Over her decades-long artistic career, Marilyn Minter’s work has shocked, bewildered, dazzled, inspired and blurred boundaries between fine art, fashion and smut. All three collide in her signature photorealistic paintings and photographs, her typical shot of a hyper-glam, cropped in a picture of a woman’s body—mouth, eyes, feet, fingers, anything.
Minter has a knack for bringing into focus the dirty underbelly of glamor, literally (a pimple on an impeccably made-up face) and figuratively (the psychological turmoil under the seductive surface). Her style and subject matter has won her the reputation of provocateur, and in the 80s and 90s, her own generation of feminists almost unanimously banned her from their sphere.
But time changes everything, and the times have finally caught up with Minter—millennials gravitate towards her work in a way that her contemporaries never did. And as a new wave of feminism breaks over the horizon, Minter’s subject matter feels timelier than ever. In fact, Minter is one of the rare artists who uses her work to fight directly for the causes she believes in; in 2016, she teamed up with fellow activist Miley Cyrus to design a t-shirt for Marc Jacobs to benefit Planned Parenthood, and her recent show in Los Angeles included a Donald Trump plaque whose sale benefitted Downtown for Democracy, an organization that sells artwork to raise money for progressive policies. Some of her work, featuring Minter’s modern take on the archetype of the female bather, will be shown at Lehmann Maupin gallery in Hong Kong this month for her first exhibit in Asia.
I called up Minter at her New York studio to chat about feminism, millennial culture, activism and her upcoming exhibit, catching her as she was getting dressed for a mid-morning meeting. She spoke her mind readily and without ego, laughed easily and had only one request at the end of our conversation: don’t make me stupid. Not a chance.
MARILYN MINTER, Indigo, 2018, dye sublimation print, 40 x 30 inches (print), 101.6 x 76.2 cm, 41.75 x 31.75 x 2.25 inches (framed), 106 x 80.6 x 5.7 cm, Edition of 5 with 2 AP. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong and Seoul, and Salon 94, New York.
What draws you to the topics you explore in your art?
Well, let’s see. I’d like to know that myself. It’s basically what I’m drawn to; I don’t have a clue why. I’ve always had a certain vision, and I just wanted to make pictures to match it.
So it’s more instinctive?
Oh, totally intuitive.
How have your creative interests evolved over the course of your career and your life?
Really organic. Also, one project I work on leads to the next one. It’s not at all a linear progression, an academic progression; it’s more of an intuitive one. Writers come along and put some kind of a timeline on it and it makes a lot of sense, but it isn’t at all anything thought-out. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing two years from now. I just listen to that inner voice.
I was reading an interview in New York Times Magazine where you mentioned that you appreciate artists that create work that is in tune with their times.
What do you think your work captures about our time right now, or any time that you’ve lived through?
I like to work on multiple levels and not tell anyone what to think, which is sort of, I think, a metaphor for life, in the sense that everything has its opposite, and I like to have both of those in all the works that I do. Just like a metaphor for life. And I believe in the grey areas, I don’t think things are black and white.
Would you say that that’s more of a timeless element of your work?
Timeless, I like that! That works for me.
How has reception to your work changed over the course of your career, either critical or public?
Whenever I do anything, it seems that my first reaction is bewilderment, then over a period of time, other generations seem to like what I’m doing. But my generation always has… I don’t know if that’s true now, but there was a time lapse between when I’m really communicating with people or I bewilder them, one or the other. But lately, time’s caught up with me. I think it’s something to do with—how old are you?
Yeah, it’s to do with millennials. They get me right away.
What do you think it is about millennials that makes them appreciate your work or understand it better?
Oh, I think they just have more information at their fingertips because they’re so fluent in the digital world, and information is everywhere in the digital world. They’re so informed.
How do you think that makes them appreciate your work specifically?
Well, I don’t really know. You have to tell me. I’ve never figured that out, but it’s great to know I’m communicating. I just appreciate the fact that I don’t seem to have to explain myself as readily as I do to my own generation.
What did you have to explain to your own generation?
Well, I don’t know. I always thought the way I thought, and when I introduced a lot of the works that I’ve done in the past, they seemed to get appreciated 20 years later, but I don’t really know why. If I could figure that out, I could probably bottle it and make a fortune, but there’s just no way for me to figure it out, anyway.
On a slightly different note, a lot of your work deals with fashion and glamor. What’s your personal relationship to fashion and glamor in your life? What role does fashion play for you?
I’m pretty lazy. It’s a lot of work. What I see is that to be involved in fashion and glamor is just as time-consuming as to be an artist. So I really can’t pay that much attention to it. Like I said, it’s one of those paradoxes where it’s dismissed by the culture, yet it’s one of the giant engines of the culture. And I’m tangentially aware of it, but I’m not invested in it because it’s too time-consuming, personally. But I know the look of it, and I can make a picture of the look of it.
Do you think that it’s possible to put more value on one over the other, when you’re talking about the art world vs. fashion and glamor?
