Touching Correspondence: Archive Visit during Making Advances Mellon Workshop

 

Touching Correspondence: Archive Visit during Making Advances Mellon Workshop

Author: Paula Kupfer, PhD student in History of Art and Architecture and Making Advances Workshop participant

One of the postcards shows a hunky man with dark eyebrows and long black hair, dressed in a vibrant red sweater. His left hand grasps his belt, the intensity of his gesture matched only by the fiery look in his eyes. The backdrop—a pink wall with three small pictures in kitschy frames—crowns the humorous earnestness of his pose. The other postcard depicts a hand-colored black-and-white reproduction of Jesus: his hair, highlighter orange; his sleeves, highlighter blue; his torso, highlighter pink. A caption reads: Sagrado Corazon de Jesus (Sacred Heart of Jesus). 

These postcards were sent by artist and photographer Nan Goldin (b. 1953) to her friend, the artist Greer Lankton (1958–96), and are part of the Greer Lankton archive at the Mattress Factory, which we visited during the Making Advances Mellon Workshop in early May. Lankton is remembered for her hand-sewn dolls, installations, and autobiographical work reflecting her life experiences as an artist and a transgender person who also struggled with drug addiction. Goldin is best known for her Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a series of personal photographs mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, of her life and friends in Boston, New York, Berlin, and elsewhere. The pictures reflect moments of ecstasy and pain, in particular highlighting the ravages that the AIDS crisis inflicted on her community. Ballad offers an intimate, diaristic view of Goldin’s life; she would present it as a slideshow, often in nightclubs, accompanied by a soundtrack created by her and her friends.

On the back of Jesus, Goldin wrote, from Mexico, in 1982: 

Dear Greer, a belated valentines card for you, my sweet. . . . Still living a lazy existence, reading a lot, swimming, cooking + cleaning, eating only fruit + veggies for a while. It must be a modern Mexican miracle—this sudden domesticity I’ve fallen into. Still, it’s difficult to be a woman down here. It’s like walking past one enormous construction site all the time. It’s very repressed sexually especially this area. . . . Women can’t drink in the cantinas or play pool in the halls or do much alone. But actually there seems to be a new breed of woman coming up seems more independent. Mardi gras carnival is starting so we’ve been going to all these town events—the crowning of the child queen, the crowning of the lady queen. Marceled hairdos à la colonial Spain, banana curls with tiaras or else Carmen Miranda drags. . . . We’re still planning to come back March 10. Will write if changes. Love to Michele. Miss you! Want word from NYC.” 

On the back of the handsome man in red, sent from Germany in 1984, Goldin wrote: 

Dear Greer, this is one of the sex symbols of Turkey. We stayed in Little Turkey in Berlin—like the Lower East Side. Lived in a house with 40 people, a printing press, carpentry factory, dinners for 40 every night. A real little socialist state. Spent all the $ I brought on sekt—the link between wine and champagne—so I have not much to show for it and not even sure how many memories. Did make some good connections workwise. . . . Did 2 slideshows at cinemas, one in Berlin, one here in Wuppertal—sort of like Pittsburg [sic] except w. Pina Bausch company here. No amour this trip. Coming back in time to do the Diane B shot so get ready! Can’t wait to see Art Forum and yr new work. Love xxx Nan” 

Although I knew of links between the two artists—Lankton appears in many of Goldin’s photographs from the 1970s and ’80s, perhaps most famously in Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC, from 1982—the discovery of these two postcards was particularly affecting. Doubtless it was the sweetness of the tone in both, but also the surprise of reading first-hand words by an artist who so often speaks through images. Reflecting the sort of intense personal character of both Goldin and Lankton’s work, these postcards embody a material link between the two women, a form of tenderness relayed through handwriting, a traveling piece of cardboard that speaks of their connection, trust, and a form of care that spanned geographic distance.  

Goldin is credited with inaugurating a new aesthetic in photography—her off-the-cuff, bright-flash, richly colored representations of her own life represented a new possibility within the realm of fine art photography. Her life was her art—raw, joyous, painful, sexual, tender. She had this in common with Lankton, whose work and archive—a deeply moving, deeply human collection of photographs, photo albums, diaries, and letters—bears testament to the troubles and joys of her unusual life and its translation into artworks. These postcards fall into the same spirit: they are sincere, disarming, and funny. 

Thinking of Greer Lankton and Nan Goldin feels urgent today. Not only because of new threats against the lives and rights of transgender people. Or because of Goldin’s admirable and ongoing activism in response to the opioid crisis in the United States—of which she herself has been a victim—and the complicity of art institutions. But also because the radical vulnerability they offer the world through their art and archive is deeply political and necessary today. The more stories of pain and alterity—but also joy and euphoria—are shared with others, the more art may serve a form of much-needed empathy. Sometimes such reminders come in inconspicuous forms, such as that of postcards. 

Learn more about the Making Advances Workshop here

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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  • Graduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh