Nan Goldin passed me by. By the time I became involved in the art world in the mid-1990s her reputation seemed unassailable, at least as far as New Yorkers were concerned. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981-96) had by then been embraced as a panacea for all the excesses of irony and materialism of the 1980s. Critics were clamouring for a return to 'the real', and gallerists and collectors thought they'd found their authentic selves reflected in these romantic images of the denizens of Manhattan's demi-monde, or fell for the fantasy of slumming it with what seemed like a reprise of Andy Warhol's flawed Factory beauties. 'By the time of the 1993 Whitney Biennial', wrote Lisa Liebmann and Brooks Adams in the catalogue to Saatchi's 'Young Americans 2' in 1998, 'all anybody apparently wanted to do was moon over Nan Goldin's pictures.'
As with anything that triumphs to the point of ubiquity, Goldin's work became invisible, critically speaking, at least to me, if not my peer group. There seemed little point taking notice of it, as there was little to add. Its familiarity was such that I hadn't realized that I had only seen the work in reproduction: before this generous survey at the Whitechapel, opportunities to see it in Britain were rare.
'Devil's Playground' was an exhibition in two parts: recent work on the ground floor and a retrospective upstairs leading back to her first black-and-white photographs of the early 1970s. Downstairs was dominated by four monumental cycles of deep chiaroscuro photographs of couples fucking: 'Fever', 'First Love', 'Sweat' and 'French Kiss'. Through the intimate physical sacraments of Valerie and Bruno (2001), Simon and Jessica (2001), Clemens and Jens (1999-2001), and Joana and Aureole (2001), Goldin gives public testimony to bodily exaltation in the wake of Aids. Conversely, her recent series of landscapes allegorize the melancholy and grief once played out in her portraits of terminally ill friends. Several, especially those featuring stagnant, opaque bodies of water, recall the fin-de-siècle twilight worlds of 'Mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria (his 'Grotto of Venus' at Linderhoff) and Thomas Mann (via Visconti's celluloid version of Death in Venice, 1971) - hence the Baudelairean title of this new series, 'Devil's Playground', which is derived, appropriately, from somewhere in Death Valley, and from which this exhibition takes its name.
Goldin is often considered responsible for introducing the so-called 'snapshot aesthetic' to photography, and yet what was most striking about these photographs was their formal gravitas. Goldin lends fleeting experience a timeless grandeur: the pearls of water luxuriating from a beautiful young woman's jaw - Amanda in the Shower, Hamburg (1999) - are frozen like great necklaces and icicles. In another bathroom shot - Joey in the Tub (2000) - the white enamel of the bath looks like ivory, while the soapy water forms a milky membrane immediately below Joey's softly veined breasts and tattooed upper arm, calling to mind the deathly opulence of a nearby image of Saint in the Casket, Roma (2001).
Indeed the spectre of Old Master painting hovers over the entire exhibition. Goldin's self-possessed drag queens Misty, Jimmy Paulette, Taboo!, in full regalia, resemble Rococo courtesans; Breakfast in Bed, Hotel Torre di Bellosguardo, Florence, Italy (1996) is the spitting image of a still life by Jean-Siméon Chardin; in Ulrika, Stockhom, Sweden (1998) Goldin's gallerist's baby daughter points heavenwards, eyes shining, in the pose of a Christ child in a painting from the Italian Renaissance. As in a Caravaggio - the painter most frequently evoked in Goldin's work - those around her, and the ordinary accoutrements of their domestic lives, are repeatedly transformed into allegories of the sacred and profane.
The sense of timelessness that the cibachromes have is complemented by the fragile transience of the images that make up Goldin's slide shows - the seminal Ballad of Sexual Dependency especially, and two other, more recent cycles: 'Heart Beat' (2001), which is accompanied by a haunting piece of music by Björk and John Taverner, and 'All By Myself' (1995-6), a series of self-portraits set to Eartha Kitt's gorgeous eponymous track. In the introduction to Air Guitar (1997) Dave Hickey observed that although 90 per cent of pop songs are written about love, 90 per cent of rock criticism is about the other ten percent. Goldin's images are all about love (especially when they are also about death). They aspire to, and sometimes attain, a perfectly crafted pop song's measure of directness and insight. When Nico sings the lines 'I'll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don't know', you really do feel Goldin is performing that same role with her three-second, gossamer images made of light of all those she loves and has loved.