Nan Goldin, 2019. Photograph by Alec Soth
© the artist and Magnum Photos

This interview originally appeared in Aperture, issue 239, “Ballads,” summer 2020.

Nan Goldin moved from Boston in 1978 to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She was twenty-five years old. New Wave was starting to happen, and so was she. Nan went everywhere with her camera. She was part of the Times Square Show in 1980, on her way, it would turn out, to the Whitney Biennial in 1985 and beyond. She was creating The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1983–2008) as a slide-show during this time, when the underground, of which she was a star, suddenly riveted the attention of a larger culture. This new youth vanguard was urban and music-driven, as into film as it was into books.

Stylistically, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency claimed descent from Weimar (the echo of a song title from The Threepenny Opera in Nan’s title is deliberate), from the women as well as the men of the Beat generation, and from Andy Warhol. But the toughness was a front. Nan’s early images survive a time of sexual life before AIDS and a love of drugs before the wages of addiction had to be paid. Nan is the witness of a passing American innocence, watching her community as it became decimated by AIDS.

Cover of the original maquette of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, ca. 1985
Courtesy Nan Goldin

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was first published as a book in 1986. Its more than one hundred photographs show the drive of Nan’s aesthetic—her intimacy with her subjects, her decision not to photograph anyone doing something she herself would not be willing to be photographed doing, her theatrical sense of place, her mastery of visual narrative. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a story about love and desire, loneliness and friendship, men and women. The people we see are her friends, her lovers, and the family she had made for herself. Nan has called it “the diary I let people read.” It is a work that evolved as a slideshow from performance to performance. The installation of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the 2016–17 season featured 690 images.

“It was photography as the sublimation of sex,” Nan wrote in 2017, “a means of seduction, and a way to remain a crucial part of my subjects’ lives.” Her story goes a long way toward explaining her work, seen in numerous books. The Other Side (1993), an homage, in part, to drag, followed The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Then came A Double Life (1994) and the catalog of her spectacular retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I’ll Be Your Mirror (1996). The Devil’s Playground (2003) encompassed much of her new work at the time. The Beautiful Smile (2007) marked the occasion of Nan receiving the Hasselblad Award. Eden and After (2014) is a touching work about childhood. In Diving for Pearls (2016), Nan engages with art in the collection of the Louvre through her photography. Her work constitutes an autobiography in several volumes, her life as an episodic tale.

The range of subjects, the sheer amount of published photographs, speaks of Nan being always at work, immersed in her purpose to document the movement of a life. Just as her subjects have changed, so has her practice. Her projects, such as Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls (2004) and Memory Lost (2019), take to an unprecedented level the slideshow form she has made her own. Her unique, unforgettable installations have been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the world. Nan is one of the most critically acclaimed and inspiring photographers working today. The courage she has shown in her work is fueled by a social bravery that makes her formidable as an activist for marginal communities. Luc Sante once called Goldin a “portraitist of souls.”

New York’s Lower East Side, Berlin, Naples, London, Bangkok, Tokyo, Paris—she’s laid her head down in a good many places. The other day it rained when I went to see her where she now lives in Brooklyn. Everything about her place was quiet, tranquil. —Darryl Pinckney

Nan Goldin, Ivy on the way to Newbury St., Boston Garden, Boston, 1973
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Nan Goldin: Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette? Thanks. I discovered art photography when I took my first photography course. I was nineteen, and it was Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Weegee, and August Sander. But before then, I was entirely influenced by the glamour of black-and-white Hollywood film and fashion photography, like Guy Bourdin and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. I had already seen Flaming Creatures (1963) by Jack Smith and Warhol’s early films. I saw Trash (1970) many times. We always went to the movies. And not just Hollywood. Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni. I realized that I wanted to be a photographer from a scene in Blow-Up (1966).

Darryl Pinckney: We can see Hollywood in some of the work. And you were already doing the slideshows in Boston, right? Were those the sort of glamorous, black- and-white photographs of the queens?

