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Ocula Conversation

Marilyn Minter in Conversation

Robert Ayers New York 17 November 2016
Marilyn Minter. Photo: Nadya Wasylko.

The images in Marilyn Minter’s paintings, photographs, and videos are among the most immediately recognisable being made today. They are also among the more politically charged. Minter pulls together the clichés of fashion photography and soft pornography in an amalgam that is as troubling as it is alluring.

Despite the stylistic changes in a career that now spans more than four decades, Minter's perennial subject matter has been the complex networks of relationships that exist between women’s lives and the world that surrounds them. From frankly disturbing photographs of her drug-addled mother that she took when she was still a student, to her series of infamous paintings based on hardcore pornography; Plush photographs that glamorised pubic hair; and her most recent large-scale, high-keyed paintings of women licking steamy glass, Minter has never shied away from the paradoxical nature of sexuality. 

Throughout her career, Minter's work has been given further substance by its engagement with private and public politics. This has been reflected in her recurrent efforts to present her work in more easily accessible situations than galleries or museums. In 1990, she produced an ad that ran on late-night television for her exhibition 100 Food Porn, which took place at Simon Watson Gallery (1 November–1 December), in 2006 she worked with Creative Time to present her paintings on enormous billboards, and most recently she worked with Miley Cyrus and Marc Jacobs to produce a t-shirt to support Planned Parenthood, the 100-year-old non-profit organisation that is the largest single provider of reproductive health services, including abortion, in the United States.

Last month, Minter’s latest show of new work opened at New York’s Salon 94, and her touring retrospective Pretty/Dirty opened to public and critical acclaim at the Brooklyn Museum on 4 November 2016. It is entirely fitting that Pretty/Dirty is being presented as part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, which is described as a ‘project that recognises feminism as a driving force for progressive change and takes the transformative contributions of feminist art during the last half-century as its starting point’.

It had been almost a decade since Marilyn Minter and I last sat down to talk on the record. To mark the opening of her retrospective in Brooklyn, we got together again at her midtown Manhattan studio to reflect on how her career has evolved.

When we spoke back in 2007, I remember you telling me that although you were really busy, you were looking forward to things easing up a little bit. Of course that didn’t really happen, did it?

It didn’t, but things got easier because I learned how to delegate. I used to do all of the painting, and then for a while I just worked with my first assistant Johan [Olander]. We would switch back and forth because painting can get pretty boring.

How many painting assistants do you have these days?

Six.

And how much of the painting do you actually do?

A lot. But I just do the end now. I used to do the underpainting a lot more, but now I just do the end.

You just do the final touches?

No, a little more than that. I do the last coat.

Your retrospective has just opened in Brooklyn, but it’s been touring for quite a while, hasn’t it?

It first opened two years ago.

That must be a strange experience: having a retrospective show that has its own retrospective life ...

Well, it’s kept growing because each venue was a little bigger than the one before, but you’re right, it is strange because my paintings take so long to complete that I have to work about two years ahead. The ones in the new show at Salon 94, I’ve been working on for years. The ones that are in the studio now are going to my show at Regen Projects two years from now. So all the paintings in the retrospective seem like really old work for me. Even the latest one there is really old.

Marilyn Minter, Orange Crush (2009). Enamel on metal. 274.3 x 457.2 cm. Private collection.

Given their political undertow, it seems timely that the exhibition opened right before the election. How has it felt to be an artist who is also a woman working during the dark days of Trump?

There have always been dark days, but Trump has released what was repressed. And this shines a light on the underpinnings of right wing politics. Misogyny is so prevalent right now, but people use the excuse of saying, ‘I don’t hate Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. I hate her because you can’t trust her’. I always want to say to those people, ‘Tell me again what the Clinton Foundation does. What do they do exactly? Tell me what they do about AIDS and drugs and hospitals’.

And how do they respond to that?

