New York stories: tales from the city

Nan Goldin, Nan One Month after Being Battered, 1984

Nan Goldin’s pictures from the late 1970s and 1980s provide a unique record of a slice of New York life at a time when hedonism was giving way to tragedy. The body of work she titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency focuses on those who hung out around the Bowery where a hard-drug subculture met an emerging gay scene.

As a student in Boston, Goldin had shown her work in the form of Cibachrome colour prints; moving to New York she switched to showing work as slide shows often with a soundtrack and shown in clubs. The pictures were made using available light and most have a snapshot aesthetic. They document sexuality, drug use, domesticity and the sometimes violent relationships of Goldin and those she hung out with.

Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, 1983

It’s hard not to get caught up in the lives of the characters – including the artist herself – who populate Goldin’s work and for me the story of Cookie Mueller – who starred in the early films of John Waters, wrote for a number of different magazines in New York and was addicted to heroin – has always been particularly compelling.

Cookie’s life, documented extensively in Goldin’s work, follows the same path as many of those who made up New York’s drug subculture and gay scene as AIDS hit. Cookie is photographed with her lover Sharon, with her husband Vittorio Scarpati and alone as the heroin addiction that destroyed her beauty and led to her death from AIDS took hold.

Cookie and Vittorio’s wedding, 1986

There are aspects of Cookie’s life – such as her white wedding to Vittorio in 1986 – that appear unexpectedly conventional but as time goes on the couple seem to disappear before our eyes in Goldin’s work; they died within weeks of one another in 1989. Cookie was 40. Looking at the work now it’s hard not to see way Cookie’s life story plays out as an inevitability but the power of Goldin’s work is such that I still find myself lost in the tragedy of the narrative.

Cookie at Vittorio’s casket, NYC, September 16, 1989

Cookie in her casket, NYC, November 15, 1989

1 thought on “New York stories: tales from the city

  1. Wow awesome,hip,fab,and glamorous. Lets celebrate the life of Cookie Mueller and all of her achievements. Devoted Mother,Wife,Artist and Junky.
    Everyone should enjoys their own delusions!!!

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