Goldin: No, they were terrible pictures of a lesbian community in Provincetown. Because in art school, you had to show what you were doing, but there was no darkroom, so I couldn’t show prints. That’s why I had to show them as a slideshow. Bruce Balboni had shown a slideshow in our apartment in Provincetown with my pictures of Cookie [Mueller] and Sharon [Niesp], and he invited them. We wanted them to like us. There are gorgeous pictures of Cookie and Sharon. I looked at these images recently, but aside from those, the work is banal, boring, and brown.

Pinckney: Are you a very harsh judge of your own work?

Goldin: I imagine so. But I think I’m right about my own work. Anyway, the lesbian community in Provincetown at the time was very small, and all the women were fucking each other, which made it interesting. I fell in love with a woman and obsessively photographed and filmed her for a long time, even after she broke up with me. I guess that was the beginning of what drove me to photograph people.

Then I left Provincetown and found the community at the Other Side [a Boston club]. I was attracted to the glamour and the fact that it was underground.

Pinckney: There’s an edge in the drag queen photographs.

Goldin: Right. They were living something that was so taboo then that they couldn’t even leave the house in the daytime. We went to the Other Side every night. It was our haven and our headquarters. I moved in with Bea and Kenny, who were the most beautiful. I was standing in New York on Second Street and Second Avenue two years ago, and I suddenly heard the name Nancy being called out. I didn’t recognize that name at all. It was Bea from Boston.

We hadn’t seen each other in forty-five years, and she recognized me. She’s just the same—funny and dry. She was still married to the same guy. I went to Boston to have tea with her. It was lovely. And she told me that everyone else in my pictures is dead.

Poster for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, with Desperate Living, a film by John Waters, OP Screening Room, New York, March 29, 1982; Artwork by Janet Stein
Courtesy Nan Goldin and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Pinckney: You had left Boston in the late ’70s for New York.

Goldin: Yes. I used to hitchhike down to New York to fuck my boyfriend while living in this separatist lesbian community. I’ve always been able to live with ambivalence.

I moved to New York, and I worked as a go-go dancer, like all the girls did, like a lot of women in the art world were doing at the time to have money to do their work. Until I met Maggie Smith [co-owner of the bar Tin Pan Alley in Times Square]. She rescued me. That’s when the work changed. That’s when my view of life changed. That’s when I felt that I was secure in saying that I was political. She gave me that frame. She saw the slideshow at the Times Square Show, and she said, “You’re a very political artist.” That was huge for me. She analyzed it within a gender framework—of politics around gender, the sex trade, and male violence. Working at Tin Pan Alley at the beginning was a liberation for me. I hadn’t known anyone quite like Maggie. She opened big doors for me.

Maggie was so many different people at once. She was involved with that bar and the people who worked behind that bar. And then she was involved with the radical Puerto Rican Liberation Front. And then she had her Women Against Pornography. She was one of the essential people in that. And then also, she loved ballet. Not many people can sustain that much, be so multifaceted.

The first slideshows were constructed in the context of parties, and then underground movie theaters and performance spaces. Maggie used to attend every single one. Editing and reediting is a big part of the story that I like thinking about, and sometimes I would be editing while I was doing the show. And the projector would break down at OP Screening Room, and I would have to leave and go back home and get a bulb and bring it back. And people would still be there. But the audience would be everybody who was in the slideshow. Afterward, they’d be furious about some picture they looked ugly in, and I would take it out. I never had that again, that the slideshow was for the people in the room. Except it did happen in the ’90s. I did a slideshow every week in Bruce Fuller’s apartment for the people in the pictures. They had editorial control.

Pinckney: J. Hoberman had a nice expression about the early slideshows in New York. He said, “Part of the excitement was the sheer brinkmanship of them.”

Goldin: In what way?

Pinckney: Well, would Nan show up?

Goldin: Oh, I thought you meant the content of the work.

