We are in a time when misogyny is back on the table. Marilyn Minter began addressing these issues in the late ‘80s with “Porn Grids,” a series of sexually explicit paintings illustrating women’s desires. At that time, a straight female artist wasn't supposed to touch on such things. Wildly criticized for using pornography in her work, she persisted. ”I thought women should own their sexual imagery. And nobody has politically correct fantasies.”
Sensuality and paradoxes run deep with Minter, the artist and activist. At 68 years, she is vibrant and pulsing with energy — just like her thought-provoking and mesmerizing photorealist paintings.
With a slight lisp and even slighter southern drawl, there is no lack of opinion or laughter. Minter is fun. And deeply serious. Such contradictions are nothing new when it comes to Minter, whom the art world labeled “bad girl.”
According to Minter, there are few areas where women have any of the real power seen among the designers and editors in the billion-dollar fashion industry, a powerful culture engine that drives our lust for beauty and glamour. Yet the same want creates eating disorders and body dysmorphia — a contradiction that Minter addresses in her work of sensual imagery riddled with imperfections, questioning and confronting advertising and our role as consumers. “It’s the debased areas of pop culture, what people think are shallow and unimportant, that I’m interested in making pictures of — ‘cause those are really the engines of the culture. I doubt there would be an internet without pornography, another engine of our culture. So, it is just a constant paradox, and I am interested in paradoxes.”
At the time of our visit, Minter’s studio is void of her work. It was in the process of being installed for her retrospective ‘Pretty/Dirty’ at The Brooklyn Museum, in tandem with a show of her giant paintings of pubic hair and steamy showers at Salon 94 Bowery — which take on the classical theme of the bather.
But it’s not really a void because to sit down with Marilyn in her sanctuary is to witness her work from a different perspective — from the core.
Minter shares her geothermal home with her hubby, former stockbroker, Bill Miller. Visiting it is like taking a trip to southern Florida where she grew up. Her family had moved there from Louisiana so her compulsive gambling father could be closer to Havana and golf courses.
The home with its interior’s tropical color accents, a palette found in Minter’s work, is nestled in the deep woods of upstate NY — a contrast that compliments each perfectly. This is a place one could easily spend long gloomy winter days.
“Being up here, I learned I have a deep appreciation and love of nature. I had no idea that was going to happen. I didn’t really care about it before, and now I’m absolutely wild for it! We just got back from Iceland — shit, that’s nature on steroids!”
Minter doesn't miss a beat when I say, “I knew that you were a feminist, but didn’t know you were an environmentalist.” “It is the same thing. Like misogyny and homophobia is the same thing, they go hand in glove. I think you know if you are an activist — you pay attention to your world.”
To design the house, the couple hired Stan Allen Architecture, who represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 2016; and Giancarlo Valle, a former assistant of Allen’s, to create the interior including the asymmetric visual cupboard as the living room’s centerpiece. “I don’t know how to cook so we never entertain. This is for ourselves really. I just want to be quiet and read all the time. We go for long walks with the dogs. We have trails right off of the property.”
Her Father, the hustler.
“My Dad was a scratch golfer. He hustled on the golf course. He would say he had this handicap and then beat everybody. He'd play 36 holes a day. When I was eight, he had all these other girlfriends. He was a promoter for the Cassius Clay — Sonny Liston fight and his partner was found face down in a swimming pool so it was a semi...” “Mafia?” I ask. “I don't know, whatever it is. It’s not like he didn't know gangsters. Trust me. I know who his friends were. Or semi-gangsters. But I did notice. I didn't live with him but he died basically homeless. He took all my work when I was in grad school and sold it to get the money. So –– things like that. He was an alcoholic and an impulsive gambler.”
Growing up wild
I totally get why Marilyn was labeled a ‘bad girl,’ the kind of rule breaking fearless female the world needs more of. I can easily envision her running wild as a teenager at the height of the Civil Rights movement. “It's so indicative of the times. It was the sixties. And believe me all my friends' parents were just as bad.”
