A Visit to Marilyn Minter’s Studio
Provocative, pioneering artist and activist Marilyn Minter’s first retrospective (“Pretty/Dirty”) opened at the Brooklyn Museum last year and continues until April. We dropped by her studio to learn more about her four decades of artistically groundbreaking work, in which the female body often appears as subject, slave, and receptacle of the forces of American culture.
Tell us about your first series of photographs of your mother. Back in the ’60s, I don’t think anybody had seen pictures of high-end addiction. People were used to seeing people with a needle in their arm on the streets.
And we don't see that in these photos.
No, but she was still a drug addict. She was pretty insulated by her privilege and got doctors to give her anything she wanted. I think those were the days before Oprah and too much information. When I brought those pictures to show my class, the other students were going, "Oh my god, that's your mother?" Then I realized my mother didn't look like their mothers. My brothers asked me questions like, "Why are people so interested in those photos?” Because that's all we knew. She had to create illusions to survive and she believed TV shows were put on the air just for her, things like that. She spun all kinds of fantasies which were very disturbing when I was a kid. Now I see it was a coping mechanism. My first reaction was just to get out of there, which is what I did as soon as I could.
Would you say she had a strong impact on your work?
I wouldn't say it at the time but, now, once I hit my thirties and forties? People started pointing things out to me and I thought, "Oh, yeah. You're probably right." It was this kind of off-beauty, kind of fucked up glamour. There was something wrong with her. It wasn't even aspirational, you know? My mother tore out her hair, so she wore wigs. It wasn't a Hollywood kind of glamour. She wore acrylic nails because she was always really a beautiful woman but never took care of them, so fungi would grow underneath. In hindsight, I was able to draw the line. Maybe this is what started my vision… but I didn't know it when I was actually working.
The retrospective begins with this series. It's black and white with a familiar face. But moving forward, we see mostly hidden faces and colors, behind a window or behind glass. Are these women who appear later just ghosts of that motherly presence?
More like trying to get rid of the narrative, you know? For me, the glass is a working metaphor. There's always been some kind of impediment to the narrative, mostly by creating close-ups. There's a few things in this world that, if you take or make or draw a picture of, you wouldn‘t know when it was done that it's a naked body or food. Landscapes, too, a little bit. Trees.
So those images work to erase the narrative, don’t they?
I like the idea of a universal image that affects each generation or have some kind of dialogue with the viewer. I tried to eliminate the narrative as much as possible. It's impossible to totally eliminate it but if you see a drawing of a close-up of a human body, a neck and then the ear, you wouldn't know if it was done in the 16th-century or 5 B.C. I can name an abstraction. I could look at any abstract art and know when it was done. ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s… or was it a Navajo blanket?
It’s hard to point out the moment in the exhibit when you started using Photoshop.
Why would I bother touching it, if it was, for me, a perfect photo? All the photos you see in the show weren’t manipulated at all. Ninety percent of the paintings in the show were total manipulation, creating the image that we call a reference, but if you tried to blow it up, there'd be all these different sizes of pixels. There's a couple of paintings in the show that have 80 layers of Photoshop.
It's funny because I'm always called a photo realist, but for a traditional sort of realist, the ideas, the photo look just like a photo, if you get close to it. Whereas, my paintings, they could totally fall apart, become total abstractions, if you get close to them. I work in total abstractions all day long and I just knit this image together in a painting. I'm more, let's see. My images tell my vision. I have this vision of what I want and then I shoot for it. I'm always shooting for a painting. If I get a photo, I'm just lucky.
Getting a great photo requires a very keen sense of observation.
People take my picture and I go, "I wonder how they do that?" Ryan McGinley's a good friend of mine and he shot me. I looked at him and said, "Wow. This is how you do it?" But I actually don't have any clue how to be a photographer. I just know how to get an image that I want. I call myself a faux photographer. I'm proud of what I do, but I only know how to do one thing. I've never shot a human being, the whole person. I've never shot action. I've sort of used the human body as a still life. Some people find “Green Pink Caviar” disgusting and I like the idea of having opposite interpretations in the same image, because that's life. I like to make a picture of paradox. I work in the gray areas. I like things that make you uncomfortable and also give you pleasure. That's what most of life is, you know?
“I work in the gray areas. I like things that make you uncomfortable and also give you pleasure.”
I’ve heard you say that there’s no such thing as politically correct fantasies…
There aren't any. There never will be.
But some of your work has recurring themes or motifs, like dancing, for instance…
Ah, that's interesting. Dancing, huh? Well, I like working with liquids.
Yeah, movement… and I like slowing them down. I'm a lousy dancer. I like to dance. My husband and I are dancers at every party. We dance all night but, truthfully, we've become the odd couple, like the old people dancing at a party who, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought, "Oh, that's cool. They still dance." We've become that oddity.
Isn’t that part of the energy we feel in your work?
