Sometimes, after I encounter a great work of art, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. And that’s a good thing—the work touches and evokes something deep inside that lingers for months, even years. I had this experience when I first saw Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a 45-minute slide show of some 700 color pictures set to a soundtrack. Ballad’s central driving theme is the intensity of amorous relationships. It chronicles the personal lives of the artist, her friends, and lovers—a young, gorgeous, and tragic group that reveled in the hedonist lifestyle in the 1970s and 1980s in downtown New York City. Flush with rich color, her pictures of desire and ecstasy are punctuated by depression, addiction, illness, and death brought on by dysfunctional relationships, emotional and physical abuse, drug addiction, and AIDS. Goldin’s camera, always at her side, is an extension of her body, and her pictures reflect the fluidity between her life and art. “I photograph directly from my life. These pictures come out of relationships, not observation,” Goldin has said. She has described Ballad as “the diary I let people read,” and the private dramas that unfold before Goldin’s camera are characterized by an informal snapshot aesthetic.
Ten photographs from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are currently on view at MoMA’s in the exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography. The photographs were initially presented in slide form because she did not have access to a darkroom—Goldin’s work has always been shaped by her personal circumstances—but she eventually made prints so that the photographs could be experienced and savored individually on the wall. The works on view pack a pretty big punch. There are images of romantic bliss, such as The Hug, New York City (1980), in which a large arm wraps around the tiny waist of a woman, holding her tight, or Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City (1980), depicting a couple in the midst of a passionate embrace. The sexual excitement of coupling is also represented, with pictures like Nan and Dickie in the York Motel, New Jersey (1980), where we glimpse an erotic tryst.
Goldin’s personal experiences are the raw materials for her art, and her own life is deeply embedded in her work. In a picture from 1981, she is sitting on the lap of her boyfriend, Brian, smiling for the camera on her birthday; in a 1983 image, the artist lays on a bed gazing at Brian with a mixture of longing and resignation as he turns his back on her to smoke a cigarette; finally, an unflinchingly direct 1984 self-portrait of the artist after being brutally beaten by Brian marks the ending of their operatic relationship. Although deeply personal, Goldin’s pictures appeal to wider audiences because they address fundamental human relationships and emotions. If you take a moment to absorb Goldin’s intimate and searing photographs, I think you’ll find they will linger with you long after you’ve left the galleries.