Marilyn Minter on Pioneering Sex-Positive Feminism in the Art World and Beyond
Over the past 50 or so years, Marilyn Minter has been on a roving exploration of feminist, sex-positive thinking. Through her art-making, beginning in the late 1960s as a student at the University of Florida and later at Syracuse University (from which she received an M.F.A. in 1972), Minter, part of a then nascent movement of pro-sex feminists, went on to pioneer feminist realism through the 1980s and ’90s. As she says on this episode of Time Sensitive, “I thought it was time for women to make imagery for their own pleasure and amusement.”
Ever since, Minter has worked to harness the power of sexual imagery—a realm long controlled by men—and to present it through the lens of female desire. Employing abstraction, her paintings allow for multiple interpretations, leaving the viewer wondering, curious, provoked, and intrigued. The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter once described her ideas as “a kind of pathology of glamour.” To be clear, though, Minter isn’t going for shock value—on the contrary, her work aims to erase the contempt that is usually brought on by the kind of imagery she depicts in her paintings and photographs, and to encourage viewers to reimagine it. Her artwork also doesn’t pay much heed to the trends of the times; as she points out on the episode, the zeitgeist usually catches up to her, sooner or later.
While she’s been producing this kind of work for decades, it was, for many years, met with criticism and controversy. It has only been in the past decade or two that she’s truly been getting her due. Some of her most notable works include a cover image and “centerfold” of Pamela Anderson she created for the art magazine Parkett in 2007; her “Bathers” series, which reimagines classic female bathers; her “Bush” series, originally a Playboy commission; and a group of new portraits, currently on view at the New York gallery LGDR (through June 3), featuring subjects she admires and who have made impactful shifts on the cultural landscape, including Roxane Gay (the guest on Ep. 75 of Time Sensitive), Gloria Steinem, Lizzo, Mickalene Thomas, and Monica Lewinsky. Beyond her art, Minter is also an ardent activist, particularly for Planned Parenthood, for which she recently created an app that promotes women’s bodily autonomy, with all proceeds going to the nonprofit.
On this episode, Minter talks about the unrealistic societal and body-image standards young women continue to face, the importance of embracing complexity and multiplicity in artwork, and the hope she has in the next generation to fight social injustice.
Minter discusses how she thinks about sexual imagery from an across-time perspective. The conversation begins with Spencer referencing a previous quote of hers: “Yesterday’s smut is today’s erotica.”
Minter talks about how she employs technology in her photography practice and painting process.
Minter gets into the importance of acknowledging, celebrating, and even honoring imperfection. She also brings up slowness in the context of her wide body of work. “I think that’s what I bring to most everything I do: just slow it down,” she says.
Minter highlights two of her latest projects: a series of commissioned pictures for a story in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Joys (and Challenges) of Sex After 70” (soon to be released as a book, Elder Sex) and an exhibition at LGDR in New York, featuring painted portraits of notable people she admires, including Lizzo, Monica Lewinsky, and Glenn Ligon.
Minter reflects on the cover image and “centerfold” of Pamela Anderson she created for the art magazine Parkett in 2007 and shares the process behind her new drinking-fountain sculptures, on view at LGDR.
Minter looks back at the “Coral Ridge Towers” photographs she took while a student at the University of Florida and how those have shaped her life and career. The conversation then turns to her tricky trajectory through the art world of the 1980s and ’90s, as well as her rise from the mid-2000s to present, a period during which she has increasingly received much-deserved recognition.
Minter considers her activism work with Planned Parenthood, including a new photo-filter app she created with ADLAR.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Marilyn. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
MARILYN MINTER: My pleasure.
SB: I wanted to begin with this quote of yours that connects to time, and also to your work: “Yesterday’s smut is today’s erotica.” I wanted to start there.
MM: That’s a good place to start. Well, nobody has politically correct fantasies. Think about it. Remember, what was her name? She was a scandal in the fifties. Bettie something, Bettie Page? What was her name? Now, there are coffee cups that have her on them. Do you know who I’m talking about? No, you wouldn’t. You’re too young. [Laughter] Yeah. She was the scandal.
SB: I’m shaking my head. I’m like, “No, I don’t know.”
MM: Yeah. That’s just how it is. You see people actually collect the daguerreotype prints or silver gelatin prints from the turn of the century—porn. [They’re] like collectible items now.
