IN CONVERSATION WITH
Marilyn Minter I had all male teachers. My first painting teacher was an abstract expressionist and he didn’t believe in setting up a still life or working from a model. So I didn’t learn about primary colors, complimentary colors, or what red does next to blue. Nothing about basics of paint. He just expected us to paint abstractly as it was the only “true way to be an artist.” For that generation, all the other art practices didn’t count. I was terrible at this “non-objective abstraction” because I needed to work from a source or an image. But I got an A in photography, so I majored in photography. I didn’t switch back to painting until I was a junior in college.
Vincent Honoré Is your primary training photography?
MM I could always draw. After I learned about Warhol and Pop Art I found my comfort zone. I was pretty naive. I had never been out of the south, and if you know anything about the United States, you know that the deep south is a pretty backward place. I had never been up north, I had a thick southern accent. I would go to all these bookstores to look for interesting magazines and got a subscription to Artforum. I was very ambitious and I wanted to leave asap. I knew I was going to end up in New York City someday. The magazines connected me to the broader world outside of Florida, and photography helped me bridge the connection between drawing and painting. Once I learned how to make something from a photograph, I learned how to make my paintings.
VH Who were the artists you were looking at, at the time?
MM I was looking at Warhol, Rosenquist, Marisol, and Lichtenstein…
VH All the pop artists?
MM The pop artists, yeah. They were considered bad where I went to school. And I was very interested in Conceptual Art too, especially Bruce Nauman.
VH Were they really considered as bad artists? That’s surprising…
MM De Kooning told Warhol that he was ruining Art. My school never considered woman capable of making great art. This was the late ’60s. I never studied any women in Art History, except for Mary Cassatt and Beverly Pepper…
VH Were there lots of women artists in your class?
MM No, when I went to grad school I was the only one.
VH My god, you must have been in great despair, no?
MM Well, you know, I’m a southern girl. I kinda loved it, but I was lonely. Even when I was an undergraduate there weren’t that many female students. But I was very ambitious so I was not going to be sidelined. I made this male feminist friend who taught me real expertise with power tools. He was my only real friend in grad school.
VH You keep saying you were very ambitious, what does it mean?
MM I was the opposite of what a quiet sweet southern girl was supposed to be. I worked really hard as an artist and teaching myself how to paint. I was also very much an activist. I was anti-racist in a segregated state, I was into civil rights, and I was anti-Vietnam war. I was in radical politics from the get-go. I got in trouble all the time when I was in high school. It was much better in college, as the Art department was very liberal. Then, when I went to grad school in the ’70s, I found people just like me. We were all anti-Vietnam war at that time. It was the burgeoning feminist movement so I was immediately attracted to that. That’s what I mean in terms of ambition.
VH And you are still an activist…
MM Oh, I’ve always been one but I never had a platform before. Apart from the marches… and there were no iPhones then.
VH No Instagram. When did you move to New York?
MM I went to New York City in 1976, and I’m still on the same block that I moved into in 1976.
VH At that time did you already consider yourself as an artist?
MM Oh, always yes. I was only good at making art.
VH So what made you an artist? The fact that you were producing artworks or the fact that you were showing the artworks?
MM I wasn’t showing or selling anything but I figured out ways to support myself as an artist. I worked for other artists as an assistant. I worked as a display person at a department store, I built sets, I did a lot of things at a physical level. I wasn’t very good at commercial art. I organically evolved from that to teaching.
MM And I supported myself as a teacher until I started selling art. I started showing and got good reviews. I was selling and had galleries on both coasts and in London. I had a good career start, but it all stopped when I did hard-core porn work in 1989. I was an early pro-sex feminist. I thought it was time for women to make images for their own amusement and pleasure. To own agency of sexual images, not just always being subject. I was raising questions about the authorship of porn. I was taking imagery from an abusive history and repurposing it. It was at the height of political correctness and most feminists that didn’t think like that yet. But my side won in the end.
VH You were called a traitor to feminism at that time.
MM That’s real. Even though I was doing clinic defense for Planned Parenthood.
VH In the ’90s you produced this body of works of still lives.
MM People love that work now, but at that time I had excruciating reviews in magazines and newspapers. I was kicked out of shows. I became very isolated. But I had support from other artists who I respected.
VH And after the pornographic series of ’89 were you able to show?
MM My LA gallery kicked me out. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. I started showing photos of my mother that I took in 1969. She was a drug addict and that really got people to stop dismissing me. It was almost like, “Oh, she must be a real artist ‘cause she comes from dysfunction.” And it allowed me back into the art world.
VH When you produced the first porn paintings you were using found imagery, found pictures.
