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Nan Goldin and Kathleen White at Pioneer Works
Kathleen, Wigstock, NYC 1991Artwork by Nan Goldin, courtesy of Pioneer Works

Nan Goldin and her late friend explore love and loss in 80s Downtown NYC

The photographer’s work is paired alongside late artist, friend and muse, Kathleen White’s installations

When Nan Goldin joined Instagram in December last year, one of her first posts was of the late Kathleen White, her long-time friend and muse. Currently on show in Brooklyn, Goldin’s intimate photographs of her muse are presented alongside White’s own work as an installation and soft sculpture artist. By showing these works side by side, it opens up a two-way dialogue between the two.

Goldin’s images are tributes to the goofy, glorious love we have for our friends: White squinting against the sun at Woodstock, propping up the bar at the Bowery, relaxing, grinning, posing. But contextualising these photos within the community of outsiders in which Goldin and White moved in the 1980s, the images gain narrative. Goldin captured the ecstatic highs and devastating lows experienced by the queer New York communities that suffered huge losses of life from HIV and Aids, alongside vicious stigma and sanctioned bigotry. The Downtown scene lost many key members, such as Klaus Nomi, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring. Goldin responded directly to the hopeless situation in 1989 by curating Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, which featured work from artists living on the Lower East Side whose work addressed the epidemic.

Although she was primarily a painter, White began to use hair within her work by either layering it over canvas or creating masks and sculptures. The hair was often taken from the unclaimed possessions of performers who died during the crisis. Wigs were also donated; detailed in a list written of ‘hair ancestors’ such as Lady Bunny and Sister Dimension, who dominated the electrifying drag circuit of the time. Other materials included are the pages of phone books, which further highlight the importance of connections. Friendship was intrinsic to White’s art – “My Friend” was the name of the first work she completed after moving to New York in 1987. Even though White passed away from cancer in 2014, the repeated circles of hair in her work act as infinite plaited friendship bracelets; symbols of an enduring bond that survived a period when everything else felt bound to be lost.

Nan Goldin: Kathleen and Kathleen White: Spirits of Manhattan runs at New York’s Pioneer Works until 11 February