I arrived in San Francisco’s art district three hours before the gallery closed. It was my last chance to see this show. I don’t make the trip to SF that often. There must be something great to magnetize me. When I saw that Nan Goldin had a show that was coming down, I knew that it was important to catch it before it was gone. Goldin is one of those living artists you learn about in art history books or programs. She’s canonical and for very good reasons.
This show was powerful. It had three main parts. In the front large gallery room, a series of 21×31” prints hung beautifully, evoking the blurry spaces of consciousness. They were somewhere between dreaming and waking, between memory and the present moment. One of those images, was a photograph of a broken electric sign taken by Goldin in Italy in the year 2000. The title of the image is also the text pictured on the malfunctioning sign: “Memory Lost.” Goldin also uses this title for her slideshow from which the front room images were taken.
Between the front gallery and the darkened room where the slideshow was projected, Goldin hung some of her recent work made during the past couple of years, concurrent with the editing of the slideshow. In this new work, Goldin returns to portraiture powerfully recording the presence of Thora, a young writer who moved in with Goldin during the lockdown. The pandemic was a strange time for everyone, but a period of reflection and work for some artists, and Goldin seems to have made the most of it composing a beautiful slideshow and making an extraordinary body of work featuring her newest muse.
The slideshow was a haunting meditation on addiction and art, interweaving images from her career made of people she loved with disembodied recordings they left on her voice message or collected in interviews. This multimedia montage was scored brilliantly with haunting minimalist music that kept the viewer transfixed despite the sorrow that was being expressed. There were so many thoughts that flooded my mind as I watched.
I thought about my own friends who have passed away or succumbed to the seductive power of addiction. Santa Cruz is a place that is no stranger to drugs, and while I am clean and sober now, I am familiar with the worlds depicted in Goldin’s work. It made me think of my great friend Shaun Barney Barron and his prolific creativity and humble honesty. It made me think about other artists who care so much about their work that they are willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of creativity. It made me sad, but I also couldn’t miss the hopefulness in the love that she expressed.
In her landscapes and cityscapes, Goldin is extremely minimalist. There is almost nothing but mood in the images. In her portraits of friends and lovers she includes every dirty detail, from razor blades used to cut coke, pills arranged as rations, ever-present half smoked cigarettes, beds and blankets bent and sweated into squalor, to a charred mattress that had caught fire. She doesn’t glamorize drug use in this series, but she transfigures her friends as tragic and holy. They are partly demonic and partly saintlike in this depiction of addiction, melancholic but beautiful martyrs of narcotics.
The slideshow ends with information about Goldin’s organization PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which is her attempt to fight back against the people who profit from addiction in our culture. She has gone so far as to file a class action lawsuit against the Sackler family who got rich by getting U.S. citizens hooked on prescribed painkillers. Goldin is actively interrogating and protesting the connections between this family and their donations to major museums in the art world.
This is part one of writing about my experience, as I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting and briefly interviewing the president and partner of Fraenkel Gallery, Frish Brandt. I believe in the mission of contemporary art, and Brandt is at the helm of one of our greatest spaces.