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Bea putting on makeup,” Boston, 1973, a Cibachrome photograph by Nan Goldin at Matthew Marks

Bea putting on makeup,” Boston, 1973, a Cibachrome photograph by Nan Goldin at Matthew Marks

Art in Review

Matthew Marks
523 West 24th Street, Chelsea
Through April 14

Nan Goldin’s last outing at Matthew Marks was an affecting slide presentation that explored her older sister’s teenage suicide and Ms. Goldin’s own descent into self-mutilation and a stint in rehab. There was a codalike aspect to the work, however, that made you wonder: where would Ms. Goldin go from here?

The answer is, back to the beginning. More than 40 black-and-white and five color photographs from 1972-74, many never exhibited before, document Ms. Goldin’s early years as a photographer in Boston, when her primary subject was a clique of drag queens. “They were the most gorgeous creatures I’d ever seen,” she says in a gallery news release. “I was immediately infatuated. They became my whole world.”

Images of the drag queens — Ivy, Naomi, Colette and Bea — capture a group eager to pose for Ms. Goldin’s lens. We also learn, as she did through these photographs, some principles basic to her oeuvre: beauty, like photography, can be illusory; makeup, a decent wig and a thrift-shop gown can transform a homely young man into a glamorous woman — or a version of one; identity is performative; “family” is a fluid concept.

The grainy photographs, blown up to a print size larger than what was customary in the early 1970s, offer insight into Ms. Goldin’s formative years as a photographer under the spell of Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand and Larry Clark.

Ms. Goldin’s other trademark is the slide show, and “The Other Side” is a brief 25-year retrospective, accompanied by a mournful soundtrack. It is a pale shadow of her epic 700-image slide presentation, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” although it functions similarly at times as a memorial to a generation ravaged by AIDS and other scourges.

Focus instead on the photographs. They’re a bit rough and unpolished but exhibit the freshness and excitement of a young photographer finding a subject and a way in the world. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

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