“I was barely educated. I was in a terrible school system but I managed to find people who thought like me. And most of us were pretty wild; none of us were nice southern girls. We were in trouble all the time. I was put in jail at 16 for falsifying ID cards. And that was considered scandalous at the time.” (Laughing). “I remember riding down the street and seeing one of my best friend's father with some girl, ‘Hi Mr. Owen!’ We were brats; we’d make a point in saying hello. I saw all kinds of things from these parents. Everyone was divorced although that one wasn't. It was a wild place.”
Her Mother and first subject
It wasn't until her 20s that Minter figured out her mother was a drug addict. “I just thought she was crazy. I knew my father was an alcoholic gambler, womanizer. But I didn't know what was wrong with my mother. I never put two and two together. I saw her constantly taking pharmaceuticals and having needles — I just thought she had a nervous breakdown.
She was hardcore drug user. Once I figured it out, it was like, ‘Oh Jesus! What an idiot I was.’ And I was stealing her drugs too.”
Minter’s activism started early. “I was born in Louisiana, in the Deep South, and I saw those colored drinking fountains. So I’d say ‘This is unfair. There is something wrong with this picture!’ I was really appalled so I would go and drink at them. Since my mother and I didn’t talk anymore, I remember writing letters to her about my outrage and I’d leave them on her bed.” (Laughing)
“My parents were pretty much consumers and very conservative. And they were definitely anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist. My mother hated women. My brothers and I turned out to be these liberals, the opposite of what you think.”
She started to join marches, some of which ended up in additional arrests. “My husband and I were in the same march closing down the Pentagon in the ‘60s, except we did not know each other and didn't meet. He came from Notre Dame and I came from Syracuse. He was a radical, so was I.” When they were later introduced by their mutual friend and artist, Mary Humm, Bill ended up being the first guy Minter dated who wore a tie.
Being a female Artist
“There are generations of policing woman and their bodies both from the religious and the political angle. My generation was so repressed and terrified. Suggesting perhaps I was ‘complicit in misogyny’ was the only place the critics could go, not seeing that the work was about freedom. So I was thrown out of the art world. Yeah, Paul (Morris, featured in UD # 2) remembers that. He bought my work, had people write about me… he was part of my support system. I was a straight woman making sexually explicit work. It was unheard of. If you were a gay woman, you could get away with it, like Nicola Tyson (featured in UD # 3). But I was a straight girl. Kelly Seaman, Judith Bernstein, and Betty Tompkins were all doing it too, but they were also shunned. But I didn't really know about them. I knew about Joan Semmel but we weren't talking to one another. We were all pretty isolated from one another.”
Simultaneously, when Jeff Koons debuted Made in Heaven (a series of him and his then-wife, Italian porn star Ilona Staller, fucking) at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and, later, at Sonnabend Gallery in NY –– it was considered a “must see.” Critics suggested the body of work would be “Koons’s downfall” but it ultimately turned him into the ”world’s most expensive artist.”
“I didn't have any success until I was in my fifties. The first half wasn't so great, but the second half has been pretty great.” Her work today is widely collected both by museums like the Guggenheim to celebrities like Madonna and Jay Z.
Gardening & Painting
Her newfound passion for growing succulents and moss seems to fit her sensuality “Edwina Von Gal, our landscape architect, is the one who told me about succulent gardens. This is where I put all my energy when I’m up here. It’s kind of pathetic, I used to paint all the time and now I pick clover and moss!” (Laughing) ”A little encouragement and then it started growing everywhere, it’s like magic! Now I spend a few hours a day working in the garden. I still love to paint up here because no one bothers me. I just go in the studio and work uninterrupted while listening to podcasts. I just do layers and layers and layers of enamel paint. It takes a long time but I like working on the layers, it's very satisfying. I get a lot of pleasure out of it. Every painting is its own thing; it's not a formula. I have to teach myself all the time. I learned how to paint steam. I have learned how to make frost, it took me a year.”
Returning to those haunting black-and-white photographs of her Mother in bed wearing a negligée, which she captured in ’69 as a photography student, and which she didn't show until 25 years later, we discover a voice that has evolved into tightly-cropped, rich, colorful, explosive, enamel layered, paintings: A glamorous sensual woman with her make-up perfectly applied, the freckles, the manicured nails, yet raw and flawed — a perfect Minter paradox.