Text by Carlo McCormick
Images by Michael Mundy
Client: Whitewall Magazine
is an American artist whom photographs and works often include sexuality and erotic imagery. Through the 1980s, she explored Pop-derived pictures often incorporating sexuality, setting the tone for many of her works. Minter moved to New York City in 1976, after earning a master of fine arts degree at Syracuse University. She became involved in the nightclub scene in Manhattan of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and began to incorporate borrowed imagery from advertising and the porn industry into her art. In 2007 Minter photographed the Fall/Winter ad campaign for Tom Ford and in 2008, she collaborated with international skate/street wear brand Supreme to produce three limited edition skate decks. Minter currently lives and works in New York City.
The remarkable thing about those who are absolutely without guile is that their honesty is rarely brutal so much as it is utterly off the wall. Every time I enjoy a chance to chat with Marilyn Minter I’m surprised not simply by what she has to say, but also by how or why it has come to pass that her most peculiar way of looking at things is gradually infecting the way mainstream culture understands itself. Her presence as one of the more daring, inventive, and yes, esteemed visionaries in the rarefied realm of high fashion is akin to the child who laughed at the emperor’s new clothes being honored by the CFDA.
“I’ve definitely got something wrong with me—I can’t even balance a checkbook. I see things differently, and I’ve known that for a long time”
Having known Marilyn for a lot longer than anyone has taken her very seriously, I find perhaps most enjoyable and refreshing that she doesn’t take much of her current success all that seriously. Her paintings are as deliberate as any others today, but after decades of working without much recognition or reward, she understands that the circumstances of her achievements are as haphazard as they are merited. “I’ve definitely got something wrong with me—I can’t even balance a checkbook,” she admits, and laughingly adds, “I see things differently, and I’ve known that for a long time.”
The way that Minter has navigated her difference over the years appears to be a lesson in persistence. Not uncomfortable in the least about how long it has taken her to “get there,” she is in fact rather proud to count herself among the remarkable list of women artists who struggled in obscurity only to attain mid-career success. But beyond determination, Minter’s real gift has been a matter of modification, a way of understanding her talents in conjunction with her failings to work systematically toward an expression most suited to her irrational temperament. That is, much as her work from the late seventies through the eighties and nineties could be seen as blindly hitting her head up against the wall of indifference; it is not like she just woke up some day with a novelty to finally get over the wall. Minter, in the paradigmatic sense of her generational affiliations, got over not in a single fortuitous leap but through the rigors of process. As a visual provocateur she is at the top of her game, with the skills and ammunition to subvert an already hyper mediated culture into an almost unfathomable dislocation between fantasy and reality, but getting there has not been a light-bulb-going-off moment. It has been a formal and formidable investigation along the seams of pictures where representation conveys discrete patterns of convenient obviation.
What has remained consistent in Minter’s art of the past 40 years is a singular focus on what most of us don’t bother to consider, or what she describes as her “interest in the aesthetics of the way things look—in particular what is overlooked.” Back in the early eighties her sense of the mundane and quotidian was, well, kind of depressing. She would work laboriously on photo-perfect paintings of such banal subjects as rather ugly patterns of linoleum tile flooring. In retrospect, she does concede they were really “quite boring,” but that’s not quite fair, because just the fact that someone would spend so much time and talent doing this was too weird to be dull. In the quarter-century hence, it’s easy to track the eccentricity of Minter’s peripheral vision as an ever-escalating assault on the ideals by which we frame a perfect picture. Always rendered to perfection, consistently craving imperfection, and honed to an acuity so penetrating, by the early nineties it quite literally brought the prosaic into the realm of the pornographic. With a candor equal to her own pictography, Marilyn remembers these (until recently) neglected bodies of work—the trash-cluttered sinks and floors of her late-seventies still-lifes, and her subsequent excursions into subtly converging subjects, such as advertising culture, feminine archetypes, food, and sex —as a kind of desperation to, in her words “be part of the dialogue going around in the art world around me.”
Funny the vicissitudes of time, how all these at the moment unmistakable missteps now choreograph one of the most compelling arcs of an artist unmistakably ahead of her time. It’s more curious yet that it actually took the usually stultifying forces of commercial work—magazine editorial and ultimately that world-apart of haute couture —to locate the cultural relevance of Minter’s mordant eye. Certainly fashion was best suited to Minter’s peculiarly intense manner of scrutiny—of all the lies we allow ourselves to be seduced by, glamour reigns above sex, religion, or politics as the site where the spinning of visual information hits a centrifugal velocity where the buff presents an unparalleled level of erasure. In this milieu, the artist brings truth to the fore not as some humdrum veracity but as an exaggeration of epic proportions. So she tells us, “Half-measures only bring half-results,” as if only extremes can belie the absurdity of consensus reality.
The wandering eye here is like Dorothy’s dog snooping aside Oz’s curtain only to find that the vulgar facts hiding there offer an even freakier spectacle than the grandest projects of our smoke-and-mirrors desire. “I want to see the makeup running down their faces, the rips in their stockings, the mud on the bottom of their high-heeled shoes, the smears, the freckles, and the sweat,” Minter iterates, “so you know that when I work with fashion it’s not going to look like anything else.”
Minter’s work is the absolute corrective to the tyranny of beauty. “Everything is retouched to death, the life has been taken out of it,” she exclaims, “the models are genetic mutants to begin with, and by the time they are corrected they’re not even human any longer— they’re robotic. The eye is going to start craving flaws.” The collision that occurs in her paintings—where photography bleeds into painting, grace turns grotesque, detail dissolves into abstraction, and fashion becomes art (and let’s face it, that happens far less often than hype may claim) is the ultimate ahistorical collusion between the fantasy of appearances and the dread of actuality. Honestly, it’s such a mind-fuck I don’t know what’s more bizarre—that of all the unlikely candidates it is Minter who rocked the last Whitney Biennial, enjoyed solo exhibitions at institutions like SF MoMA, and is the subject of an eponymous oeuvre-spanning tome published this fall (Gregory Miller & Co.), or that Tom Ford is launching a multimillion-dollar campaign featuring her art to sell his schmatta.
There was a moment there—one where perhaps fair-weather friends like me weren’t calling so often— when Minter really hit a dead end. She’d gone so far as to try to advertise a 1989 gallery exhibition on the then less-desirable (and more affordable) late-night TV shows like Letterman and Nightline, she’d followed a decidedly unerotic series of prurient pictures with a mass of drips that confused even those few who still thought of her as a Photorealist, and then … “I couldn’t get arrested, everything just stopped for me.” How that led to her photography (a medium she thinks of as the equivalent of sketchbook drawing to her paintings), and, in paying the bills, how that commercial photography led back to fine art paintings that would prove as equally disruptive to the worlds of fashion as art, is the kind of story Marilyn tosses off as typical: “It happens all the time to artists. I’m just lucky to have had it happen while I was still alive.” But somewhere between when she decided that she’d only take jobs where she knew, “I could make paintings out of the outtakes,” and when Tom Ford hired her to create an ad campaign that she imagined would be “nasty, messy and hideous” (or was it when they asked her what she would do with the newly designed bottle for their fragrance and she responded, “I’d break it”?) is a gap that can perhaps only be explained in the end as Postmodernism’s culminating orgasm. With unsightly hairs, unwanted blemishes, and unedited honesty, this, it would seem, is the new money shot.