FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS, I have given "Make Your Own Nan Goldin" as an assignment to the undergrads in my "Contemporary Art" survey course at New York University's Steinhardt School. At the beginning of the semester I juxtaposed two contemporaneous and archetypal photographic series of the late '70s and early '80s, Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills." The emphasis on Goldin and Sherman derived in part from my impression that these artists were familiar to even the greenest (or most blinkered) BFA candidates, whereas Jeff Wall or Richard Prince weren't necessarily. With a certain tendentiousness I often returned to these artists during the course's unraveling; having initially emphasized their obvious differences, gradually I began to refer to the artists by a single sobriquet, "Cindy Goldin." I guess I was suggesting--rather humorously, I thought--that on repeated viewing these series began to bleed together, in my mind at least, and that the much-discussed "construction" of Sherman's mise-en-scenes and Goldin's famous snapshot aesthetic are more similar than they first seem. The point was to question the ostensible gap between critical and expressive photography, between set-up pictures and those that laid claim to the ambivalent territory of the documentary. And besides, "Make Your Own Nan Goldin" would yield inescapably amusing results, in a way that thirty essays on the Gerhard Richter retrospective at MOMA, or even on Matthew Barney's "Cremaster Cycle," would not.
"This is not a studio class and as such this is not a studio project." I wrote in the instructions. "It concerns the reception and interpretation of images, in this case images about bohemia, the artist's life, alternative lifestyles, etc. Photo technique, however, is not at issue. If you like, you can simply buy a disposable camera to take the pictures." The conscientious schoolmarm in me urged the class to use confectionary sugar as a stand-in for illicit substances, while the cheerfully irresponsible voyeur hoped for a few images of "NYU after dark." In addition to the photos, I required the students to pen brief essays "giving some orientation or perspective on your approach." Some of the kids' statements were plainly skeptical or explicitly derogatory: "Why should I care about the drugged-out, dirty, selfindulgent Family of Nan?" one student asked, while another remarked, without irony, "I don't think I like this Cindy Sherman. She is so self-involved. She's in all her pictures." Others gave more academic accounts, often with footnotes, demonstrating that the forced diet of early-'80s October art criticism to which I had subjected the class up to midterm had borne fruit (or something): Citations of Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Rosalind Krauss, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh peppered numerous essays. The "I Heart Being Smart" and alter ego "Screw This" commentaries were revealing by turns. The assignment had been handed out during the class session covering "Spectacle and Simulation"; it was due on the day devoted to "Abjection."
The photographic projects usually fell into two camps, either setups, often explicitly parodic, of drug use, abusive relationships, and domestic and clubby disorder, or attempts at the snapshot aesthetic with regard to the students' own lives and those of their friends and families. More than a few reflected and commented on the students' own relationship to the East Village environs, where many live and where our classroom is located. The wan specters of "New York/New Wave" (the title of our session devoted to 1980's "Times Square Show" and the East Village art scene) dimly inhabit St. Mark's Place, and the neighborhood retains still a vague aura of alternativeness--outlandish rents, cute shops, and trendy cafes notwithstanding.
One student, Chason Matthams, naughtily opted to assume the unsympathetic role of Brian, Goldin's abusive boyfriend and amour fou, "the man in the photograph drinking and watching Fred Flintstone on the television," the author of Goldin's signature shiner. …