I was easily, gratefully seduced by the concept of I, YOU, WE, up through the end of August at the Whitney Museum of American Art, exploring identity in the late 1980s and ’90s. It’s the last of a two-year series of collection shows the Whitney is doing in anticipation of its move to a new space on the High Line in 2015. I, YOU, WE’s obvious predecessor is the groundbreaking 1993 Whitney Biennial, which showcased many of these artists, and shared this preoccupation with the self in relationship to its social and political environment, the early ’90s and its own particular, and relevant set of issues.
So what does identity politics look like all these years later? What makes the show so fascinating—its conceptual largesse and slight historicity—also make it troubling to stage. Especially in this much smaller incarnation. There are so many interpretive layers: identity, perception of self, perception of other, urban violence, gentrification, the Reagan ’80s, the Clinton ’90s, the individual vs. the collective, that it feels thematically and aesthetically chaotic. Something the Biennial is often accused of. In the exhibition’s final room I struggled to see connections—an inscribed marble bench of Jenny Holzer’s next to a large Basquiat. Some works were so clearly and dominantly related—the excellent collection of Lower East Side protest art from Lucy Lippard’s Concrete Crisis project in the mid-’80s—that they left nearby pieces out in the cold. I would have liked a looser, and yet more instinctively cohesive arrangement, and for the works exploring the enormity of the AIDS crisis to have been integrated into the body of the exhibition, as opposed to sequestered in an adjacent room.
What is here, though, is very good. And some of these works so fully embody the exhibition’s reason for being, opening a door into the past, it’s exhilarating. The last time I saw Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) was at her gorgeous mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in 2008. In this self-portrait, Opie is facing away from us, into a sumptuous, slightly Victorian-looking green backdrop. A child’s drawing of home has been carved into her upper back until it bleeds: two female stick figures holding hands in front of a little house, the sun peeping out from behind a cloud. It succinctly conveys how the longing for family, domesticity, stability, love is embedded in our bodies, a deep and privately held desire, and how that dream in its innocence can also be seen as a dangerous and subversive act, culturally destabilizing. Twenty years later the work still feels powerfully relevant, even after the repeal of DOMA, and Opie having realized her own dream with painter Julie Burleigh and their son, Oliver, in Los Angeles.
In Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored) (1990), the sentence “I do not always feel colored” from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” is repeated in black lettering down a white panel, sometimes legible, sometimes smudged or obscured.  Hurston is one of my literary icons, and Ligon visually captures her keen sense of the fluidity and yet essential unchangeableness of the self—an understanding that is a gift and a powerful source of celebration. As Hurston says: “When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City…the cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads…How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?”
The current re-creation of the “self” in social media is so trampled a topic, it no longer feels worth discussing. Yet when you’re in the room with some of the photographs here, you awaken to just how beautiful and intriguing self-portraiture can be. There is Robert Mapplethorpe in a fur wrap, looking beguilingly confident, mugging a young Mick Jagger. A haunting Francesca Woodman self-portrait done at MacDowell artist colony in 1980 exposes that mixture of defiant ambition and vulnerability that she would be known for. It’s such an enormously different way of photographing oneself as to be entirely unrelated to the multiple variations of online self-portraits we regularly see. So much sameness to our current efforts for uniqueness.
The cornerstone of the exhibition is Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979–96), a series of more than 700 slides of her life during those years in Boston and New York. The succession of faces; how time passes in minutes, and then, all of sudden, in decades; dirty feet on the sheets, sex acts that are remarkably unerotic, that recognizable old style of curtain. All the bedrooms and bars. The way we can desperately try and hide from ourselves, in drugs and self-destruction, and the needy grip of companionship in the descent. A lot of hyper inanity and sadness. A lot of spent evenings. It’s all unapologetically spread out, carefully categorized, set against music. Ballad is an incredible installation, both intimate and removed. Goldin stays on the other side of the camera mostly, but she’s everywhere in the network of relationships that formed a body of work, her life.
As Louise Bourgeois insisted, it always comes down to this stubbornly enduring need, the toi et moi—that hunger for human connection that has always caused us so much trouble, yet without which life isn’t much worth living.
I, YOU, WE is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through September 1.
 Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. Alice Walker (New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993), 152–56.