SB: Let’s pull back even further. You think about painting or your—
MM: Oh, tits and ass. [Laughs] That’s art history. Yeah. Absolutely. They had no photos then.
SB: Yeah. Well, and your “Bathers” series, I think, really connects to this idea.
MM: I have no problem with looking at sexual imagery. I really do believe that that was erotica for the 1800s, all the way back to making paintings. There’s always a breast being shown. [Laughs] Or a butt. That’s all they had. So my “Bathers” are twenty-first–century bathers.
SB: Looking back, how do you think about this fifty-year exploration, let’s call it, of feminist, sex-positive thinking, picture-making, painting—this journey you’ve been on? You were heavily criticized early on in your career for painting from pornographic material or sexually explicit imagery. But the internet was born.
MM: Yeah. The internet actually changed everything. We were a really nascent group of pro-sex feminists, and I thought we were everywhere. I just thought, well, it was time for women to make imagery for their own pleasure and amusement. There were people doing that, Susie Bright, and… I can’t remember all their names now. I thought that this is such a giant industry. It’s like, it’s considered a contemptible industry by the mainstream of the world, and it’s one of the major engines of commerce, and there probably would be no internet without pornography.
I thought, well, why don’t artists…. This seems like a perfect subject matter. This is who we are and let’s take a good look at this. I thought, all the work I’ve been doing from the beginning is taking probably disreputable imagery and taking a second look at it, or even erasing the contempt, trying to see it for what it is, and the way glamour and fashion is also considered shallow and contemptible, and yet it’s another giant engine of the culture. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and pornography’s probably more than a billion-dollar industry, and it seemed like the perfect subject matter. Right? [Laughs]
SB: But even in 2023, so much of our culture still seems like we’re in the Victorian age or something.
MM: Well, it’s like progress, people are so afraid of sexual imagery, even now. I wish someone would do a study on the fact that old women can do anything, whereas a young girl tries to do sexual imagery and she gets slut-shamed, even now.
SB: Do you see what’s transpired, basically your path from being, let’s say, marginalized to a star in the art world as a vindication?
MM: I don’t think of it like that. I’m not really a star. Institutions shunned me. But I do have enough to keep going. I get enough to keep going, which I’m really pleased with. I wonder how dangerous stardom really is. When they marginalize you in the culture, that sort of leaves you alone. So, you can make what you want. I don’t know what it’s like to be making billions of dollars at an auction. How does that warp the creative process? There are people that escape—their work escapes from that distortion that happens when every drawing you make is [valued at] a million dollars. There are people that do escape that, but they’re few and far between. I think being constantly marginalized gives me a lot of freedom. It’s a blessing and a curse, right?
SB: Yeah. How do you think about the fact that there is this underlying explicit nature to your work? You’re sort of poking the art world, in a way.
MM: Well, I don’t think of it like that. The art world might think of it like that, but I just have no choice. It’s like, I have these compulsions to make these things and I feel like once I get paint on my surface, the painting really tells me what to do. I’m not really sure what to do until I start painting. I’ve done shoots for commercial enterprises and they’re always saying, “Well, what are your plans? Don’t you have a storyboard?” And I don’t. I say, “Bring me what you have and I’ll make something out of it.” All of my processes really show me what new technology exists.
I want to do something with it. I’m not afraid at all of technology or progress, which I see happening all the time to my generation. They want it to stop. My generation is the generation you’re talking about, that never grew up with sexual imagery everywhere. It was always underground. Artists always were in their studio alone, and there was a kind of shame-based association with any kind of sexual imagery. Your generation doesn’t have that.
SB: Not as much, anyway, yeah. I think it should be said here that you were quite early to Photoshop and how you have used Photoshop as a tool—
MM: I stopped drawing. [Laughs]
SB: Yeah. How you’ve used it as a tool is actually sort of unorthodox, or it’s at least different than a sort of clichéd intent, which is to airbrush things.
MM: Yeah, I know. The opposite.
MM: Yeah. It’s true. I never even thought of it like that. But it enabled me to draw exactly what I wanted. Also, when you combine all those images, you get ideas that you never even knew you had. It’s almost like, did I shoot that? I don’t remember that part. So, I’ll put that in the painting. That looks really good. So, I have this whole world opening up to me. Before, I just had to draw everything because that’s the one skill I had is [that] I could draw anything. Once Photoshop came along, I thought, Fuck this. This is time-consuming. I haven’t drawn since.