I like to dance. I'm terrible at it but ... yeah. I don't give a shit. I like to dance as if no one's watching.
Do you think being a feminist today is a trend or progress?
I don't know. Being a feminist means believing in equal pay for equal work and ownership of your own reproduction. Who isn't a feminist? Troglodytes? And women who want some guy to take care of them? But no one can take care of anybody. If you think about the important movements of the 20th century, we thought it was going to be communism. We thought it was going to be Marxism, socialism. It's not. It’s feminism. What’s bled over into the 21st century? What’s really prominent in the lives we live? There's these huge religious problems right now because religion's all about policing women's bodies. I feel like all the wars are being fought over policing women's bodies.
Which brings us back to your work exploring the woman's body.
Yes, women owning their own reproduction or their own sexual fantasies. Why not?
Tell us about this mouth you keep photographing, as “the receptacle to the forces of American culture.”
It’s loaded. Body parts like mine and Robert Gober’s are perfect examples. He works with hair and wax all the time. I teach in an art school and there's so little love for anything handmade. Everything's digitized. Robert Gober made this child's shoe, this little red sandal. A student asked me, "Why didn't he just go buy one?" I thought, "Well, no. It changes the meaning." He actually cast it and he uses it over and over and over. His Mary-Jane sandals are just so loaded. He was using it as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis.
You've been exploring the fantasies, fears, and desires of mainstream American culture for over thirty years. Do you think you’ve reached a point where you understand them now?
No. I just make a picture of the times we live in. Every time you think you know something, the universe pulls the rug out from under you. I was sure Hillary was going to win. Now I don't know anything anymore. Things I took for granted are just disappearing before my eyes. I’ve been an activist my whole life, but maybe it was too complacent. I had some warning. I'm a political junkie. I paint to the news or podcasts, and I started really paying attention to what was going on. So I started working to raise money for Planned Parenthood because I saw they were under attack more so than they have been in the last 20 years. I started three or four years ago. I was talking to Millennials who didn't listen to me because they just couldn't even imagine that Roe v. Wade might be overturned. They took it for granted. If you needed an abortion, you could take two pills. I really didn't think we were going to ever have to have this fight again, the same fight I had in the ’70s. I was a kid but I was always paying attention. I saw that this was a big wake-up call. I did a talk with Madonna and she said, "Yeah, this is going to work out well because we have something to unite us."
“I feel like all the wars are being fought over policing women's bodies.”
So does that feel like a new kind of feminism?
There's a 21st-century brand of feminism now. It includes men and people of color. When feminism first started, they didn't want lesbians in the movement. I'm glad they started working towards this, but they were women of leisure. Now, it's everybody. I think that there's a new Civil Rights Movement, too, that woke people, you know? They're pulling the scab off all these painful, painful situations that nobody wants to look at. It's almost like after World War II in Germany. They didn't even talk about Hitler for years. They just didn't talk about it at all. Taboo. Then, I remember in the ’80s, it was on every TV show. If you went to Berlin, if you were a German child, you went to a concentration camp. So it went to the other extreme.
Do you see that happening in America?
I think that's what we're doing with Black Lives Matter. We're finally looking at what really happened. Which is so painful. People just go, "Make that go away." Because that's who we are. So this is what we have: people saying, "Make all of this go away." That's who we're fighting against. But we’re united. Catastrophe movies in the ’80s were about this. For example, Jaws. That kind of fear unites everybody. Is that a good thing happening?
I hope so. The difference is this is the information age. Fighting the media like this unites even Republicans against Trump. Bush just came out and said, "We need a free press." Who would ever think Bush would ever look like a hero?
When you interviewed Madonna, were these issues on the table?
Oh, I didn't really interview her. I was a conduit. I just wanted to let her express herself because I saw her speak after the election. I said, "We’ve got to do something." And I saw her speech at the Billboard Woman of the Year event, and it was so good and so riveting, and I thought, "I just want her to come and talk because she's just on fire."
Like you, she was an early warrior.
She is a warrior and I'm really impressed. She owned her own agency of sexuality. She was a boy toy. Before that, I think, we saw women who had Svengalis, like Marilyn Monroe or Anna Nicole Smith. They were damaged, fragile beauties, a long history of them dying early and becoming martyrs. The history books love them because everyone thinks, "Maybe I could've saved this person." Madonna always owned her own sexuality and made money doing it. I like that about Pamela Anderson, too. She'll be the first person to tell you that she doesn't sing or dance or act. She's a pin-up. And she makes money off being a pin-up. Why not? It works. She glows in the dark, you know? She's one of those people. You can't take your eyes off her. She's one. Madonna's one. How do they get like that? I don't know. Nature?
Can you tell us a little bit about what’s up next?
I have a one-person show at Reagan Projects. What's going on in the studio is a year and a half ahead. I have to be that far ahead because the paintings take a year to do.
Words by The Editors. Portrait by Alexandre Stipanovich.