New York City based photographer, painter, and videographer Marilyn Minter began her art career in 1989 with an unflinching series of paintings based on still images from hardcore pornography. Since then, the artist’s work has evolved through various mediums, while still examining the presentation of sexuality within the confines of fashion, art, and media. Despite, or perhaps because of, her no-nonsense approach to often delicate subject matters, Minter’s work seems to effortlessly draw commercial appeal. Her art has been a feature in the Whitney Biennial, her videos have been displayed in Times Square, and her images have graced Supreme skateboard decks.
I sat down with Marilyn at the opening of a show at Freeman’s to discuss the sexualization of her work as a female artist, her political leanings, and how she feels about the process of becoming successful.
Sway Benns: I don’t want to delve too far back in your previous work but I’ve noticed something that comes up a lot when people look at your work with women – they immediately start discussing the sexualization of it. However, when faced with similar paintings that you’ve done of men, there’s rarely any mention of sex.
Marilyn Minter: Isn’t that interesting?
Sway: It seems to say something about the audience…
Marilyn: It’s always been that way. When I did the food porn and I had a hundred paintings of hands taking food apart, I’d say at least a third of them were male hands. No one wrote anything, ever, except about women with long nails. Those images were from cookbooks. Half of the chefs were men, maybe more. I think that was so telling. And if a woman does anything at all sexual – I made those hardcore porn paintings twenty years ago, but everything I do is sexual. I could paint an apple and it’s “Marilyn, the erotic artist.”
Sway: Well, even in popular culture, male nudity is typically a joke, but female nudity is sexualized.
Marilyn: Yeah. Well everyone likes to look at young flesh. Girls and boys do. I remember the first time I saw a man photographed the way they shoot women. It was in Thelma and Louise, the way Ridley Scott shot Brad Pitt. And I thought “Oh, wow, it’s finally happening.” But of course anyone would do that with Brad Pitt.
Sway: A lot of contemporary art is less process based, less detailed, less pretty. As an artist that is known for having a hyper-realistic, visually appealing style, how do you feel about that in general?
Marilyn: Well, it’s a movement. The people that are really good, are also aesthetically pleasing with the back story, A really means B and I think the best of those artists are fantastic, but I think the eye starts to crave the opposite after being inundated with… I’ve seen shows that are so academic that it’s stunning. So there’s bound to be a huge backlash. I’m a teacher so all the practices are equal to me. I always look for the best of that practice. But that has been ubiquitous in the past five, ten years. But I don’t know, I think that that’s over.
Marilyn: Yeah, we’re already starting to see the backlash. People are writing about “Oh God, not that again.”
Sway: I’ve started to notice that too, outside of art criticism, even in casual conversation people mention they’re tired of it and how they want it to be….
Marilyn: Juicy! There’s something about, you can almost guarantee when it becomes the academy–like it is now, that there will be people in art school, where their entire job is to make the opposite. I tell my students that are doing abstract painting, “Keep doing this because when it turns around you’ll be good at it.” And up until now they would have stopped and started making work about identity. [laughs]
Sway: That seems to be the narrative to your success. Because it took you a long time to become….
Marilyn: Famous? You know it’s not like I was never making something interesting. I think what happened was I wasn’t communicating it. The same paintings that no one was interested in – or liked – look pretty good to people now.
Sway:What do you think changed?
Marilyn: When you’re in it you don’t know exactly what’s going on. I always thought I had something to say when I was told I didn’t. And now everyone tells me I’m the bomb and I don’t believe that. I’m trying to stay right sized about it all. When everyone wants the paintings as opposed to when I couldn’t give them away. Those experiences are anti- the creative process. You can’t believe either one. Somehow you have to put your pith helmet on and just forge through. You have to be a little delusional, when no one’s paying any attention to you. I read Steve Jobs said that you have to have passion. I guess that sounds like I’m comparing myself to Steve Jobs, but I think that to be an artist and to talk about the times you’re living in, if people object to what you’re doing–on moral grounds–then you probably have something interesting to say.