SB: You’ve also used a Phantom camera.
MM: Oh, yeah.
SB: So, technology does certainly play a role here.
MM: Well, technology, in that sense, really caught up. Every commercial now uses the Phantom camera. When I saw it, I thought I’d died and went to heaven, and every commercial now is using it. Yeah.
SB: I think the poet Eileen Myles probably has described your work best, and it is hard to pin down. There’s an intentional complexity to your work.
SB: She wrote, of your work, “She’s turning the dirty side of femininity inside out.” I just love that.
MM: I love that. Yeah. Well, she’s a lovely, lovely poet. I’m such a big fan. Ah, let’s see. People have to learn to tolerate complexity. That’s the world. I know myself, I have to second-guess. I have to second-guess the contempt people have for the Kardashians. How many 21-year-olds do you know that are billionaires? [Laughs]
It’s just this automatic dismissal. If there’s a way to tear down, destroy young women, it’s going to happen. Build them up and tear them down. It’s an industry, and I think it’s time for everybody to second-guess this viciousness to put on to 21-year-olds or 22-year-olds or 25-year-olds. You shouldn’t even do it to 60-year-olds, unless they’re Trump or these fascists who really do harm.
SB: Yeah, and to celebrate imperfection—to understand that imperfection is beauty.
MM: I think imperfection is more prevalent than perfection. I think you could strive for excellence in anything you do, but you’re going to fail constantly if you’re trying to be perfect. To eliminate that shame in the culture is really the healthiest thing you could do. Guilt’s fine, but shame is just so destructive. Shame means your very existence is worthless. Guilt—you do something wrong, you can change it. But shame is, you can’t get out of bed. That’s so bad. I read the same things you do, how the internet has just destroyed young girls’ self-worth.
SB: Social media, too.
MM: Well, that’s what I mean, social media. Boys, too, I’m sure. But I think girls, their appearance is what we think of as the calling card, the first thing you see. Yeah.
SB: There’s an element of slow looking to what you do, and Slow Looking is actually the title of this great book about looking at art, and I was thinking about it in the context of how you have spent decades now looking at, processing, photographing, painting not just sexual imagery, but fashion images, images from women’s magazines. How do you think about all of this looking, this time spent looking, and particularly at these kinds of images?
MM: Well, I get so much pleasure out of looking. I’m a voracious—I’m a vulture when it comes to culture. I can’t get enough. I read all the time, I’m always looking at imagery, and ideas come from this constant search. It’s not like I think of an idea and then I map it out. So, there’s no linear progression. It’s like, Oh, wow. I just get this idea. It’s like a flash. I say, “Oh, I have to make this imagery,” and then that leads to something else, and it’s really something I trust.
When I teach, I talk to my students about when you get those impulses to like, Oh, maybe I should do this… Why not follow it? I see them say to themselves when they’re working, “Oh. Well, let me finish this and then I’ll do it,” and I’m always saying, “No. Let’s just try it. You’re young.”
They don’t know they’re young. It’s like, I didn’t know I was young. You don’t know you’re young. But you have all the time in the world when you’re young. So, I think we should listen to that inner voice more in terms of creativity. Because the creative process is really magical. I don’t know too many artists who don’t trust it. That’s, I guess, in every field, writers, designers—you gotta trust that. When no one else is seeing it, that’s tough.
But it’s not like I could ever… I had no other choices. I’d never even thought of how to conform, and I could always teach. I love teaching. So, I was one of the lucky ones. I had a way to make a living, and I also could do commercial jobs. So, between those two things, I was one of the lucky ones. I’m not starving to death, and I have a good life. I love my life. I have no idea what it would be like to make a lot of money. I wouldn’t mind trying it, though. [Laughs]
SB: Well, I’m sure if you had wanted it to go in different ways, you might have tried to force it, and you certainly are selective with your commercial clients. It’s not like you take on a ton of different—
MM: No, I don’t. I have to turn most things down because it’s not interesting to me. But that’s just pure luck. I have a vision and I have no choice. I have to make it. The zeitgeist usually catches up to me sooner or later. So far. So far.
SB: I love this idea of the zeitgeist catching up.
MM: Well, that’s what determines when you’re going to get attention or not. I always say that you have to make those… Because I think everyone who’s in the creative field has some kind of a gift and you really have to wait for the zeitgeist to find you. If you try and fit into the zeitgeist, you’re so fucked because it moves on so fast. No one’s going to trust you.