Pinckney: No, of the performance.

Goldin: And whether you had to wait five hours.

Pinckney: I can remember your light tables and the hundreds of slides as you would—

Goldin: Edit and reedit. And then, there was this time when I was showing in a gay club on Second Avenue, and the place was packed. Rene Ricard was with me, and there was coke on all the slides. Marvin Heiferman was representing me all those years, and he was ready to drop me. The owner accused us of all being junkies. At the time, I didn’t want to accept that analysis. So, it was brinkmanship of whether I would show up. That’s true.

Pinckney: You always showed up.

Goldin: Eventually.

Pinckney: No, you did.

Goldin: And then J. Hoberman was the first to contextualize it as a film. I was thrilled. It became one of those underground phenomena, like Todd Haynes’s Barbie film [Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, 1988], that people had to see. And, as we said in those years, in the ’80s and ’90s, there was no way to see anything unless you were present.

Pinckney: Yes. That’s what gave, I think, the call-and-response with the work.

Goldin: Yes. Exactly.

Nan Goldin, Trixie on the cot, New York City, 1979, from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture, 2022)
Courtesy the artist

Pinckney: It was kind of like going to church. I remember it as very vocal.

Goldin: Cookie and I would stand in the back and crack jokes all the time. Now I sit in the back and count how many people are dead, and speak to them through the slideshow. That’s my contact with them. My deep visceral contact with loss. The slideshow’s very much about loss. It was at the time. The loss of my sister, which permeated it. But also, the potential loss in relationships. And, it’s a lot about violence, also, which people don’t talk about much. People write about drugs and parties.

Pinckney: Yes. Or they focus on the moment of violence when you were in Berlin, the battery.

Goldin: The battering, yes, which is essential to the slideshow and to the book. That kind of imagery was not seen at the time. A lot of women came to me and told me their stories, from all over the world, all over Europe and America. I traveled through Europe for a couple of years showing the slideshow.

Pinckney: This is when?

Goldin: 1984. It was never the same show. Every time was different. For one thing, when I was first doing it, I had people read to the images. I later added music, especially after seeing the films of Vivienne Dick. She had an enormous influence on me, the way she handled music. Her segues. Start, stop, go.

Pinckney: I still see a lot of … I won’t call it innocence, but fragility.

Goldin: Well, there’s always been fragility in my work.

Poster for Ballads of Sexual Dependency, Collective for Living Cinema, New York, May 8, 1983
Courtesy Nan Goldin and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Pinckney: But so much strength in the aesthetic behind it. I think especially about Tin Pan Alley and Maggie and this women’s collective, however informal it was, supporting the work and feeding into this work, starting with how much Vivienne Dick’s films meant to you.

Goldin: When I started working at Tin Pan, I thought it was an escape from the art world. I wasn’t really in the art world, so I don’t know what I was escaping from. I retracted from that world and went to Times Square. It also permeated my sensibility, not my artistic sensibility, but my life and my sense of self.

Pinckney: Were drugs a part of that?

Goldin: I was taking coke. I wasn’t doing dope then. My first drug during the ’70s was quaaludes, at art school with the queens. I lived on quaaludes for about seven years. Loved them. They gave me a big social personality.

Pinckney: Looking at these photographs again, I was very moved. Well, first, everyone’s youth. Maybe that’s …

Goldin: Envy.

Pinckney: … where I feel the fragility. And their beauty. But, also, the photographs now seem to me so much more composed than they did at the time. They’re not loose. The composition is very strong in each.

Goldin: That’s interesting.

I have often been able to show people how beautiful they are, when they don’t know it.

Pinckney: And also, they have a documentary impact beyond the relationships you were recording and talking about. There’s so much social history in a red telephone. Who knew?

Goldin: It’s ethnography, right?

Pinckney: The light is extraordinary.

Goldin: This is my eye. I wanted to get close to people. But, also, I was very interested in where people were situated in a room, and what was in the room. But it was often just to feel close to people. I couldn’t have been taught this eye. You don’t teach someone an art.

