In the mid-1970s, Kathleen White and Nan Goldin were part of an emerging art scene in Boston that revolved around a close circle of student friends, most of whom, like Goldin, were photographers. White was an exception, creating sculptural and performance-based work as well as paintings. That distinction would prohibit her inclusion in a seminal 1995 exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, titled “The Boston School,” that both canonized the group and cemented its association with photography. Goldin’s snapshot-style portraits of her drug-fueled, queer “families” in the 1970s and 1980s, first in Boston and then in New York, became the Boston School’s defining aesthetic. Yet as the paired Pioneer Works exhibitions “Kathleen White: Spirits of Manhattan” and “Nan Goldin: Kathleen” conveyed, this post-punk tribe of artists, lovers, and drag queens not only included White but remained at the heart of her practice, as did the devastating impact of AIDS on its members. Both presentations were a tribute to White, who died of cancer in 2014.
The former exhibition showcased an installation of abject, fetishlike sculptures made from hair—real and synthetic—that White gathered from (and dedicated to) the living and the dead. Most of her samples came from the wigs of drag performer friends who had perished from AIDS, and from those who survived—including Lady Bunny, Billy Erb, and Jojo Americo. The series dates to the 1990s and debuted in a little-seen exhibition at Apex Art in 1996. At Pioneer Works, the pieces were suspended from the ceiling and displayed on the surrounding walls. Knotted, balled, teased, wrapped, twisted, pulled, braided, combed, starched, tangled, and otherwise manipulated by the artist with great formal aplomb, they alternately recall nests, ropes, hearts, and masks. These works were accompanied by a series of mixed-medium drawings of eyes and faces on old Manhattan phone-book pages, many with hair elements attached; an open suitcase, placed on the floor, containing a pile of blonde and red wigs in a variety of shades and curls; and a vitrine with related ephemera. The overall effect was of a ritualized collective portrait as theatrical as it was transcendent.
The same commemorative impulse underscoring these works, and indeed White’s entire practice, was echoed in the six large-scale color photographs of White taken by Goldin that comprised the other exhibition, which was held on the first floor. The portraits, four of which were printed for the first time, reflect Goldin’s now-legendary style, which is based in the trust and rapport shared by friends. All were shot between 1991 and 1995, when White created the works shown in “Spirits of Manhattan.” We see White as ingenue, standing in a sparkling aqua blue bathing suit, cigarette in hand as she squints in sunlight; at work in her studio amid a group of the hair works; donning a Mona Lisa–esque smile; laughing at a party; slumped in thought at a bar; and lying on her bed, sad-faced with downcast eyes. That White’s role as a muse served to introduce and frame her work is a reminder that those forgotten by art history are typically recovered only through their associations with the acclaimed. Given the vagaries of fame, one hopes that White’s evocative and prodigious output, merely hinted at here and still relatively unknown, will garner the future presentations it warrants.