SB: Yeah. Of looking, you’ve said that, “I’m trying to make an image of what it feels like to look.” Such a provocative quote. I was hoping you might go a little deeper into that, this idea of what it feels like to look.
MM: That’s the complexity I’m talking about. I think artists mostly want multiple reads. Otherwise, you become an illustrator. Think about the best movies you’ve ever seen, the ones you talk about afterwards. They don’t give it to you on a platter. If they do, then that’s perfectly all right, too, because we need that, too. We need to look at, what is that, SUV?
MM: No, the TV show that does the same thing over and over.
SB: Yeah. SVU.
SB: Law & Order: SVU.
MM: Yeah, yeah.
SB: I actually talked to Roxanne Gay about that on this podcast.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. It’s perfect.
MM: Yeah. She’s one of my portraits. Yeah. I got her side eye. That’s the beauty of Photoshop. I could keep shooting when they’re not paying attention. [Laughter] Yeah. I think that people need video games. They need to be able to check out, not have to think. I think your brain heals or something in those moments. But I’m looking for that moment where there’s more than one read, and I think most artists are.
SB: Yeah. I think this idea of the sort of scripted view, the—
SB: Yeah. Prescribed.
MM: Dictated. You need that sometimes. That’s what sitcoms, and SVU. SVU? Are you sure?
MM: Special Victims Unit. Yeah. You’re right. [Laughs] It’s perfect to watch three of them in a row, then go to bed.
SB: Guilty. I’ve done it.
MM: I get it. Everyone’s guilty of it, whether they admit it or not. If it isn’t that, it’ll be something else. Wordle.
SB: It’s all looking.
SB: Beyond this, I was curious about how you think about slowness in your work, how it’s morphed and changed from one series to the next. I know you were saying you often don’t know where you’re about to go.
MM: That’s true.
SB: But how do you think about this slow evolution? Because it is interesting to see lines from, say, those early pictures of your mother all the way to, let’s say, the new water-fountain sculptures that you do.
MM: Do you see a thread?
MM: Yeah. I’m glad. I’m glad. I’m not being disingenuous when I say this, but my brothers and I look at the photos of my mother and don’t know what you see. For us, that’s just Mom. It was a big shock when I first showed them in ’69, when I was a student. That’s all we knew. That was Mom. That [was] probably coming from dysfunction…
I think art, a lot of it, comes from dysfunction, where you try and put it… I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’m not a sociologist. But I wonder how many artists, in every form—writers—didn’t come from the outside. I wonder if creativity… Does it come from being nurtured and supported your entire life? I wonder. What do you think?
SB: I think it’s really complex.
SB: I think it could be rooted in all sorts of different things.
MM: Yeah. Have you seen that? Somebody who is not an outsider, someone who was totally coddled their entire lives and didn’t have real challenges? Do they make interesting art? Can they still make interesting art?
SB: I’m hard-pressed for an example here.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. I really have been asking this question for a long time. No one says, “Oh, blah, blah.” Yeah. No one could give me a person, although an artist once said to me, “I am that person,” and she might be, because she did not have any dysfunction in her childhood, in her growing-up.
SB: You’ve also worked in video, and particularly slow-motion video.
MM: I still work in video.
SB: Yeah. Particularly, slow-motion video seems to be this fascination of yours. What do you think occurs when an image or a video is slowed down?
SB: James Webb. Yeah.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. Look what happens when you slow it down. There’s just so much more information. I think that’s what I bring to most everything I do: just slow it down. It’s like, okay, I try and make images that you know exist, but you’ve never really seen them. Does that make sense?
MM: Yeah. So, once I make it, [I think], oh, I know that. That’s the truth. That is what truth is. But what is truth? I don’t know either. But there’s a moment when you say, “Oh, I…” Artists I’m interested in make something that I—“Oh, I know that. I’ve never seen it before, but you just made it.” That’s what I’m looking for in my own work.
SB: There’s an eerie familiarity.
MM: And you don’t know where it comes from. It’s just like, oh, you know it somehow, but I just slowed it down. I’m not an intellectual, obviously, but totally, everything I do is intuitive.
SB: On the subject of time, we have to talk about aging.
