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Interview with Nan Goldin

Artist Nan Goldin was a friend of David Wojnarowicz, and included his work and writings in the 1989exhibition she curated at Artists Space in New York, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. The seminal exhibition brought together work by Goldin's friends who were dealing with the impact of AIDS. In the catalogue, Wojnarowicz condemned right-wing policymakers who supported legislation that discouraged safe sex practices, failed to fund research into HIV and AIDS, and, by extension, furthered the spread of AIDS. In response, John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), withdrew the NEA’s $10,000 exhibition grant. The grant was later partially reinstated, but with the stipulation that no money was used to support the catalogue.

David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection, and Anne Byrd, Director of Interpretation and Research, spoke with Goldin for the David Wojnarowicz audio guide. A condensed and edited version of the discussion follows.

David Breslin: How did you meet David?

Nan Goldin: He was around and I was around. We were actually on the same street–more or less the Bowery. I had heard a lot about him, and then I went to Paris and I heard about him from [photographer and filmmaker] Marion Scemama, who was completely obsessed and talked about nothing else. This was '86 or '87.

I would run into him at a gas station, and he would talk for half an hour about some really deep, upsetting thing in his life, or even in his history. He was so on the surface. There were absolutely no filters. If you came into real contact with him, he just raged about things, and I loved it. When I got clean the first time in '89, I actually called him from the hospital. He probably didn't even know why, because we hardly saw each other, but he was so important to me.

I was also friends with Peter [Hujar]. So I knew him around Peter.

David Breslin: When you're getting clean in '89, is this the same time that Artists Space reached out to you about curating a show?

Nan Goldin: I had just gotten out of the hospital and was living near the hospital outside Boston. They called me, and at that point, it was huge. It's all I basically did for months and months [organizing Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing at Artists Space]. It felt like a year but it was only months—it's all I did, it was my whole life. I asked pretty much anyone I liked at the time. I was reading a lot of reviews, and all the newspaper—The L.A. Times, The New York Times—they talked about the easy to digest work, which wasn't so important to me. You know, they didn't talk about David's work. They didn't talk about Peter's work. They didn't even talk about Greer Lankton’s work, or David Armstrong's work. 

David Breslin: Do you remember what it was like getting the essay from David?

Nan Goldin: It’s a visceral memory. He wrote it in one sitting. He didn't write it and rewrite it and ask for editorial help, he just wrote it, just spewing out his thoughts and feelings without any censor.

David Breslin: I never knew David, but I always had the impression that when you're reading his writing, it could be pretty close to how he spoke. It's brilliant stream-of-consciousness. Is there something to that?

Nan Goldin: He did speak like that. I used to have breakfast with him, and he would just rave about situations. He would talk a lot about his mother and friends that he had rejected. He had a wide range of obsessions.

Anne Byrd: Would you just describe how everything unfolded with Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing?

Nan Goldin: We didn't know what was happening. We found out after the fact. Susan Wyatt was the director of Artists Space. She got nervous about David's writing, and so she took it to the NEA to show the catalogue, to get approval. She didn't want any kind of controversy. The media got it wrong writing that Artists Space stood up to the NEA in support of the artists. It wasn’t like that.

She went behind the scenes. [NEA Chairman] John Frohnmayer could not accept the catalogue essay and that's when they took away the money. If she hadn't brought it to the NEA, would he have seen this skinny little catalogue? Susan called David and said, you need to censor this. They demanded that he take out the “fat fucking cannibal” of Cardinal O'Connor, and lighting Jesse Helms's ass on fire and throwing him out the window.

She asked them to take out the word “fucking,” but it was simply the word, “fucking.” So he removed it, and now there's no “fucking cannibal” line left in there, in the original catalogue essay.

That's the only concession he made. I don't know exactly how it hit the mainstream media—maybe because [the composer] Leonard Bernstein refused the Congressional Medal of Honor in support of us. He spoke out against NEA taking away funding of this small art show. It was impressive.

Anne Byrd: What was your vision of the show when you started putting it together?

Nan Goldin: I thought that I had been isolated from my community and I thought I was going back to my community. And then I realized most of the people were dead or dying. So, when they asked me to curate a show, they didn't tell me what it should be about, or any kind of frame for it. I thought there were already a lot of shows about AIDS and so maybe this could not be so important—but there hadn't been any!

