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What’s behind Nan Goldin’s war on drugs? 

Nan Goldin leads a demonstration at the Harvard Art Museums
Nan Goldin leads a demonstration at the Harvard Art Museums Credit:  Boston Globe

Nan Goldin owes her fame to the people America hid. She emerged in the late Seventies with photographs of the grimy bohemia on New York’s Lower East Side. Forty years later, she’s the subject herself, splashed across the papers and art magazines: she’s staging protests in US and UK galleries – and, as of yesterday, the Louvre – that have marble halls and faux-classical wings thanks to the Sackler family’s gifts. The world Goldin used to represent, one of addicts and dropouts, is rising up against those who, she says, developed the opioids that have killed 200,000 Americans in 20 years.

Goldin’s photographs have always been “unflinching”, present tense. The people in them were flash-lit, and looked a little hesitant, as if unsure how to respond to the lens. They were drunk, high, ecstatic, hurt; transgender, in drag, merely nude.

This was never a vision to suit middle America, but Goldin’s stock rose, as did that of photographers Larry Clark and (later) Davide Sorrenti. The criticism came in the Nineties, once these pictures of emaciated, lovestruck, uncontrollable people had spread into the fashion magazines. Kate Moss was walking the catwalks; grunge rock, led by junkies like Kurt Cobain, was on the musical stage.

This, for a few years, was the age of “heroin chic”. But Sorrenti overdosed and died in 1997, and the world finally woke up. President Clinton warned in a 1998 speech that “fashion photos in the last few years have made heroin addiction seem glamorous and sexy and cool”. Since the Eighties, the drug had become cheaper, and purer, and now it could be smoked: no needles, no threat of Aids.

Goldin, like her subjects, was an addict. (She escaped earlier than many, which may be why she escaped at all; she entered rehab, successfully, in 1989.) Many of her photographs from that period have a cloistered quality, the subject centred and trapped by the flash. The room recedes into darkness around them. Some shots are gently blurred, and spare details at the edges are lost. It’s if the lens were narcotised as well.

Nan Goldin's photography at the Non Basta Ricordare - Collezione MAXXI exhibition in December 2013 Credit:  AFP

To Goldin, her work was never voyeuristic. It didn’t invade anyone’s privacy; after developing a reel, she would show each subject their picture, and offer to destroy it if they objected. “Integrity, integrity, integrity,” as she put it in an interview last year. Rose McGowan, the actress and #MeToo activist, was recently challenged by Dazed to look at Goldin’s photograph Amanda in the Mirror (1992). “What kind of story do you think this person has?” she was asked. “Women are fairly mysterious,” McGowan replied. “I’m going to leave her to mystery.”

Goldin’s first subjects were on the margins of US society; from drug addicts to drag queens, they were a lost boys’ and girls’ club that didn’t belong in the open. (Much of the objection to Clark’s and Goldin’s work was less to do with keeping other people alive than with what well-behaved people didn’t want to be forced to see.)

But the work changed in the Nineties when she came out of treatment. The images are brighter, as if the outside world were breaking in. She began taking pictures of children. These new subjects are caught in the same momentary acts, the camera acting as their diarist, but their joy seems more pure. They run around on the beach, or point bemusedly at the lens. When they stare up at the viewer, their eyes are wide, but the wideness isn’t a symptom of a substance that kills.

Goldin's photographs of children, taken once she was sober Credit: Sean Gallup

Goldin became an addict again in 2014, while living in Berlin, after a long-standing injury to her wrist began to cause intolerable pain. She was prescribed OxyContin, a drug manufactured since 1996 by the US company Purdue Pharma. It was $30 per 30mg pill, of which she took three a day. Its power was extraordinary; soon she was hooked.

“I worked the medical field in Berlin for scripts,” she remembered. “When they shut me out I turned to FedEx. That worked until it didn’t. The drug, like all drugs, lost its effect, so I picked up the straw.” After three years, her money ran out; she obtained a small endowment, then spent that too; she returned to New York, and to heroin, then Fentanyl – “100 times stronger than morphine” – and finally, one day, she overdosed.

Since emerging in 2017 from her second rehab spell, Goldin has evangelised against the Sackler family, whose ancestors founded Purdue Pharma. Unable to challenge OxyContin itself – the drug is legal in all major Western countries, having passed all the official tests – she pursued the family’s public face. Sackler Wings and Galleries adorn a host of Western institutions, from London’s Serpentine Gallery to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “They have washed their blood money,” Goldin wrote in Artforum, “through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”

Her protests are peaceful but embarrassing. Goldin and P.A.I.N., her activist network (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), appear in whatever grand rotunda or fountain the Sacklers have helped an institution to build; they hoist their banners (“Shame on Sackler”) and announce their cause through megaphones. They toss pill bottles with OxyContin labels into the water or onto the ground. Often they stage a “die-in”, collapsing en masse.

They drop leaflets, too, which bear a quotation: “If OxyContin is uncontrolled, it is highly likely that it will eventually be abused… How substantially would it improve our sales?” This, according to a US court filing, is a (lightly adapted) 1997 exchange between OxyContin’s inventor and one of the Sacklers. In New York, for the first time, the Sackler family members are being personally sued. (The family deny all wrongdoing; Elizabeth Sackler adds that her branch hasn’t had a stake in Purdue for years.)

This pressure on “artwashing” may at last have breached the dam. Earlier this year, the Sackler Trust announced the suspension of all donations. The Guggenheim Foundation has said it won’t accept anything from the Sacklers in future; nor, say Tate, the Serpentine and the Prince’s Trust, will they. The National Portrait Gallery has turned down a £1 million gift. 

Goldin’s photography, meanwhile, is enjoying a revival. Her first exhibition with Marian Goodman, who has taken over Goldin’s representation, will open at Goodman’s London gallery in October. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1978-85), her brilliantly raw series about transgression and abuse, was the subject of a major 2017 show at MoMA in New York.

In a lacerating introduction to the Ballad book, Goldin writes about her elder sister Barbara’s suicide in 1965. (Goldin was 11 at the time.) Barbara, she writes, was a wannabe artist who was crushed by the era: in “the early Sixties, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behavior, beyond control.” In 2019, that “acceptability” is no longer what counts. In art, entertainment and politics – the distinctions between which are abolished by activists like Goldin herself – the anger can’t be controlled any more.