Sway: I think there’s something to be said about people who keep working through failure.
Marilyn: Oh yeah, I’ve been a failure, or mediocre, through most of my life.
Sway: When you look at most people who come out through the other side that have had long stretches of failure…
Marilyn: It’s probably a good cliché. I learned a long time ago, probably in college, never to write anybody off. I remember when Richard Prince said “painting is bankrupt.” [laughs] Those things come back to haunt you.
Sway: A lot of your work really translates to pop culture now.
Marilyn: I’ve always been interested in the times I live in. Movies, I’m fanatical about seeing. They inform me about everything, they tell me how people are seeing. I probably see three or four a week. I love this movie Bellflower. It was really well done, absolutely nothing I could have predicted.
Sway: There’s a lot going on politically in New York, particularly with the protests. To me it seems like more of a European endeavor.
Marilyn: We’ll see, I can’t say that because I’ve been in so many protests in my life.
Sway: I think it’s from my generation’s perspective.
Marilyn: Yeah, it’s your generation. Civil Rights, Act Out. I was one of the people that went through the system, followed people that got arrested through the system to make sure they got out alright. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I went to the one the other night, but now I feel like “Nah, it’s your turn.” [laughs] Just go do it, even if you are going to get arrested. It’s so exciting, it’s like getting high!
Sway: All of that is typically so far removed from my generation, I’m so used to the apathy, it seems surreal.
Marilyn: Well, it’s about fucking time! Before Occupy Wall Street I was so horrified by people like Eric Cantor and the Tea Party, and the job creators not being taxed. Nobody was saying anything about it. I literally said I was going to be an ostrich, I got so crazy. I felt so powerless. New York is not the rest of this country, it’s its own country. I have relatives from the south. The worst policy Barack Obama ever had is the fact that he’s black, but the Tea Party is so sophisticated they call it “everything else.” I want the protests to get bigger and bigger, and stay totally nonviolent. I hope the Democratic Party doesn’t co-op it either. I think it has to be an independent, non-violent thing. Because that’s where people are going to start listening.
Sway: I’m not sure that people even felt that anything was wrong.
Marilyn: It’s stunning to me. I just hope that it doesn’t become – because every movement that I’ve been in, sociopaths begin to take over. So that’s the one thing…
Sway: The charismatic leader? I think apathy is the reason why we don’t have as strong of a visual culture as other generations have, but maybe every generation feels that way.
Marilyn: It’s pluralism. It’s a cliché but you can guarantee what the next art movement is going to be: the exact opposite of the current movement. It’s best to be outside of the movement all together. They used to last hundreds of years, now they last 15 months.
Sway: It might have something to do with technology, shorter attention spans.
Marilyn: Well your generation is so much smarter, they have to be. They have so much access to information. I’m enjoying it. I played video games so I’d never be afraid of technology. I just go in and start pushing buttons. I haven’t read a manual in years.
Sway: When I hear criticism of your work it’s often about it being ‘glamorous’. Where do you think that comes from?
Marilyn: Well, I understand it. I work with really abject subject matter; fashion, glamour, pornography. These are things that people just despise and they’re shallow and vapid and easy. But the reality is, if it wasn’t for pornography there would be no internet. Fashion is a multi-million dollar industry and it tells you what tribe you’re from. People want to think it’s so insignificant but if you do think that you’re lying to yourself, it’s ludicrous. Academia has a hard time with my work because of the so-called superficiality of it, but that’s self hatred right there! Because you’re dressed in head to toe Prada. [laughs] I watch people with such suspicious projects going; they’re so vapid, but they’re about how A really means B, and they get so much praise because you can write about it. But visually it’s so non-compelling, I see that and I think it’s some level of self hatred just engaging them, somehow you have to not eat, and works just about ideas and not visuals because that’s more important than something about pleasure. If it looks too good it’s suspicious.
