The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

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Hundreds of photographs make up Nan Goldin's slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until February 2017. But the most famous—a portrait titled "Nan and Brian in Bed"—also offers a perfect distillation of the project: In it, the auteur clings to a pillow and looks up despondently at a shirtless man. He is perched on the end of the mattress, smoking a cigarette and expressing no interest whatsoever in his lover.

The rest of the images are no less dreary. They include couples frozen in fits of passion but also acts of violence, empty-eyed heroin addicts in squalid apartments, and the photographer herself, blood in the whites of her eyes. A caption explains the latter image is "Nan One Month After Being Battered."

Goldin likely did not set out to construct a cautionary tale about the dark side of libertinism. But for all the good that's come from women's liberation (and for all the influence her "snapshot aesthetic" has had on the art world), the conclusion her work most emphatically conveys is that the sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll lifestyle is not always kind to its devotees.

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