“People assume we’re lovers,” Nan Goldin said of her friend and roommate Thora Siemsen in a recent T magazine interview, “and I find that to be a limited understanding.” This conjecture might stem from the fact that Goldin’s work is so intimate that it’s hard not to read a love affair into the space between photographer and subject. But that would be a misinterpretation of the artist’s approach to relationality. Her deep investment in unconventional kinship—the romance of friendship and chosen family—is evident across her entire practice. A room in “Memory Lost,” the artist’s survey show at Marian Goodman Gallery, is dedicated to Siemsen and the home they have shared since the beginning of the pandemic. As the story goes, Siemsen went to interview Goldin and never left. The works that document their cohabitation—including Goldin’s cat and their yard in dappled sunlight—are testimonies to their mutual care. The images are also lush like oil paintings. One particular portrait of Siemsen, shot from behind as she applies makeup in front of a vanity, is a sumptuous chiaroscuro, her naked body lit up like the moon against a dark ground.
Goldin’s practice is also about accretion, a building up and thickening. Unlike most artists, whose works often mark a single year and whose series tend to span five or so at most, Goldin constantly revisits and adds to existing work. As a result, slideshows such as The Other Side (1993-2021) and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1983–2008) refuse to merely crystallize a solitary moment in time and instead shimmer across multiple decades, insisting upon a self-reflexive, flexible, and liquid approach to memory and history. Although her medium is often associated with stillness and fixation (in the sense of freezing or capturing a moment) Goldin thinks of her photographs as films. Light leaks and a fondness for blur activate her works with a dynamism and vitality that defies their form. Movement is a sign of life, and in these ways Goldin’s work and her beloved subjects are immortal.
Since founding the activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, modeled on the revolutionary work of ACT UP at the height of the AIDS crisis) in 2017, Goldin’s name has become inextricable from the descent into infamy of the Sackler family: architects of the opioid epidemic and major blood-money funders of nearly every art museum in the western hemisphere. The artist dedicates this exhibition “to P.A.I.N. . . as well as to all the people in the photos who sustained me through years of addiction.” In this sense Goldin’s artwork and her activism are inextricable: both are about caring for and sustaining one another, against all odds. —Sophia Larigakis
Nan Goldin, Thora at home, Brooklyn, NY, 2020. Dye Sublimation on Aluminum, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Nan Goldin.