Sway: Wel,l when you think about it, the sole reason we exist on earth is to procreate. Sex…
Marilyn: Rules the world.
Sway: But I think as a culture we work to deny that in favor of intellectualism.
Marilyn: I know! It’s a joke. I just laugh at it. If that’s my only criticism, please, bring it on! I’ve seen curators hide their Italian Vogues and put out their Octobers. It’s ridiculous how people lie to themselves, all they do is see glamorous images all day long, and it gives you an enormous amount of pleasure, and it’s also going to make you feel like shit because you’re never going to look like that.
Sway: This work sort of touches on that. They’re babies, and the material is this precious metal, this gold, silver, and they take so much pleasure in playing with it. It seems to hint at it being ingrained.
Marilyn: Yeah, it’s great because when does it start? They’re blank slates.
Sway: A lot of your images use Photoshop, cutting from various photographs.
Marilyn: Only in the paintings, all of the photos are analog. I still use film. I use film because I get so much detail. I’m totally anti-Photoshop. I don’t use it. Even when I do commercial work. And I don’t use blonde haired, blue eyed models. These are all mixed raced models. I’m on a mission! Photoshop has become so ridiculous. I don’t even recognize the people on the cover of Vogue anymore. There’s no pores on the skin. I’ve actually had fights – I did editorial for Allure - and I wouldn’t let them Photoshop me. They took it all the way to the photo editor. I wouldn’t let them straighten the teeth, take the fur off the upper lip… I said, “ Why did you ask me to do this project if you’re going to Photoshop it?” No, I’m totally anti-Photoshop… I was just thinking though… When people take my picture I still think, “Could you take this wrinkle out?” [laughs] No, you know I just decided this is how you get old; Don’t get fat, get a good haircut. That’s it. Do not do anything to your face. I grew up in Miami. They didn’t have body surgery then, but it was de rigueur for older men to have young girlfriends. And that was really warped for me. Well… my father [laughs] when I was eighteen my father had a sixteen-year-old girlfriend. And his friends had twenty year old girlfriends. You know, I thought it was normal until I moved up north. Miami was really – I mean this is when it was flip flops and t-shirts and there was nothing cool about it. It warped me terribly.
Sway: I know you have a team of assistants that help with your paintings, I’ve noticed that is a source of criticism in art, but not necessarily in fashion, architecture, etc.
Marilyn: People get weird about it in art because they’re stupid. All of us do it. They just don’t see women do it. Jeff Koons does it. Murakami does it.
Sway: Damien Hirst.
Marilyn: I’m the only woman that does it. Yeah, Richard Serra is really going to bend that metal… I mean what am I going to do? I invented this technique, I did it all alone for a few years and then I got another person to do it, and then I hired someone else and she was better than both of us, so what am I suppose to do fire her? [laughs] I made a system. It’s my vision. And I’m making videos and I’m shooting photos. I still paint. I’m just not a finisher anymore, I don’t have time. It’s just stupid. I’ve never heard anyone sophisticated use that argument, it’s only people that don’t know any better. They believe the myth of the artist working alone in the studio and can’t even use a projector. That somehow more heroic! To draw it out by hand.
Sway: I read about some of the materials you use in the actual photographs and videos…
Marilyn: All of the stuff… vodka and cake decoration. Except for the work with baby, I used non-toxic paint with the babies. The cake decoration suspends in vodka, it cakes up in water. A make-up artist taught me that.
Sway: That’s a great choice for material.
Marilyn: Yeah, that’s the only way you can do it. So everyone is playing in this goo, kicking it up.
Marilyn Minter will be featured in The Riotous Baroque at the Kunsthalle in Zurich opening on May 31, which will travel to Bilbao next February. Marilyn’s next solo show will open the new Regen Projects space in Los Angeles next Spring.
All images courtesy of the artist.