Pinckney: No. There is something called the mystery of talent. There is one photograph in there of a woman in her slip, and her boyfriend in a slip. I think of that as a very androgynous moment, that old-fashioned word.

Goldin: I still love that word. They weren’t androgynous. That was more a sort of playing with sexual games.

Pinckney: We don’t know who they are. It’s a guy and a girl, and they’re both wearing slips. That’s another thing about The Ballad. The eroticism of it is stronger than ever. But it’s never been pornographic.

Goldin: I love that it’s erotic, people with dirty feet. You can smell the people, and you can’t smell photography, usually. It’s very tender.

Nan Goldin, Brian on the Bowery roof, New York City, 1982
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Pinckney: Or the photograph of Brian, your then boyfriend, on a Bowery rooftop.

Goldin: That’s a story that doesn’t exist anymore. Even the skyline is completely destroyed. I didn’t photograph people I didn’t love. I had to feel a connection.

Pinckney: Maggie provided a venue for downtown artists at Tin Pan. We could connect.

Goldin: I miss Maggie. She also took you to things. Besides politicizing me, she introduced me to theater and ballet and skin care. That was the big one. No, she loved my work. She loved me.

Pinckney: Most of the junkies we met when we thought—

Goldin: You’re not allowed to use that word anymore.

Pinckney: You’re not?

Goldin: Substance use disorder. That’s important, politically. But we can call each other junkies.

Pinckney: Oh. I always think of the William Burroughs title.

Goldin: Yes. But it’s about respect and destigmatizing.

Pinckney: You and I speak the language of our time.

Goldin: Exactly.

Pinckney: There was a time when we didn’t think cocaine was addictive.

Goldin: I know. We grew up on that note. I believed that all through the ’80s when I was totally strung out on coke. I didn’t know what was happening because it wasn’t addictive.

Pinckney: An addict was a heroin addict, and most addicts weren’t nodding on the stoop. They were going to work and coming home.

Goldin: It’s still true. It’s still true.

Pinckney: That’s the world of addiction, of old-fashioned addiction.

Goldin: But it’s so important to take the onus off. And those words are stigmatizing. I referred to myself as a junkie at the VOCAL [Voices of Community Activists & Leaders] office one day, and the old-time junkies jumped on me. “We don’t use that word. It’s really important.” But I wanted to be a junkie. I grew up wanting to be a junkie. I got the [Velvet Underground & Nico] album with Warhol’s banana on the cover when I was thirteen, and I was in a situation where I was very isolated, and that album was my attachment to life. It framed my view of the world.

And because I shot dope when I was eighteen, for a year, and then put the needle down and met quaaludes, I thought I wasn’t an addict because I put the needle down.

Pinckney: I was going to say that with the passage of time, I feel the drugs much less in the photographs than I did.

Goldin: Good. My new piece Memory Lost is about drugs. I just came out of a huge addiction three years ago. Enormous. My dealer called me and said that the OxyContin that I was addicted to had been thirty dollars each, and he was having a sale. He called me at the hospital. I think he’d lost his biggest customer.

Pinckney: He was having a sale?

Goldin: Twenty-five each. Somehow, it didn’t grab me. But soon after, he died. If he hadn’t died, I would have a really hard time staying clean because he came 24/7. And he was constantly freebasing. He used to try to get me to freebase. He would kiss me, although he was ugly, and it was nothing romantic, just to blow the freebase into my mouth. And that’s all I would do. I never picked it up. I’m so lucky because that would’ve been the end.

Nan Goldin, Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, New York City, 1983
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Pinckney: Talk about something that isolates you.

Goldin: I was so isolated. There’s a lot of sadness. That has to do with looking back on the images now.

Pinckney: The photographs capture the complexity of then, the sadness within the late nights and parties. The one of Cookie in Tin Pan is really so striking in every way.