It was shocking and it still shocks me. Maybe there were some offsite exhibitions that I knew nothing about, but nothing major. So, I asked all my friends to contribute because I wanted it to be about a community. I didn't have the mind of a curator then. I've curated shows between now and then, so I have a different idea of curating, but at the time I was completely naïve. I went to David and asked him to be in it, and he said sure. I asked him to write the catalogue and he said yes. He really supported me. So, there was some really important work in the show like David's and Peter Hujar's.

David Breslin: I was interested in reading your introduction to the show and how some of the original ideas were maintained, about wanting to include things about spirituality, and wanting to make sure there was something very affirmative and pro-sex in the show. I wonder how those two ideas came together as something important to deal with in this exhibition?

Nan Goldin: I was dealing with those issues in my own life, and David writes that seeing imagery of gay sexuality, or of his sexuality in museums and art spaces gave him some comfort. So, his work was the centerpiece of the sexuality in the exhibition, but also Peter [Hujar] and David Armstrong, although not so explicitly. Sexuality has always been a part of my work, hasn't it?

David Breslin: Absolutely.

Nan Goldin: So, it goes without saying. The spirituality was new, the sexuality was already tried and true. And I've always seen them as intertwined.

David Breslin: When the religious conservatives, or the political conservatives, went after Wojnarowicz, they used religion as kind of a scapegoat.

Nan Goldin: Isn't that what the Catholic Church does? They killed thousands of people by refusing to put out safe sex information. And they polluted the minds of their congregation with homophobia. They were a big part of what happened in the '80s with the decimation of the community because of AIDS. And, did you know that David was active in ACT UP?

David Breslin: Yes.

Nan Goldin: Did you know there was funeral in the street when he died? I found footage of it. There's a film I saw the other night called United In Anger about the history of ACT UP, the beginning years, and David passes by in it. I was watching it because of my own group [Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, which holds the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the opioid crisis and advocates for solutions]. ACT UP is a construct that we're trying to follow.

David was in the demonstrations and it shows that when David died there was a spontaneous funeral in the street. That's how important he was—he was basically the voice of AIDS. He supported my photographs of people with AIDS, which was very contentious at the time. MoMA had a show of [photographer] Nicholas Nixon's victims and there was a big demonstration. The fact that David introduced my work to ACT UP, and they gave me their blessing, was very important for my own work.

If David was alive, my life would be different. David was my mentor. A lot of my ideas come from David. The way I frame my activism and the language in my head.

Everyone's dead. If you read a list of people from that time, most of them are dead. David also speaks about the destruction of communities by the Far Right, by the government, with AIDS, also pertaining to IV drug users,  homeless people, and the lesbian community. He doesn't just talk about gay white men, which is really important. And he was on that then. It wasn't something he had to learn over the years.

He really hated what was going on in museums and in the art world. I remember during the flare up with Artists Space, it was all I was dealing with. For me, it was the most important thing. I had dinner with some rich collectors uptown and they had no idea and no interest. 

I still think, as David felt strongly, that museums are controlled by the collectors and the boards. At that time, there was a lot of controversy about museums not showing people of color, not showing women. If you look at galleries, they still are predominantly white men and he didn't want to be part of that. He had shows because he needed to eat, but he was really appalled by the art world.

David Breslin: I was rereading something where he said, “I've always carried with me Hujar's observation that ‘the art world has nothing to do with art.’”

Nan Goldin: Well, we know that now. I was saying that today about a gallery. It's corporate decoration, corporate commodity. He was very much against the commodification of art. 

Anne Byrd: You mentioned your own political group and your own work. You are addressing an opioid epidemic that is ignored by the government, and stigmatized by the government and others. It makes Wojnarowicz’s work feel very relevant to the present moment, and I wonder if there's anything you would want to say about that?

Nan Goldin: If he was here, he would be guiding me on my trip through this crisis. He was my spiritual guide, he was my political guide. His voice still resonates with me. His voice is what speaks loudest to me in addressing this crisis. It's also about stigmatizing, and shame, and ignorance. We can read all these articles [about the opioid epidemic] in The New York Times and the L.A. Times, but there's still a huge population that doesn't know what's going on. And they don't know the name Sackler. It's amazing how many people don't know their responsibility in this crisis. And hopefully the Whitney will make a statement in support of me as one of their artists. They're having a show of political posters right now so, you know, get on it.