They say things like ‘She’s a crook!’ But it’s really the same thing: it’s misogyny that’s disguised by excuses.

It’s often occurred to me that women politicians and women artists face many of the same challenges ...

The art world eats you up, and then it just spits you out.

But you’ve always managed to resist that, it seems. (Even though it did bite you in the ass after you made those porn-based paintings around 1990 ...)

Oh, not just then. It's all the time! Nobody escapes. But I don’t make art to be successful. If you make art for the love of it, then you’ll be fine, because even if you don’t earn any money, at least you’ll be making what you like. You’ll enjoy doing it.

I feel lucky because I never had to get a day job. I teach, and I have survived on teaching forever. Now I teach for pleasure.   

Marilyn Minter, Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Smoking) (1969). Gelatin silver print. 40.6 x 50.8 cm. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody.

Tell me about the Planned Parenthood t-shirt that you did with Marc Jacobs and Miley Cyrus earlier this year. How did that come about?

It’s a long story. But as you know, I’ve always been a political junky and I have always been an activist. In particular, I was appalled by the so-called TRAP [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers] laws that were limiting abortion rights all over the country. They were eliminating places for women to go—even for procedures like breast exams—and they were particularly targeting Planned Parenthood. I couldn’t believe it! I remember when abortion was illegal, and I knew people who got illegal unsafe abortions. I got my birth control at Planned Parenthood, and I got my abortion there. It was horrifying to me that we were having to have this argument again. I thought it was solved. I thought to myself, ‘I’m in my sixties, and we’re having to do this again?!’

So the project started when I was working for [the cosmetics company] Kiehl’s. (I still do commercial work, though very rarely nowadays because I'm a little bit too far from what’s commercial. I go too far for them.) But the president of Kiehl’s likes my work, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just take some pictures so we can present them in the new store we are opening in Soho’. The way Kiehl’s does things is to commission artists instead of advertising and to donate to charity what they would pay the artists. My day fee is $25,000, and I asked them to donate that to Planned Parenthood.

So Kiehl’s agreed and we started getting lots of press. But although the president of Kiehl’s is a liberal and he wanted to do it, L’Oréal owns the company and they didn’t want to. I know why as well, it’s because they didn’t want to attract the [Internet] trolls and finish up being boycotted.

It’s the same reason you don’t see celebrities coming out for Planned Parenthood. Not many, anyway; though there are a few brave ones. Most celebrities wouldn’t touch it, and clothing manufacturers are the same. They can’t touch it because they are owned by big corporations who don’t want to be boycotted. Artists on the other hand, don’t give a shit about trolls. What are they going to do? Not buy our work?! [laughs].

Marilyn Minter, Black Orchid (2012). C-print. 218.4 x 144.8 cm. Courtesy the artist, Salon 94, New York; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

But you’ve had some experience with trolls, haven’t you?

Yeah, I’ve gotten lots of trolls since I started working with Planned Parenthood. Before that I wasn’t used to trolls. They are pretty horrifying at first because there seem to be 30 messages from one person, but then I discovered that they’re not real people. They’re bots.

They’re not real?

Nah, they disappear after about two weeks.

What sort of comments do they make to you?

They call me an ugly old hag, and that I should drink bleach. They say I’m killing babies and selling their parts ... It really is hysterical! I’ll let you read them, if you want.

No thank you.

It’s the anonymous part of the Internet. It’s pretty vicious.

And of course they latch on to people like Miley Cyrus?

Oh yes, she gets trolled horribly, but I’m sure she doesn’t even look at them.

So what happened after L’Oréal said no?

I was really upset about it because Kiehl’s is a company that manufactures products for women. So instead, we decided to organise an auction. I invited my girlfriends Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons, and told them to ask all the people that we know who are concerned about the targeting of Planned Parenthood to donate work. Then we got [art advisor] Amy Cappellazzo involved and she said, ‘Don’t just invite people you know and like. Invite the ones who make the most money!’ and she gave us a list. So we asked Richard Prince, Richard Serra, and Brice Marden; and they all did it. They gave really significant art and so we raised almost $4 million, and because of that Planned Parenthood gave me a [Woman of Valor] award for raising all this money.