SB: You recently created this series of pictures for a New York Times magazine article by Maggie Jones titled “The Joys (and Challenges) of Sex After 70.” Tell me about this commission.
MM: Well, I thought this was going to be really interesting because I didn’t know what it was going to look like. It was so interesting in the sense that we had a lot of trouble. She did three years of research, interviewing couples, and all kinds of sexual gender fluidity and nothing prescribed. What she found out was the impulse for sex never goes away and all these people have figured out ways to still have rewarding sex lives.
What I learned was that, number one, people over 70 have never been healthier. Number two, they never had Viagra before. The other thing I learned was that people don’t look old from their neck down to the beginning of their legs, but their hands and their necks and their armpits give away their age, but their butts are incredible, their boobs are incredible… Because we looked for real humans. We weren’t looking for models, and we couldn’t find anybody that would pose. We have two couples that did pose, and one of them is an artist’s parents, and he was an artist himself. So, they were great, they were wonderful. She was 78 and he was 86, and they’re in the magazine also, and another couple. They weren’t perfect. But I could create that intimacy.
Then everybody else were actors, not models, actors, because models were too perfect. But actors, they could act like there was beauty and intimacy and romance. So, that’s what I was looking for. But the shocking thing was is when we were editing, you’re not going to believe it, but everyone said, “Oh, that looks too young. Too young. Too young.” These were people in their late 80s! [Laughs] Because if you’re shooting those areas, I had to make my models push the skin so I could get some wrinkles. Does that make sense?
MM: Yeah. That’s hard to believe, right? That’s another [thing that’s] considered, oh, yeah. This makes sense. It’s also considered contemptible for old people to have sex. Right? It’s another one of those things, taking a biased subject matter, and I guess that’s my specialty. [Laughs]
SB: What’s taboo? Marilyn’s on it.
MM: Yeah. I’m on it. Right. [Laughs] Well, I think with porn, I was taking from an abusive history and trying to create humor and pleasure. So, why not?
SB: Did you ever see the HBO show The Deuce?
MM: Of course. I lived The Deuce. [Laughs]
SB: Yeah. While I was—
MM: Nan [Goldin]’s a friend of mine.
SB: While I was preparing for this interview, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. Marilyn. This is—”
MM: I was there.
MM: I was in Tin Pan Alley. That was the name of the club, of course.
SB: The protagonist of this, who’s a former—
MM: Post-sex feminist.
SB: Yeah. Post-sex feminist, former porn actor turned into a porn director.
MM: Yeah, who had no success whatsoever.
SB: Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
MM: I really feel like that’s what happens to artists. If you look at art history… I read a lot of biographies. You’re lucky if you’re still alive. I talked to Jack Whitten about it. He came up to me once and he poked me with his elbow and said, “Do you believe this is happening to us now?”
You look at his work—it’s shocking how he was not seen. It’s just shocking. I remember in the late eighties, early nineties, I saw David Hammons for the first time. And I thought, Wow. How did I not know about this artist? So, it’s very unusual to have success at 25 and have it last. There’s a handful of artists that have been able to create that kind of career—and more power to ’em. They keep changing and doing interesting things. Cindy [Sherman]’s a perfect example of that. Jeff [Koons] is, too.
SB: You also recently created a series of new portraits featuring subjects who have made impactful shifts in the cultural landscape—maybe some people who are quite like this, who have started young and are still going at it. Gloria Steinem, for one.
MM: Oh, perfect. Yeah. These were my icons.
MM: Painted. Yeah.
SB: Painted Lizzo, Roxanne Gay, Mickalene Thomas, Monica Lewinsky, Glenn Ligon. Tell me about how you selected this group of people and how do you see these particular paintings within the larger context of your work?
MM: Well, it’s a tradition in all of art history to do portraits and I thought, Well, what could I bring to portraits? I did some experiments. They were all people I admire. I started with my art dealer [Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn]. She was the first one. Then I painted Ryan McGinley, who’s one of my BFFs, and I learned how to do it on them.
Then it was just like this learning process. How am I going to make this work? It kept changing. In the middle of working, I saw Impeachment—it’s on Netflix now—and Monica Lewinsky was the producer. I thought, Oh, my God. This woman is so kind and so insightful. She tells the story in Impeachment—well, herself, the story that happened to her. That was a real good example of how we rethink how we treat people. Monica’s a perfect example. She’s 20 years old—maybe she was 22, 21—and here’s Dr. Joyce Brothers on national TV saying, “Can you imagine if your son came home and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to marry Monica Lewinsky?’” Everybody in the audience laughs and—oh, the cruelty of that.