Well, historically, art has always been high culture and fashion has been low culture. I’ve never believed that, really. I believe that there are geniuses in every field.
Switching gears a little, back to millennial culture. What do you think about Instagram’s censorship of some parts of women’s bodies, like nipples or pubic hair? Why are we still censoring those?
I guess they do it because they don’t want it to turn into a porn site, but I don’t really know. I’m a real voyeur on Instagram, and voyeur in the sense that I don’t follow anyone. I guess I’m not a voyeur, I’m a… I know not to go down that rabbit hole. I just post all the time, but I don’t look at anybody else. I’m terribly selfish. But I’m a Twitter freak, so I already saw what happened to me on Twitter, and I’m never going to do that with Instagram. It’s a rabbit hole. I have people I know that are on it for hours. I’m on it for five minutes every couple of days.
What effect do you think social media has on our culture, and more specifically on the art world?
I think, from what I can tell, and I’m not sure, I never would’ve thought that people would buy art by looking at it in an Instagram picture, and I was dead wrong. I personally could never do it—I have to see it in person. But I was totally wrong, so I got that way wrong, so maybe I shouldn’t say a word. My dealer has sold paintings of mine on Instagram. It blows my mind.
Has Instagram played a big role in your career?
Oh, no, no, no.
In terms of reaching millennials?
Well, I really don’t know, like I said I don’t follow anybody. Well, I use the explore section. I sort of set my algorithm to have mostly art, so I like art all the time and when I go to the explore section on Instagram, I can see what’s going on. But I’m really very curious about other artists, so I pay a lot of attention. I go to galleries; I go to museums all the time. I don’t really learn that much from Instagram, except sometimes it piques my attention so I’ll go check out that artist.
You mentioned porn, and some of your work has been called out for being “pornographic.” What are your views on porn?
That nobody has politically correct fantasies. And that I think women should make images for their own amusement and pleasure.
What about the side of the industry that tends to exploit women?
That’s a mystery to me, and I think the reason that I got into so much trouble is that I was taking images from an abusive history and repurposing them. But I don’t know how to answer that because I’m not a sociologist, but I do know that we’re never going to get rid of porn. There would be no Internet without porn—it’s one of those things that’s also hated and reviled but is also a giant engine of the culture. Like I said, there would be no Internet. And so at least if you can accept that and make porn for your own pleasure then more power to you, maybe it’s the only place some people have any sexual gratification. I don’t know, like I said I’m not a sociologist, I just know it’s impossible to censor it.
It seems like lately, there’s been a much more sex-positive push in the feminist world, but I know that wasn’t always the case.
Well, feminists were almost verboten when the first two or three waves came out. And then, my generation was definitely in that category, and then there were certain outliers like myself who believed in positive sexual imagery. But I don’t think imagery has to be positive; I’m saying everyone has politically incorrect fantasies. Whatever makes you happy, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it doesn’t have to do with children or animals. And fake news. Those are the things that have to be controlled. There are certain things that are verboten.
Overall, how do you think the world of feminist art has evolved from when you started making art until today?
I don’t think of feminist art, I just think of art.
Or the art world in general.
Well, I always say that my generation of collectors, my age group, never saw women in power. They didn’t have bosses that were women; their mothers were teachers, or librarians, or nurses. And your generation has powerful women everywhere, so it’s going to be a real different mindset. Which I think is super healthy, and wonderful.
Do you see that affecting the art world as well?
Absolutely, because your generation is the new art world. It’s not going to be such a shock to see a woman being a huge collector, which was almost unheard of in my generation. So women can be engines, instead of just being the wife who has to beg the husband for money to buy something. Those days are over. Hopefully! Women generate their own power nowadays, and that’s good for everybody.
Are there any changes that you would still want to see happen?
Oh, sure. Someone like Kara Walker, she should be making the same amount of money as Jeff Koons, as far as I’m concerned. That’s a pretty clear example, right? Or Cindy Sherman. There’s nobody more important in photography than Cindy Sherman. She changed photography. But look at the auctions.
So more recognition and more value placed on women’s work?
Absolutely. More value.
Is there anybody in the current younger generation of artists who you’ve been following or admire?
Oh god, lots of people. So many people, I don’t even know how to start. Name someone!
We can circle back if you think of any.
No, I can do it! Tala Madani… there’s so many. Rachel Rose. I think she’s young but I’m not sure. I just saw something by this guy Friedrich Kunath I thought was really good.
Is there anybody that you see a younger version of yourself in?
Kate Hardy. I don’t know if she’s a younger version of myself, but she works with subject matter that’s devalued in the culture also. I think she’s great. I have a million. I promote everybody that I love. Sandy Kim, Petra Collins.
What are your thoughts on the current direction of the feminist movement?
I don’t know what the direction is. I think it’s just becoming mainstream culture. Is that a direction? Who’s not a feminist, you know? Neanderthals. Any male I know, they’re all feminists. All the guys I know. My husband’s a feminist. It’s becoming mainstream culture, which it should be. I think it’s the most important movement of the twentieth century—it’s definitely not communism, which everyone thought it was going to be. Or fascism. It’s feminism. The one that really bled through. And I’ve always been a feminist, it’s just that I never had a platform before. I haven’t changed anything, if that makes sense.
