I did not enjoy Nan Goldin’s major, mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996. So if you’d told me then that Goldin’s work would, 20 years down the road, be a powerful harbinger of changes in American culture, I’d have found that disturbing.

But it would have been true.

Goldin’s Whitney work comprised huge snapshots of her extended circle living their glamorously gritty lives in the East Village and other fixed points of the tragically hip. Everything was a party on the edge of an orgy, or the aftermath of both: heroin, drag queens in last night’s makeup, couples teetering toward coitus and so on. It was an awkward blend of theatrical and personal, like drunken circus performers desperately partying in their hardscrabble camp long after the fictionalized glamour of the previous night’s performance.

What I disliked about the Whitney show was what I took for narcissism, an insular self-congratulatory theatricality. And yet it stayed with me.

Her work had a raw power, an inexplicable authenticity. It was selfies before selfies and reality television long before reality television. Goldin’s snapshot aesthetic was intentionally ugly in the service of empathy: She was one of these people, this was her tribe. And we could practically feel them being voted off the island, one by one, by the siren calls of AIDS or overdose.

“Cookie at Tin Pan Alley,” 1983, silver-dye bleach print, 27 by 40 inches, courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

Nan Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1953 to a troubled household. She left home early and took up photography just as early, starting out with something very much like the diary approach she maintains to this day. In addition to about 35 framed prints, “Nan Goldin: As the World Turns” features three of the artist’s major series slide shows presented together for the first time: “The Other Side” (1992–2007; 15 minutes, 28 seconds), “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1980–2006, 45 minutes), and “Scopophilia” (2010, 25 minutes).

Like the other slide shows (or multi-media works, whatever you want to call them), “Ballad,” which features about 700 images, is set to a soundtrack. Referencing Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, “Ballad” looks deeply at Goldin and her circle in the early 1980s, at least it did when selections from the series were included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial. Goldin did not shy away from love, sex, abuse and drug use. She has since scrubbed much of the drug abuse from her work. In 1988, she entered rehab to address her own (quite well-self-documented) addiction.

“Siobhan Close-up, NYC,” 1992, silver-dye bleach print, 16 by 24 inches, private collection, Houston, Texas.

Having lost friends and students in New York to AIDS and overdose by the time I saw the Whitney show, Goldin’s work struck me as a jagged pill. Yet however aggressively gritty her work seeks to be, it has an elusive beauty. Her subjects exude life and personal authenticity. What I first saw as a hipper-than-thou narcissism (I myself was a straight, not-hip, white art guy in New York in the ’80s and ’90s), I now recognize it as a type of sanctuary. At the time, the only thing I disliked more than that East Village attitude was the Wall Street “suit” sociopathy – already championed by the “blacks-need-not-apply” developer Donald Trump. Goldin’s drag queens and others lacked the empathetically asserted identity discourse we have now. Even New Yorkers at the time stumbled over the notion – just then coming into focus – of queer.

Goldin’s subjects – who proudly reclaimed the word “queer” – were refugees. Shunted from society, if they wanted sanctuary, they’d have to make it for themselves. In this light, the rituals come into focus: The drag queens putting on makeup before performances, the routine of heroin, the partying. Together, these added up to something like a recognizable religion, the goal of which was to create culture from community – culture being that notion of identity that lives beyond its individual members, that place of ethics, morals, meaning and family.

“Robin, Veiled, Boston,” 1978, silver-dye bleach print, 24 by 16 inches, private collection, Houston, Texas.

“Naomi and Colette going out to turn,” for example, is an early image (1973) from Goldin’s years in Boston. It’s a scene featuring a drag queen heading out to work as a prostitute. What matters is the regularity it implies: This is what they do – they are professionals. The key term is “regularity”… as in regular.

“As the World Turns” is a monumental show for the Portland Museum of Art – it is a coup – yet not necessarily because of the artist’s fame. For starters, this is the best use I have ever seen of the PMA’s notoriously difficult first floor gallery space. The installation is gorgeous, more because of what curator Jessica May has brought to the table than Goldin: Curtained-off areas become excellent spaces for the slide shows. The dark blue accent works perfectly with the black curtains. The 35 or so works are placed with a deft touch and plenty of breathing room. May has proven herself to be a truly great photography curator whose excellent shows seem to be getting better all the time.

You might wonder about the audience for “As the World Turns,” but the truth is we’ve caught up to Goldin’s work. Although we still struggle with gender issues in America, most Mainers now support same-sex marriage. We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Want to learn about a family? Watch how they deal with their most uncomfortable member.

In her work, Goldin yearns nostalgically for a time that never really existed, a genuine good-old-days that is akin to a recovering addict yearning for a time when heroin meant euphoria not addiction. We conveniently forget that for many Americans the ’80s were a tough time: The postwar unemployment high water mark of 10.5 percent, for example, came in the second half of the first term of President Reagan, who notoriously refused to even mention AIDS for many years when the epidemic was raging.

It’s easy to imagine Goldin’s sound tracks in terms of Lou Reed and the Warhol-flavored Velvet Underground (and indeed we hear Lou Reed in the slide shows) – just consider the heroin, drug dealing and cross-dressing lyrics to “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972), but Goldin’s work actually aligns more closely with the New York Dolls and the East Village punk scene. It’s not surprising that she did some of her first major slide shows at venues like the Mud Club. Goldin is more Wigstock than Woodstock – a point she makes literal in the soundtrack to “The Other Side” by including the opera-affected drag queen anthem “Wigstock” version of the Joni Mitchell tune “Woodstock.”

Goldin has grown up and softened – somewhat – through time, but her message carries farther than ever to broader audiences. With a title that references a cheesy, long-running soap opera, “As the World Turns” looks at our daily lives in which we feed off the theatricality of others, fictional or otherwise.

Correction: This story was updated at 12:52 p.m. on Nov. 6, 2017 to correct the city where Goldin was born.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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