SB: The demonization.
MM: Yeah. Dehumanizing. And she also showed Paula Jones in a really sympathetic light. She showed why Linda Tripp did what she did. She showed Hillary [Clinton] in a beautiful light. I thought this was so generous. I thought, God, this woman is amazing. I thought, I gotta paint her. I met her at a party at Cindy’s once and we talked. She remembered me, and I asked her if she would pose—on Twitter, because I’m a Twitter junkie. She said, “I’d love to,” and boom, it happened, and I made a great picture of her.
So, yeah. I wanted to show her. I had two of them. I made one for almost six months and I was trying to show how she was getting enveloped by the culture—that’s how I was thinking in my head—and how she fought through it and lived. But it looked too trite. So, I redid her whole entire portrait.
So, that’s why it took three years, almost. Yeah. But I think that it’s a privilege because there’s no formula here. Every time I get a new person, I learn something new. Like, okay, maybe I’d love to find a formula for this, but it’s a challenge each time I do a portrait, and it takes over a year, because that’s why—you talk about slow, slowing down. Well, this is called The Slowdown. I put layers and layers of enamel paint so that there’s translucency, so you get some depth and richness that you don’t get—I can’t get—with oil or acrylic. So that’s slowing it down.
SB: I want to go back to… You said you’re a Twitter junkie?
MM: Oh, it’s pathetic. Yeah. Well, at least I’m not an Instagram junkie. [Laughs]
SB: Well, Twitter seems to be the opposite of painting in a way because it’s so fast and so quick.
MM: Well, I learned right away, if you want to know what’s going on, get on Twitter. I also learned the distortion that happens with Twitter, and I really think he’s fucked it up so bad.
MM: I’m still there, though. I don’t know. I wanted to see what’s going to happen, watching it to the end. [Laughs]
SB: I was thinking, on the subject of your portraits, of the ones you did of Pamela Anderson as well for Parkett, the art magazine, in 2007.
MM: I knew right away, this is a beautiful human being. Why is she treated like this? Well, I’m an animal rights person myself, and I saw that she was this popular pin-up. That’s how she made a living. This is the difference between her and Anna Nicole Smith or Marilyn Monroe. There was always some kind of Svengali involved and Pamela would say—well, first of all, she was an animal rights person, way before it was a trendy thing at all, and that’s what really touched me.
I thought, Wow, this is a really empathetic person. Her and Dan [Matthews]… I forgot his last name, PETA guy. You know who it is? Dan? Anyway, they would picket Kentucky Fried Chicken and I thought, Wow, this is so cool. And Parkett asked me to be in their issue, and I said, “Can I make a centerfold of Pamela Anderson?”
They didn’t know what a centerfold was. It’s this intellectual Swiss magazine. This was when we only had fax machines. So, I drew out a centerfold to show them, and they said, “Sure,” and they put her on the cover. Yeah. I took all her makeup off and cut her bangs and I showed how innocent she… I don’t know. I was trying to show the sympathetic intelligent person [she was]. I spent two days with her. I saw right away she was not the projection that the culture had made of her.
SB: Similar to your work, even right around that time, that’s shortly after you had a big solo show at SFMOMA and you were in the Whitney Biennial. I feel like at that time in the culture, maybe people were coming around both to your work and to the real Pam at the same time.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think they did with her. I think people started to see me then. But it’s taken until now to see Pam.
SB: Yeah. And recently, I think.
MM: Yeah. And recently. Yeah. That second-guessing—I’m always saying we have to be able to tolerate complexity.
SB: Yeah. Deep looking, slow looking. Look again.
MM: Deep looking. Slow looking. Well, you call this The Slowdown. There’s a reason for that.
SB: Yeah. There seems to be to your work—you’ve called it the “pathology of glamour.”
MM: I didn’t call it that.
SB: Oh. Well, somebody quoted you as saying that.
MM: Yeah, because I am not—I make what I make and a writer strings these words together and I just rip them off. Holland Cotter said that. I thought, Wow, that’s really good. I’m gonna use it.
SB: But others have since used “debased glamour,” “soiled glamour.”