MM Found pictures, exactly. That was one of the reasons people were so angry at me: they didn’t want to be called prudes so they said the work was boring. They were really offended by the fact that women would even make a sexual imagery. All the images that I chose were images that I found compelling or somewhat funny. I wasn’t thinking in terms of trying to turn you on, I was trying to see if it changes the meaning if women make sexual imagery.
VH Were you changing the images?
MM No, not by much. I took the color out sometimes, I turned some images B&W and I used velox screens. I painted them first in enamel very expressionistically, and then painted the dot screen on top to hold it all together. I still don’t have an answer to the question, “Did it change the meaning if a woman made these things?” I was just trying to ask questions. I think if you ask questions people expect you to have answers. Well, I didn’t have any answers. I think that was maybe why I was so badly criticized.
VH Were you painting them yourself at that time?
MM Yes, I was broke. We were operating in new territory. I didn’t know Betty [Tompkins] was making that work. I just knew about Carolee Schneemann and Judith Bernstein. A lot of women artists were working with sexual imagery, but we didn’t know each other.
VH You refused the term, you refused to be pigeonholed as photorealist, although you were using found imagery, you were not necessarily changing these images, you were painting them, maybe reframing them.
MM Well, I created my own system. My paintings have layers and layers of translucent enamel paint. The thrill of Photorealism is that when the viewer gets close to the painting it looks just like a photo. But if you get close to my paintings they just fall apart; the closer you get, the more abstract it gets. So technically I’m a photo replacer but I’m not a photorealist.
VH Is this at that time that you started to use enamel?
MM I started using enamel earlier. I was making collaborative work with another artist in the East Village back in the ’80s and when that collaboration broke up I wanted to look radically different from what we made together. I had to teach myself a whole new way of painting.
VH How did it change the way you painted?
MM For me oil paint worked best when I applied new layers of paint on top of dried paint. Enamel worked even better. Oil is more opaque, enamel is very translucent. When I was working with oil I only worked with primary colors. Enamel enabled me to do special things that I couldn’t do with oil. I could get skin tones with shades of blues and greens—what your skin really looks like. That was very exciting to me. I was using it realistically, which was unheard of.
VH Now you are not doing pornographic imagery anymore.
MM Not at all, unless you consider pubic hair pornographic, which I don’t.
VH It was a very short period of your career, wasn’t it?
MM Yes, maybe five years. I started thinking about the fact that pornography is one of those giant industries of culture, even though many people have so much contempt for it and consider it shallow and superficial. But actually, there would be no Internet without pornography. I thought, it doesn’t make sense that artists are ignoring this huge billion dollar industry. I’m interested in art that’s about the times we live in, and pornography is part of that.I started looking at the way we present ourselves in the culture as female. Then I started making images I knew existed, but aren’t usually represented. I painted the sock lines that are visible if you pull your sock down. The closer I got to the body parts the more universal they became. I’m allergic to narrative. I try to make images that everybody knows about but that haven’t been seen yet.Once I learned Photoshop I would take my own photos and make them exactly how I wanted. Before I had to do it in my head, or from sketches, or from collaging images. Now I can do that process in Photoshop and then replicate it in paint.
VH Let’s talk about your process nowadays. You start with a photo shoot, you hire models. Do you choose the model or do you have a casting?
MM I choose the model. I’m looking for special models that fit with whatever idea I have. I find a lot of models on Instagram actually.
VH And what about the makeup, do you create the makeup yourself? Do you choose the clothes?
MM Well, no. I don’t really use much makeup. I think a lot about the drive for perfection being fucked up. Everything human is woven with imperfection. Filtering that out doesn’t make us more perfect, it makes us sick.
VH It’s interesting what you said about Photoshop: it can be thought in the fashion industry to remove any kind of imperfection to the point that the body has become utterly unrealistic whereas it seems that your use of Photoshop is to maybe zoom in on what could be called imperfections.
MM Well that’s why I never get hired by the fashion industry… but they all pretend they love me, they’re always like “Oh, I love that work…” but, you know, I’m way too transgressive for them. I’ve been using the same kind of models for years and now these models are getting really popular. I use mixed race models in the ’90s, especially ones with freckles. Imperfections are not that hard to find. It’s so easy in any shoot to find it. And I don’t consider pubic hair and armpit hair imperfections. I’m trying to make these works beautiful, so beautiful that you can put it on your living room walls.
VH Yes, you’re more leaning towards Courbet than Cabanel. There’s hardly any pubic hair in Art History.