Could you explain what you mean by that?
As soon as feminism became a name, I thought, wow, this totally makes sense. I didn’t have to be convinced. I was a little girl when Betty Friedan and the first feminists came out, and everything they said made total sense to me. And I remember they were laughed at on TV, I remember watching it on a show, and now everything they were saying is mainstream. You can’t go back, I don’t see the culture going back. And I think misogyny and homophobia are two sides of the same coin. And I just don’t see putting that back in the bottle. You’re not going to be able to go back now. It’s such injustice, and I think when you figure out injustice, you can’t go back.
I think what I’m seeing is there is a lot more gender intersectionality than anyone ever knew. There were plenty of boys and girls who just never felt like they fit the duality of male or female. And that’s going to be, I think, the new acceptance. That’s going to be the hard thing for your generation, maybe, or some are going to have trouble accepting that. I think it totally makes sense. They were just underground, never talked about it, they had no language for it. But I see it all the time now, kids that say, oh, I don’t know what I am. That’s actually fresh thinking. My generation never explored this at all. I mean, my generation—I’m 70 years old, so.
And it’s catching on now.
I don’t know if it’s catching on, it’s just being acknowledged. I think it’s always been there. I knew all these kids who were pretty asexual in my life. And now there’s a name for them, and they’re acknowledged, and they’re not considered weird anymore. And that’s all healthy.
Could you tell me more about your recent show in Los Angeles (at the Regen Project), and specifically could you talk more about “My Cuntry ‘Tis of Thee”?
Oh, the video. I figured that if we’re going to be called cunts we might as well own it and be proud of it. And shove it down culture’s throat. I took all my cues from queer theory: if you own it, then no one can hurt you with it. Because it’s been such a hurtful word throughout history, at least in this country. Maybe not in England, but they have a different definition of it—everything’s cunty. But in this country it’s used as a weapon, so I just took the weapon and made it beautiful. Have you seen any of the video?
MARILYN MINTER, Twilight, 2011, dye sublimation print, 60 x 44.5 inches (print), 152.4 x 113 cm, 61.75 x 46.25 x 2.25 inches (framed), 156.8 x 117.5 x 5.7 cm, Edition of 5 with 2 AP. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong and Seoul, and Salon 94, New York.
I just got to see the intro, I couldn’t find a full version of it online.
Yeah, there’s only snippets. But it is all different kids of women writing “my cuntry tis of thee,” or, “your cuntry needs you,” “no cuntry for old men,” “au cuntraire.” Funny things, some of them. “Cunt fu.” “Cuntemporary.” It’s just owning it and embracing it.
It kind of reminded me of the cunt cheerleaders from the 70s. I think it was Judy Chicago.
Oh, did she do that? That doesn’t surprise me. That’s a different generation than me. That’s like the first generation, I think, of feminists.
I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your politics and the relationship between your political views and your art, and whether you think artists have the responsibility to be political or get involved in politics.
I think everyone has a responsibility to get involved in politics, and I always have. It’s appalling to me that we have this unhinged, insane president and that he’s not being thrown out of office by his fellow Republicans. And he’s being protected. He’s insane and frightening, and he’s turning back everything progressives believe in. Everything. He’s like the last gasp of the patriarchy. Holding on for dear life. Thank god the millennial map is blue. The history is not going to be kind to the Republicans of this era. I mean, he’s a traitor. He’s clearly a traitor.
How do you think the art world resistance is doing?
Well, they’re doing their best. A lot of artists aren’t political, which is really a shock to me. But I’ve always been political, I just never had a platform before. Nothing’s changed in my life. I’ve been doing the exact same thing my whole life. I pay attention and frankly, if you’re not upset, you’re unconscious.
MARILYN MINTER, Last Sleepy Angel, 2017, dye sublimation print, 60 x 45 inches (print), 152.4 x 114.3 cm, 61.75 x 46.75 x 2.5 inches (framed), 156.8 x 118.7 x 6.4 cm, Edition of 5 with 2 AP. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong and Seoul, and Salon 94, New York.
Before you go, I wanted to ask you about your upcoming show in Hong Kong. Could you tell me what works will be showing?
Well they’re not showing “My Cuntry ‘Tis of Thee”! It’s all about the shower—I’ve been working with the twenty-first century bather. Hong Kong’s kind of a buttoned-down society. They’re showing the mild version of Marilyn Minter.
The PG-13 version.
Yeah, the PG-13, exactly. You gotta start somewhere, right?
What do you think the reception will be? How do you think the different cultural contexts will affect how people view it?
I have no idea. I’m going to be just as surprised as you. I know nothing about Hong Kong. I’m going to try and learn. But I am going to go to Mainland China. I’m going to Shanghai, so I’m really going to open my eyes, take it all in.