So then I thought, ‘Let’s turn this into a fundraiser as well. Instead of just having a little awards luncheon, let’s make some more money for Planned Parenthood. So I had to think about an activist who could give me the award. We knew we wanted someone young, and we knew that Miley was an animal rights activist like me, and we knew that she supported homeless LGBT youth. She is an activist and she is outspoken. So we asked Miley and she said yes.

She was going to be in New York to film the Woody Allen series for Amazon, so we set up a date, and I shot her presenting me with the award in a video, and I shot a portrait to sell for $5,000, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. Then I went to LA for the opening of my retrospective and on the plane on the way back my dealer Jeanne [Greenberg Rohatyn] said, ‘We should do something for people who can’t afford $5,000. Why don’t we do t-shirts? I know Marc Jacobs. So I literally designed the t-shirt on the plane coming back here! We put them into production and we had a few ready to give away at the award luncheon, and then we sold the whole first batch. Then Miley went on the Jimmy Fallon show and showed the t-shirt and publicised Planned Parenthood (and that was when I saw all the trolling she got) so we sold that whole batch, which was another $100,000! Then we made another batch and that’s still for sale. So it’s still ongoing, but what I thought was most remarkable was that nobody made a dime on this campaign. Everybody worked for free. Marc did it for nothing. Miley did it for free. Everybody who worked on the shoot, and everybody who worked on editing the video, it was all pro bono. Makeup, hair, nails, stylists, everybody donated. Everyone who works in my studio donated. And in the interim, the Supreme Court knocked down the TRAP laws anyway! Nobody expected that.

Marilyn Minter, Rouge Baiser (1994). Enamel on metal. 121.9 x 121.9 cm. Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York.

One of the events that you organised to tie in with Pretty/Dirty had you being interviewed by a string of people for ten minutes each, and I remember your 2007 Marilyn Minter book had a section assembled by Matthew Higgs where twenty people asked you one question in turn. Is there something in the nature of being interviewed that has creative potential in itself?

Well I learn what I’m thinking, because until I have to put it into words, it’s just washing around in my brain. It doesn’t make that much sense; I don’t even know where it’s coming from. Sometimes I’m aware of myself changing my opinion as I’m speaking.

It’s perfectly possible to recognise two conflicting opinions at the same time.

Why is that so hard for people? They say, ‘Which of these do you like better?’ and I say, ‘Both!’ I just think there’s not enough acceptance of paradox. There never has been. Everybody wants something simple, and there isn’t anything that is simple.

Which is why metaphor is so important in your work?

It’s all metaphors and paradox. I don’t tell people what to think.

You don’t?

That’s been my vision: my critique is that I don’t criticise! Everything is too complicated. I just try to make a picture of what is. I know that a lot of my pictures give people an enormous amount of pleasure, but at the same time the subjects are considered shallow and unimportant. They are dismissed and debased by the culture.

Fashion and glamour give people so much pleasure even though fashion is also very dangerous: it distorts women and it is problematic because of eating disorders and cruelty towards women, and women picking on other women. But at the same time it gives women a real power in the world. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and it’s one of the engines of culture. It’s how everybody sees who the rest of their tribe is. Even if you don’t care at all about how you present yourself, that’s a tribe too. It’s a constant paradox.

It’s the same paradox with pornography. It’s considered so contemptible, but it is another engine of culture. There would be no Internet without pornography. You can take abuse imagery and reclaim it for your own pleasure. I don’t consider it as porn at all. But women working with any kind of sexuality seem to really frighten people, especially if they are young and beautiful. That’s terrifying.

I feel it’s a big mistake for artists to not shine a light on this. I don’t understand why more people aren’t doing it. —[O]

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