MM I can only name about fifteen paintings that have pubic hair in all the thousands of paintings that have been made. It doesn’t exist. You know, Courbet of course, that’s the one everybody knows. I found a Van Gogh with pubic hair the other day. Pubic hair hardly exists in Art History.
VH So let’s go back to your process nowadays. You have these models, you have a photographic studio where you’re shooting them.
MM I shoot models behind a very steamy shower door. It is a 21st-century way to make a bather. I want to make images that we know exist, we just never see pictures of them.
VH What is the process of translation between the picture and the painting?
MM I never use just one photo. I’ll use a drip from one photo, a breast from another, a mouth from another one—I make it up. I draw in Photoshop. I just combine it all to make what I call a reference image, which could happen with as many as eighty layers in Photoshop, which means eighty different negatives are used to make that image. The reference images look like photographs but they are just inkjet references. The pixel sizes vary within the image. Once I make the reference, I can start a painting. I start with that as the “bones of the painting” and then it morphs, it changes, they get smarter as I work on them. The paintings teach me what I’m going to do and what I’m going to make with the next one. I can work on four or five paintings at a time, because I have assistants. Every square inch of a painting gets special attention. I tell people what to do, or I do it, until I get the image that I know I want.
VH Why do you paint on metal sheets?
MM Because canvas is flexible, and the enamel will crack. My paintings are pretty archival in the sense that I use outdoor enamel paint which is supposed to last eighty years outdoor. I don’t know how long it will last indoor.
VH So it’s an industrial paint.
MM Industrial paint, exactly.
VH Right, that’s very interesting. Have you done any outdoor paintings? I know you did banners, you did videos, but a painting?
MM I made murals in the ’80s.
MM I wasn’t working with enamel, I was working with oil paint. Which was probably stupid but I did it.
VH Do you consider yourself as a New York artist?
MM I do.
VH Yes? What does it mean to be a ‘New York artist’?
MM I’m not sure. But I’m not an LA artist or a European artist. I travel all the time and I’m a museum aficionado. I love to look at art everywhere I go, but I think I’m a real American artist in the sense that I was brought up in a culture of imagery. A constant bombardment of advertising and imagery, and I think it probably molded the way I think. I mean, I grew up in total dysfunction, I had a drug-addict mother and she was very glamorous at one point but it was all fucked up by the time she had me. I lead a self-examined life in terms of politics, but in terms of what makes me who I am, I don’t really explain it. I just know that if I listen to my inner voice, then I know I’m doing the right thing.
VH What are you working on at the moment?
MM Politics. I’m doing activism before the 2020 election. I’m working on these bathers for you, finishing them, putting them all together. It’s really exciting.
VH You’re part of an activist group?
MM Three of them actually. You know, I try to raise money for any kind of progressive causes.
VH How would you compare the situation right now in the US and a bit everywhere to the situation of when you were showing the porn pictures in ’89, or in the ’90s?
MM The left can’t get to the really bad guys and they are attacking each other. I think that’s why we don’t win. I think we are at a real turning point. Trump is falling apart at the moment and I think the whole world is starting to see that. There are more democrats than there are republicans in this country, but the democrats do all this in-fighting, circular firing squads, and that’s why we lose. I’d rather have a pragmatist in office than a purist at this point. But listen, I’m an amateur. I’m not much of a philosopher but I’m good at coming up with ideas to raise money for causes I feel strongly about.
VH You have been working with photographs, videos and painting…
VH Do you want to experiment with another medium in the near future?
MM I’m always excited about new technology.
VH That would be interesting to see Marilyn Minter using a new technology.
MM Right now I’m invested in the things I’m making but I’m not all adverse to new things. I’m pretty curious and open.
VH Your work is very coherent from the very beginning to nowadays, although in fact you changed your practice a few times.
MM Yes, the way it looks is different but it’s persistent. I just feel that it’s the right thing to do.
MARILYN MINTER (b. 1948, Shreveport, LA, USA) lives and works in New York City. Minter has exhibited extensively in museums and galleries internationally. These include the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Fotomuseum, Winterthur; CAC, Cincinnati; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; La Conservera, Murcia; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; The Kitchen, New York; SITE Santa Fe; The 2006 Whitney Biennial, New York.
VINCENT HONORÉ is a curator. He has worked at Palais de Tokyo, Tate Modern, DRAF, Hayward Gallery. He curated the 13th Baltic Triennial and the Pavilion of the Republic of Kosovo for the 58th Venice Biennale. He is currently Director of exhibitions and programs at MOCO Montpellier Contemporain, a new institution he opened with Nicolas Bourriaud.
All images Courtesy: the artist and Salon 94, New York
Video Courtesy: Stamps School of Art & Design University of Michigan