”) in its glory period of romantic self-destruction. She took her camera everywhere she went.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency started out as a slide show of Goldin’s photographs at clubs such as the louche (but always fun) Pyramid. In the exhibition, we first see the early posters for the shows, in some cases handwritten, sometimes without even dates, an artifact of that long-gone time before everyone had a printer.
Next we see a selection of the photographs from the slide show. These are color photographs which show, very directly and without artifice, Nan Goldin’s world. It’s the Lower East Side (“LES”), but almost none of the individuals in the photographs are natives of the LES; they are migrants from suburban America. They left a clean orderly place for an urban neighborhood in a serious state of decay—nostalgie de la boue.
The subjects of the photographs often seem only tangentially connected to each other. One photograph, “Twisting Away at My Birthday Party,” shows a number of party goers mostly not interacting with each other. Another photograph, “Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours-1980,” comes closer to capturing the loneliness of late-late night drinking than just about any image I’ve ever seen. It’s painful. “Nan on Brian’s Lap, Nan’s Birthday Party 1981,” shows the photographer with a hesitant look, almost afraid of the camera; her boyfriend’s eyes look out with a detached, almost vacant gaze. Alienated back home, still ill at ease here. Especially gut-wrenching is the photograph of Nan battered; she looks directly into the camera, daring us to turn away. This life is a difficult one, with violence a constant threat. And yet this is the world that these subjects chose. They found the world they grew up in unendurable.
The primary focus of the exhibition is, of course, the slide show. The first slides showed only women; “where are the men?” I asked myself. I suddenly felt I was getting a glimpse of what it must be like to be a woman in this man’s world. There is musical accompaniment, and it’s a pleasure to listen to. First of all, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, then the Velvet Underground, Maria Callas, and on and on. The selections are at once familiar and surprising, even if the transitions sometimes don’t quite jibe.
We see the life in the EV, lived indoors inside cramped unrenovated apartments, painted in institutional colors (meaning cheap and ugly paint), where daylight seems a nuisance. Sex, drugs, despair, but also games of Monopoly, long before the EV started to seem like real-life Monopoly. And there are out-of-town trips, trips to the beach, hotel rooms with a hint of fall outside, and celebrities, celebrities! Warhol, of course, and Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, John Waters, even Joan Rivers.
And bruises, abscesses, crack pipes, IV drug use. At the sight of a needle in an arm, people in the audience gasped. This, of course, is New York City in 2016. I didn’t gasp. I’ve lived here long enough to have seen such things in broad daylight.
The original German title, Die Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit, carries a Teutonic hint of perversion and a deep sense doom and desperation that the English word “dependency” doesn’t quite capture. Goldin was influenced by the 1976 Public Theater production of The Threepenny Opera. The production in many ways captured the feel of the time, the Zeitgeist, if you want to get pretentious. I purchased the LP of that dark and brilliant production when I was seventeen. I loved it then, and I love it now.
Nan Goldin’s photographs are probably as close as one can get today to downtown in the Seventies and early Eighties. They are certainly as close as I will ever get. 7B in 1988 doesn’t count. I missed a lot, but I’m not sure I would have made it out of there alive. The last slide in the show is a long list of Goldin’s friends who have died since the time when these photographs were taken. Yes, the world she shows us is a little more desperate than the English word dependency can express.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency can be seen at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, through February 12, 2017. Beware that unless you’re a member of MoMA, or a student, or work for a company with a corporate membership, admission is $25.00 (except on Target Fridays). Which is a cruel irony, since some of the original showings of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency carried an admission price of $2.00, or less. The exhibition opened a while back, but, in true downtown fashion, or perhaps through a bit of projection, I’m only now getting around to reviewing it.