Goldin: That’s because it’s lit by movie lights. It was taken during the filming of Variety.

Pinckney: But it’s also the moment you capture. There’s a drink. There’s a cigarette. And her arms are folded as though she’s disinterested.

I remember Luc Sante writing once that one of the surprises in your work is that there you were, in the same scene with all this, and yet, you could take these pictures.

Goldin: I had to take these pictures. They gave me a reason to be there. I think the whole reason that I write about in The Ballad, about my sister’s death and the need to record everything, was predominant. It wasn’t an act of will or very much about pursuing art. It was out of need. All my work, I think, is out of need.

Pinckney: So the photography leads you to something else, even if it’s another city or another person?

Goldin: The photography took me traveling, in many different ways. And, most of the time, the relationships came first and then the pictures. Sometimes the pictures came first and then the relationship. The pictures became a way to introduce myself to someone or to become important in somebody’s life. I have often been able to show people how beautiful they are, when they don’t know it.

Pinckney: Was this the feeling behind your book The Other Side?

Goldin: Yes. Very much. Starting with the early black-and-white work.

Pinckney: Then, after The Other Side, you get these terrific photographs using natural light.

Goldin: Yes. I stopped using the flash fifteen years ago. And I don’t photograph much anymore. What I’m working with is existing footage. My piece Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, for instance—it’s almost entirely archival footage, including snapshots from my childhood. And for Memory Lost, I didn’t shoot anything. But I photograph the sky. I have a relationship with the sky. For me, it’s magic. It gives us our sense of space and size in the world. I try to photograph people, but it doesn’t work anymore.

Pinckney: Why is that do you think?

Goldin: I don’t know. I don’t have it anymore. But there are very few instances in which I feel the desire to photograph someone. It’s not my life anymore. People are more self-conscious as they get older. My world isn’t quite so free. We’re not so free. Not so off the grid. It’s on the grid.

Pinckney: Is it age?

Goldin: And lifestyle.

Pinckney: We ask different things of a city, the older we get.

Goldin: Well, I ask different things of my friends. I have different types of relationships. I don’t party. The relationships are much quieter and calmer, and I spend a lot of time alone. But I also spend time with people, working with them. I was bemoaning that to my therapist, and she said, “Well, you love to work.” So it’s a fun and loving thing to do.

Pinckney: Is it also that you have reached a time in life when to reflect and look back is natural?

Goldin: No. I analyze less, and I really don’t look back much unless I see something like Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, and then it’s very scary to go back there.

There are a lot of broken relationships, there’s a lot of death, an enormous amount of death in my community. And there are a lot of relationships that, at some point, I wish I could fix, but I’m not sure I can. I would like to.

Nan Goldin, Twisting at my birthday party, New York City, 1980, from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture, 2022)
Courtesy the artist

Pinckney: Memory Lost is certainly really the whole story in a way.

Goldin: It’s about being addicted and the darkness of life.

Pinckney: And then the priory photographs [taken in a London hospital] are very touching, but the self-portraits in Memory Lost are chilling.

Goldin: I used mostly myself and my friend Guido [Costa], whose idea it was to make the piece. And a few other people. But most of the other people are dead. There are a few people still alive, but I tried to make them more or less anonymous.

Pinckney: But the beautiful dancing frame—you know, the black-and-white frame?

Goldin: Oh, you mean the old Super-8 at the beginning and the end?

Pinckney: Your things are very consciously constructed.

Goldin: Yes. Very. I would say that my work is editing. I’ve always said that primarily the art is not photography, the art is editing. I’ve always said that if anyone would have taken as many pictures as me they could be considered a good photographer.

But that’s not the point. The point is what I’ve done with the pictures. The point is about making cinematic work out of still images, and the editing is where I feel my intelligence lies.

Pinckney: The recent work is much closer to what you were talking about when you say you think of yourself in the way of a filmmaker. It’s moved much more in that direction than The Ballad.

