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The Pretty/Dirty Mind of Marilyn Minter

Paul Rodriguez
Artist Marilyn Minter at the Art of Dining fundraiser for the Orange County Museum of Art, where her artwork was projected onto the tent.

You know Marilyn Minter’s art when you see it: candy-colored images of filthy feet in fancy heels, close-ups of women’s lips spilling glitter or dirty gems; pornographic paintings showing cropped views of women’s mouths; her early haunting photographs of a faded beauty – Minter’s own drug-addicted mother – languidly smoking cigarettes and applying makeup. As the poet Eileen Myles wrote of Minter: “She’s turning the dirty side of femininity inside out.”

The New York-based painter and photographer has been exploring gender, sexuality and notions of beauty and glamour for decades. Minter’s big moment came in 2006 when she was included in the Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary art.

Her subversive “food porn” paintings were part of her successful gambit to get the first artist-made television commercial for a gallery exhibition. Her high-definition video, “Green Pink Caviar,” was shot from beneath glass as a model seductively licked candy off it; the piece played in Times Square and on digital billboards on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Celebrities, including actress Pamela Anderson, have sat for portraits.

Minter’s porn paintings in the early 1990s famously got her ostracized from the art world for a time. She had been inspired by the artist Mike Kelley, whose 1988 exhibit featured stuffed animals and a decoupage-decorated dresser. “It just got me thinking: What subject matter have women not tackled? Well, porn. I wondered if it changed the meaning if a woman made these images.”

“Pretty/Dirty,” a major retrospective of Minter’s work, finishes its run at Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach this month. Her influences include Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, but Minter adds a flavor all her own, in part with an unusual painting technique in which she adds several layers of high-gloss enamel to metal. Fighting a bad cold, Minter spoke with Coast about her history as a provocateur and her complicated take on glamour, which can confound both admirers and critics.      

Coast: You’ve said you were sort of kicked out of the art world for your porn series. Did the fact that your critics included fellow feminists make that an especially hard time for you?
MM: At the time I was devastated because I thought everybody thought like I did. But there was a thread in feminism that was puritanical. Political correctness was dominant at the time. I assumed I was doing something brave – like asking questions without knowing the answers. I thought I’d take these images from an abusive history and try to repurpose them. I wasn’t trying to turn anyone on. But the fact that I did it at all drove people crazy. I was a youngish woman. And I think that’s threatening to the powers that be.

Coast: Miley Cyrus is part of your art project for Planned Parenthood. Did you see something of yourself in her?
MM: No, her (shaming) was on such a massive scale. I saw it happen with Britney Spears and Madonna. It’s almost a rite of passage… . I thought, ‘What is that about, young girls owning their sexual agency?’ I was lucky she was willing to do this. She’s willing to engage young girls. She’s willing to speak out.

Coast: When you first saw your retrospective, did you have any revelations about yourself, like realize any themes that have run through your life?
MM: Well, I did when I was in Texas, where it first opened. I grew up in the Deep South and saw that there were a lot of pastel pinks and pastel greens. I saw those same two colors. They were sort of the colors I grew up with. It just hit me: Those are Florida colors, ’60s Florida colors. It feels like home.

Coast: Was the video “Green Pink Caviar” a side art project you made during a commercial photo shoot?
MM: It’s true. I was shooting for MAC and whenever the model changed her eye makeup, I said ‘Hey, come lick this.’ MAC was unhappy when they heard about it until they found out MoMA was showing it in its lobby.

Coast: What have you thought about Orange County?
MM: I haven’t been able to see a lot of it. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where everybody has all the (drink) sweeteners, including stevia, which I use. And I love this restaurant called True Food Kitchen (at Fashion Island in Newport Beach). It’s really good.

Coast: Do you feel like the critique you and others make of what’s considered glamorous has changed anything in fashion or culture?
MM: Glamour is the engine of the culture. One dismisses it, when it’s such a powerful player. It gives us so much pleasure and so much pain. It’s kind of a duality, a paradox, having both of those feelings operating. It gives you a lot of pleasure, but you’re never going to look that good. (The models) don’t even look that good. It’s all an illusion. There are a lot of distortions and everyone knows it and thinks it’s unhealthy. I don’t know; I’m not a sociologist. I just try to make a picture of what that looks like.

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