Marilyn Minter On Glamour, Diane Arbus, and Why Envy is the Worst Emotion
Marilyn Minter wants to see millennial artists support one another.
It is perhaps fitting that Marilyn Minter‘s airy studio is housed in a rather unassuming building in the Garment District that could easily pass for your average office complex. At 67, the fashion-focused artist finds herself in the middle of a whirlwind tour for her first retrospective, aptly-named “Pretty/Dirty,” which opened at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston in April and will arrive at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver on September 18. Later stops will be in Orange County and in Brooklyn in 2016. Despite her recent fame, Minter’s road to success hasn’t always been easy.
“I always say that the art world loves young bad boys and old ladies,” Minter laughs. “They’re not as threatening.” In an interview with artnet News, she recalls Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1982 image of Louise Bourgeois holding a large dildo. “Everyone thought it was so cute,” she says. “But then Miley Cyrus does it, and what happens?”
What happens is a whole lot of hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, and slut-shaming, three things Minter is no stranger to herself. In the early ’90s, she produced a series of “porn paintings” that landed her in hot water with critics, curators, and even fellow artists, often drawing negative comparisons to her close friend Cindy Sherman’s “sex pictures” series which debuted around the same time. The series was widely misinterpreted as being in collusion with the abuse of women at the hands of the porn industry, when in reality it was Minter attempting to push the boundaries of the kind of work a young female artist could create, and the ways in which women can publicly express their sexuality.
In a way, the backlash against the paintings proved their necessity.
Following the calamity, Minter refined her aesthetic. Decades later, she is no less interested in posing the big, sometimes ugly questions about the ways in which women are perceived in the world, but she’s posing them in a less aggressive way. Of course, we’re still talking about a woman who recently released an artist book filled with photographs of women’s pubic hair, so take that claim with a grain of salt.
In person, Minter is warm and easy to converse with. Her statements feel unpracticed, although after 40 years in the art world, it’s hard to believe that’s the case. Even the stories you may have heard before—like the one in which a young Diane Arbus visits the University of Florida photography department and praises the work of an even younger Minter—feel fresh when she retells them, with a smile on her fire engine red lips and a slightly mischievous, knowing glimmer in her eye.
The story goes that Arbus, who made her dislike for the work produced by the other student known, fell in love with Minter’s “Coral Ridge Towers” series, a collection of black-and-white photographs of Minter’s beautiful, drug-addicted mother putting on makeup, installing her hair rollers, and languidly puffing a cigarette in bed.
“I didn’t know who she was,” Minter admits, referring to Arbus. “I was so out of it back then.”
Always a keen observer of fashion, however, Minter to this day remembers what Arbus was wearing: a slick silver mini dress, silver sandals, super-short hair and no bra. “No one looked like that in Florida,” she drily notes.
Despite Arbus’s praise, Minter didn’t actually print the photo series, which was taken during a single weekend in 1969, until 1995. Today, they are housed in the collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody, who has loaned them out for the show.
“My brothers and I, we don’t see what you see,” Minter says of the now well-known images. “I never knew why people liked [the pictures] so much. We just see our mother.”
Her mother’s troubled beauty has been a lasting influence on Minter, but her inquiry into the trappings of womanhood began before she could even comprehend what that meant. She still has a series of pencil drawings from her childhood that she sketched inside a copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The drawings show a line of little schoolgirls with perky bows in their voluminous hair, a busty woman in a form-fitting evening gown, and a single high-heeled shoe attached to a shapely, disembodied leg. Minter suspects she was nine when she made them, because she remembers receiving a copy around that age. “I didn’t have a lot of paper to draw on, so I would draw on these flyleaves and books,” she recalls.
Minter’s mother was not keen on her becoming an artist, hoping instead that she would marry well and become a proper Southern belle. “But I got arrested at 16, so that was out of the question,” she laughs.
While lots of little girls pen pictures of slinky gowns and gravity-defying heels, most of them don’t grow up to be Marilyn Minter, so her childhood obsessions, rendered in such perfect detail, feel eerily prophetic.
“When I think about my work, I mostly think about the paradox that goes on when you look at these images,” Minter says. “How much pleasure glamour gives us but at the same time, how we know we’ll never look like that, and even [models] don’t look like that. There’s this constant distortion that’s happening between all of us—men and women—there’s a sense of failure. But at the same time, all of this pleasure.”
While her work celebrates glamour and beauty, it’s rarely at the expense of exposing a glimpse of the blemishes—both literal and figurative—that lie underneath the glossy veneer. In the world of Minter, beauty does not equate perfection, but rather a kind of raw, off-kilter personality that’s much more enthralling. It’s the dirt underneath a pair of perfectly polished toenails, that speck of red lipstick clinging to an otherwise pristine tooth.
When asked if finally receiving a major retrospective has provided her with validation and the coveted feeling of having “made it,” Minter wonders aloud if anyone of any creative discipline ever actually feels that way. However, she notes that now that she finally has power in the art world, she hopes to use it to inspire another generation of female artists to support one another.
“We are so programmed to fight each other,” she laments. “I’m always telling young girls to stick together. And when I see a really great young artist like Keltie Ferris, I make a point of telling her how good she is.”
“My instincts are to kill her,” she laughs. “My instincts are that I don’t want to see another good artist, but I make myself go say those words, ‘Wow, those are great,’ because the very act of saying [that] makes the envy go away.” She continues, “Envy is a killer. It’s the most wasteful energy.”
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