Goldin: I think so. The Ballad is a pretty straightforward form. There are slides, and there’s music. These other two pieces have a lot more elements. In Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, it goes from archival, to film, to stills, and from music, to narration, to voices. And then with Memory Lost, there’s the old Super-8 film, and then there are the old answering machine tapes, which I think this generation won’t even recognize what they are because they’ve never seen an answering machine. It’s crazy.

Pinckney: The dial tone.

Goldin: Exactly. They won’t know what that is.

Pinckney: There are a lot of cries for help coming through.

Goldin: And I sound so coked up. The Ballad for me now is about loss. And while Memory Lost does not feel like a hopeful piece, there is some hope that’s essential to it. I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t have some hope.

Pinckney: Well, the sky makes its appearance.

Goldin: And it ends with [Franz] Schubert and Gabor Maté, a philosopher, psychiatrist, and writer who I respect so much, saying that it’s only human to do drugs.

Pinckney: And then, the woman falls back into the water. It’s beautiful.

Goldin: Thank you. I felt it was very important to use that text by Gabor to destigmatize drugs. It could have been at the beginning, but then it would have been a little heavy-handed. But I want people to leave with some relief of the stigma of what they’ve just seen.

Pinckney: It’s in the right place. Actually, it kind of deglamorizes it.

Goldin: Well, that’s not a glamorous piece.

Pinckney: No. Whereas Ballad

Goldin: Ballad is glamorous.

Pinckney: Yes, the youth, and the subject is desire and love.

Goldin: And passion and sensuality. Memory Lost is not a sensual piece.

Pinckney: The colors are super saturated. And each became a memory as soon as it was photographed.

Goldin: That saturation is how I see the world, but I don’t see memory that way.

Pinckney: No?

Goldin: For me, I don’t have that same relationship to memory. I don’t see photographs as freezing life because of the way that I use them. I never believed in the decisive moment. I never believed that one photograph encapsulates the whole of one person. Of course, published, there are single images on a page, but the whole way that I frame my work is in multiple images. Now I use grids when I show pieces on the wall, which I’ve wanted to do since the ’80s, but I couldn’t afford it then. They are like storyboards. I show a lot of grids and triptychs and diptychs.

In the late 1990s and the 2000s, I was influenced by color-field painting. It doesn’t relate to my work, but I like art that’s very far away from me. And I started making grids that were just colors. Black, red, a kind of homage to the color field painters.

Pinckney: Are some of the paintings in Memory Lost yours?

Goldin: They are mine.

Pinckney: Well, it is the kind of stuff that comes with the price. Not to sound romantic.

Goldin: It’s not romantic, and it has a price. As I realized going back into Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, it’s a high price. It’s a high price to make it, and it’s a high price for me to look at it.

Pinckney: Nothing is casual.

Goldin: Unfortunately not. Yet there are images in The Ballad that are very casual, that don’t have that same weight of self.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Mark Mahoney in Bruce’s car, Boston, 1977
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Pinckney: Well, because a lot of what’s in The Ballad is celebratory.

Goldin: In Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, it’s an accusation against American suburbia—what a toxic life suburban America was in the ’60s. It’s also very angry toward my family and the family structure.

Pinckney: You talk about how you didn’t like Julia Margaret Cameron’s work at first, and then, after a while, you began to appreciate how she took an accident and made it her kind of aesthetic.

Goldin: Yes, slightly out of focus and like spirit photographs almost. The best pictures of mine are accidents. Memory Lost is entirely accidents. It was so much fun to find the worst photographs. The less that was in the photograph, the better it was. The darker it was, the better it was for that piece. But the voices are really important.

Pinckney: And the voices add a completely different theme. It made me think about your writing. You don’t do that anymore either?

Goldin: I needed to write. I needed to draw. To keep myself alive in both those situations, both times. So when you don’t need it, it’s too painful. It’s too difficult. You are a writer—you know how difficult and horrible it is. The empty page is the nastiest thing in the world. And I think the mark, the pencil mark, is the truest sign of mankind. I needed a disinhibitor to do that.

