Now she has been clean for a year. Ms. Goldin is still feeling her way back into a world filled with ghostly reminders of addiction, but she decided that she was strong enough for a new battle. That began recently when, in her most personal project yet, she publicly confronted OxyContin’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, and that company’s longtime owners, who are also prominent art patrons: the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, two of three physician brothers who built Purdue Pharma into a pharmaceutical behemoth.
Foundations run by those members of the Sackler family have given tens of millions of dollars to institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and the Dia Arts Foundation.
The January issue of Artforum published photographs by Ms. Goldin, including searing self-portraits, that depicted her life while addicted. They were accompanied by an essay in which she described her constant search for drugs: “I went from three pills a day, as prescribed, to eighteen. I got a private endowment and spent it all. Like all opiate addicts my crippling fear of withdrawal was my guiding force.”
She went on to announce the formation of an advocacy group and pressed the Sackler family and company — who, she wrote, “built their empire with the lives of hundreds of thousands” — to fund addiction treatment and education.
“I realized that I wasn’t alone and that I had to help people,” she said inside the courthouse. “I always do what’s closest to me. This is what I’ve lived through. And I’m a survivor of OxyContin — talk about hell.”
Elizabeth A. Sackler, the founder of a center for feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum, responded to her essay with a statement pointing out that her father, Arthur M. Sackler, who had owned Purdue Pharma with his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, died in 1987, before OxyContin existed. (It was approved for use in 1995.) No money from the drug had gone to his descendants, she added.
“The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me,” Ms. Sackler continued. “I admire Nan Goldin’s commitment to take action and her courage to tell her story.”
A spokeswoman for other members of the Sackler family did not comment. But in a statement to The New York Times, Robert Josephson, a spokesman for Purdue Pharma, said, “We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we would welcome an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Goldin to discuss her ideas.”
Ms. Goldin elaborated on those ideas during an evening-long interview in Lower Manhattan that began at a cafe on West Broadway and moved to the courthouse on Centre Street, its cinder block walls plastered with old tabloid covers about the accused East Village murderer Daniel Rakowitz (“The Monster of Tompkins Square” ) and the patrician Sydney Biddle Barrows (the Mayflower Madam). “I love this place,” she said. “It’s the most New York place left in New York.”
The conversation lasted until 10 p.m. Dinner was a Diet Pepsi, pretzels and peanut butter crackers, which Ms. Goldin selected from a courthouse vending machine.
Over the years Ms. Goldin’s photographs have captured the rebellious and transgressive realities of a pre-gentrified New York City. Among her best-known works are the 700 images in a collection titled “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” They illustrate the world she inhabited, showing people having sex or shooting heroin, sometimes with excruciating intimacy.
Ms. Goldin said that her OxyContin addiction began with a prescription. In 2014, while she was living in Berlin, doctors prescribed 40 milligrams a day for tendinitis in her wrist, which later required surgery. Ms. Goldin said she ended up using 450 milligrams of the drug each day, seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors and finally turning to a dealer in New York who shipped her pills via FedEx. After years of OxyContin she moved to street drugs including heroin, which deliver a comparable high for much less money, a pattern that experts say has created the public health crisis that has terrified the nation.
Ms. Goldin, who is 64, kept working throughout, even preparing a major show at the Museum of Modern Art. But she said that the drug sealed her off from the rest of the world, leaving her dulled and depressed. “It’s not a party drug. It’s not a social drug.” Addiction, she said, is “a heavy foot on your head.”
The overdose helped push her to finally confront her fear of withdrawal. She entered McLean Hospital’s Fernside treatment program in rural Massachusetts, where, over two months, Ms. Goldin got clean. She began researching OxyContin and learned that Purdue’s parent company had pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal felony charge of misbranding the drug. Since then, a new federal investigation has begun and lawsuits have accused Purdue of deceptive marketing. Asked about those assertions in November, shortly after they were made, a company spokesman said, “We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”
The deaths related to opioids, some 200,000 from 1999 to 2016, remind Ms. Goldin of H.I.V.
“In the ’80s I lost a whole community and to my mind there’s a generation missing,” she said. “So are we going to watch now while another generation is being wiped out?”
Ms. Goldin’s new group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or P.A.I.N. — urged museums to reject future donations from the Sackler family. Its focus so far has been a petition on change.org demanding that “the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma” fund rehabilitation centers, relapse prevention and holistic approaches; advertise the dangers of opioids; and re-educate doctors to stop overprescribing.
Mr. Josephson, the Purdue spokesman, said that for more than 15 years the company has supported much of what Ms. Goldin advocates. He said it funded state prescription drug monitoring programs and distributed federal guidelines for prescribing opioids. It recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers, warning of opioid dangers, he added.
Ms. Goldin’s group meets once a week in her apartment in Brooklyn and includes about a dozen members — former abusers, people close to addicts and others sympathetic to the cause.
The group has discussed making a documentary on OxyContin and also direct protests but is not yet ready to make its plans public, Ms. Goldin said.
She explained that detox treatments are often unaffordable and added that she hoped the petition could serve as a form of moral suasion, especially if friends of the Sacklers endorse its demands.
“I want people who go to cocktail parties with them to sign,” she said.
On Saturday Ms. Goldin and three friends headed to the Upper West Side to give out leaflets promoting the petition during a women’s march. Some in the crowd declined to take the fliers. But a man near Lincoln Center accepted one, saying his sister-in-law had died in West Virginia as a result of opioids.
During a lunch break inside a cafe, a woman at a nearby table told Ms. Goldin that her son had been addicted to opioids. The two exchanged personal stories and hugged. Ms. Goldin and her friends began batting around ideas for future pamphleteering.
“We can make some fliers for museum goers,” Ms. Goldin mused playfully. Maybe next time, she added, “we’ll go to the Museum of Natural History or the Guggenheim.”
Correction: January 22, 2018
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the woman known as the Mayflower Madam. She is Sydney Biddle Barrows, not Sidney.