Pinckney: But has all of your work shared this sense that I must do it in order to survive?

Goldin: I don’t know that I thought in those terms, but I knew I had to do it. So you know my diaries, of which there are thousands—I have to make sure they’re destroyed when I die because they weren’t written for anyone except for me to stay alive, and basically it’s thirty years of: “I’m so depressed.” “I’m so fat.” Kenny once stole them, and read them, and said they were so boring. And they are. There’s nothing in them that other people should read. It will completely destroy the myth of Nan Goldin. They’re just about me, and my pain, and nothing else. There are no great observations about New York in the ’80s. They’re not Warhol’s diaries. They’re just about being depressed.

Pinckney: People turn to diaries for different reasons.

Goldin: And mine were not witty observations.

Pinckney: The work you’re doing now, though, it’s important.

Goldin: We are really survivors.

Pinckney: I’m afraid so.

Goldin: It’s a miracle that I’m alive. Doesn’t make any sense that I should be.

Pinckney: Some of the things I did, some of the places I was, some of the chances I took as though nothing bad could ever happen.

Goldin: Falling into that swimming pool, falling, falling, falling. A lot of falling, a lot of hospitals. It’s hard for me to own that period of my life. I feel there is a big separation. Oh, and there’s also the myth of Nan Goldin. Nan Goldin is not in this house. Nan Goldin’s external, and I have very little to do with her. Only when I’m giving a talk, then I’m Nan Goldin. At my opening, I’m Nan Goldin. But otherwise in my life, I’m Nan, and that’s really important to me. If you believe your own myth, it’ll destroy you.

Nan Goldin, Sunny at the spa, distortion, L’Hôtel, Paris, 2009, from the series Memory Lost
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London, and Paris

Pinckney: Your own experience was a part of this from-the-inside feel of your work about women and desire. However you feel about the period now, you weren’t separate from your subjects then. Maybe that is why the sense of distance is so strong now. But how vivid and real the images are. And maybe that’s part of what gives the work its freshness today, because it is still transgressive, though that’s an overused word.

Goldin: I like it.

Pinckney: Unexpected.

Goldin: Transgressive is better. I love it. I mean, let’s hope to be transgressive.

Pinckney: Okay. Well, it certainly was, even just a pregnant girl—

Goldin: Naked. Nowadays that’s even more transgressive. People are much more conservative. These images are more shocking now. Nudity is more shocking now.

Pinckney: It’s strange to think that these images, which, as we were saying, are not pornographic, are so threatening in 2020. At one point, they were so liberating.

Goldin: They’re taboo almost. Which is really scary. The old taboos were lifted, and now they’ve been recycled. When it’s shown, there are thousands of young people who go to see it, and I wonder what it says to them.

Pinckney: First thing it says is: You weren’t there.

Goldin: True. Everyone’s obsessed with the ’80s. They think they know the ’70s and ’80s from watching The Ballad. They don’t. But it must mean more to the kids than just that. They must be able to see themselves in The Ballad. Not just the clothes, but on some emotional level.

Pinckney: There’s a line through the work, the drag queens, The Ballad, The Other Side. Do you think that some of the changes of setting have to do with what used to be called geographics?

Goldin: Well, I skipped America for a long time, and I didn’t go back at all in the 2000s. But it’s not like I really experienced Berlin or Paris. I just hid for about ten years. I want to be careful not to do that again. It’s easy for me to do that. I have to make myself engage with the world. I’m so shy. That was what drugs did for me—they took away that terrible binding shyness. And I thought that they were giving me a social personality.

Pinckney: This is an irony the work and the activism share—bold public confrontation from the most private experiences, a confessional aesthetic from a vulnerable and therefore carefully recessed personality.

Goldin: So I have to try to find other ways to get over it. I’ve made my life an open book, which, nowadays, has served me well in this online culture of digging up people’s pasts and canceling them. It has served me well that I had this need to make the private public. There are secrets, but secrets before there was the Internet. The Sackler family, or someone, sent a private investigator here. He parked outside the house, following my assistant home, taking pictures. It’s been very surprising that they’ve not tried to out me about anything. Though basically, there’s nothing to out me about because I made everything public. They can’t exactly announce that I was addicted to drugs. I mean, deep scandal on that.

Pinckney: What could he do?

Goldin: Nothing. Megan and Harry, the two lieutenants of PAIN [Prescription Addiction Intervention Now], went down and confronted him, took a picture of him, and then he disappeared.

Nan Goldin staging a “die-in” at the Harvard Art Museums, 2018
Photograph by TW Collins

Pinckney: When did PAIN begin?

Goldin: In 2017, after I read an article in The New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe called “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain.” He exposed the Sackler family of multibillionaires who ignited the opioid crisis through their cynical greed. Their family business developed and marketed OxyContin, the most powerful narcotic painkiller on the market. They pushed it like the best drug dealers. Supposedly, the company made thirty-five billion dollars off it. They fed on the stigma of addiction and blamed the drug users. I always thought of them as philanthropists, but they were using museums to wash their reputation.

PAIN started with a focus on pressuring museums to stop taking their money. It also shamed members of the Sackler family who cared about their social status. We staged sexy actions that got a lot of media attention at the Guggenheim, and at the Metropolitan in New York, the Victoria & Albert in London, and the Louvre in Paris. The actions succeeded in helping us to win our demand that museums stop accepting their funding. The Louvre actually took their name down.

Pinckney: Has your activism had an adverse effect on your working life?

Goldin: People warned me at the beginning that this could be very dangerous. They were talking more about my career and how it could affect that. And the actual physical danger was an issue at the beginning, but nothing happened. Nobody made up the crisis. It’s really out there and was underacknowledged for a long time. People didn’t do the shocking arithmetic.

Pinckney: You and your group put the conversation in the mainstream.

Goldin: It’s gotten out and stayed out, and it’s stayed out there because of the support of the press.

Pinckney: You’ve always had an activist side.

Goldin: It wasn’t focused until I got sober three years ago, and I realized what was going on in the world and felt I had to do something. So, I chose what I know best, which is drugs, something I understand in my body. I didn’t know the tragedy of what was going on, and I became enraged. That rage is what provoked me to start the group. I have to say that being in the public with PAIN, with the group that I started, has kept me sober.

Pinckney: You know how we say you have to get sober for yourself ? But now yourself includes a vast number of people.

Goldin: I think there’s the whole ideology that you need something bigger than yourself to stay sober. For me, that is being political in the world.

Pinckney: They are your higher power, other sufferers?

Goldin: No, not them. The idea of taking a political stance and making it public is my higher power. It’s something much larger than me.

Pinckney: Like the Artists Space show in ’89, the AIDS show [Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing]?

Goldin: I was newly sober then, too. I talk about the Artists Space show as part of my political growth, but I can also associate it with sobriety.

Pinckney: It was very important at the time. Two of the most important unifying elements that I think of when I think of you are an uncompromising sort of intelligence governing the work, but also this will to beauty.

Goldin: I think beauty is very important in art, because, after all, it’s an aesthetic experience.

Pinckney: These works, some of them, are very raw but never ugly.

Goldin: Yes, exactly. I have a very big aversion to ugly. I still think beauty is another level that we need. It’s a rest, it’s a caress, beauty. You know Arthur Jafa’s work? He makes these incredible videos about race. Brilliant. They are a condemnation and a provocation. One was just shown at the Museum of Modern Art [APEX, 2013]. And, you know, it can be about the ugliest things in the world and still be beautiful, if you consider honesty a form of beauty.

Pinckney: That’s Nan. You’re always beautiful, Nan.

Goldin: Thank you.

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