MM: Yeah. Let them. That’s fine. It’s better than anything I could say. I don’t know how to write. I’m dyslexic, I can’t spell—all of these things. I don’t think of myself as articulate at all. So, I’m just going to take writers’ words and then I sound really smart.
SB: How do you take this glamour idea, and… Maybe to just phrase it into a question, how do you think about the phrase “soiled glamour,” let’s say, or “debased glamour”?
MM: That’s what they say. Yeah. I never think of anything as “soiled” or “debased.” I think of it as what it is, what it looks like. It’s like, I’ve photographed these models that are the most famous models in the world. They only look like that for three seconds or a second or half a second. You start sweating. [Laughs] Those clothes are pinned. It doesn’t exist.
So, those are other people’s words. But it’s easier for me to just say, “Okay, fine. Fine. I don’t care. Yeah. I’m not going to argue.” People need to be able to put everyone in—and I think I do, too—you need to put people in categories. It’s easier. I’m always trying to break down the category in the work I make, but I don’t really do it very well when I’m speaking.
SB: Yeah, I was excited about this interview because I felt like I have no idea what direction this might take, and I mean that as a compliment, a really good thing, because—
MM: Well, neither did I, and I never prepare anything—for anything.
SB: Your work is very much that. It is this idea, I view, as seeing an artist in the act of living in their imagination and just wondering, where is it going to go next?
MM: I would never call what I do “soiled glamour.” Never.
SB: Tell me about your new multimedia fountain sculptures, because that is what’s next. They’re functional, but also have this idea of the infinity fountain at play.
MM: Well, they’re actual drinking fountains. I work with Alissa Friedman at LGDR, and she saw a video I made that was put into car windows. I did this for Larry Warsh, who commissions artists to do something with cars. It was like, making out in cars, like how people made out in the fifties and sixties and seventies and, I don’t know, maybe now, too. She said, “Why don’t you make another sculpture?”
I thought, Wow, that’s not a bad idea. So, I have a team that I’ve worked with for—I don’t know, well, one person, Johan Olander, since 1992, and then ’97, strictly from then. He’s like my brother at this point. Then this young guy that I’ve also worked with, Matt Stone, who was one of my students. He had better facility with materials than anyone I’d ever seen, and I was smart enough to hire him. So we were working together for fifteen years.
I said, “Okay, let’s make something. Let’s make another sculpture.” I said, “Well, I work with water so much. Why don’t I make a drinking fountain where you could turn it on and you press the—they call it a bubbler—and the image comes out in the water?” They said, “That’s not going to work. You have to project it from somewhere outside.”
So then we just started playing with it and it came out [as], well, why don’t we make [it so that] when you go in to get a drink, the image is facing you? Then we shot the video and then we started playing. Took us a year to come up with it, but it’s a highly functional, very glamorous drinking fountain with sound. And it’s functional.
I have two different kinds. One, you could plumb. So if an institution wants it, you can put it in with just a regular drinking fountain. Then the other one is self-contained, and the self-contained one carries three-and-a-half gallons, so you don’t have to put water in it. You could put wine in it, or vodka. [Laughter]
SB: Then you’re having a party.
MM: Then you’re having a party.
SB: There’s the motif of the mouth in so much of your work. What were you thinking of in this particular case? Basically, as a visitor or somebody experiencing this artwork there, they could be drinking from the water fountain while also looking at these mouths right back at them.
MM: Have you seen it yet?
SB: Not in person.
MM: Both of the people that are on it work for me—I have a trans artist that was one of them—a trans woman—and I have another trans woman who’s an activist. I wanted to get all different bodies and shapes. Then I have a model I work with all the time because I just love her face. Then I have two of my assistants, and we just played with candy and licking up candy. There were a lot of really disgusting things when some of the colors would mix together. But we looked for… I don’t know. I looked for, I don’t know, what would look good. Even shoving pearls into your mouth and letting them fall out again. It just looked so good. So I made a five-minute video called “Thirsty.” So, that’s what you watch. But it’s on a loop. So, it goes constantly.
SB: How did you decide upon the drinking fountain?
MM: Well, I grew up with them, and I joke around, saying it looks like a drinking fountain I drank out of at Treasure Island Elementary School. I just wanted that. Not everybody wants that aluminum casing. Some people want gold, or chrome. So, well, they can have them [laughs], because I made six of them with aluminum and then another six could be whatever the collector wants. Then we started playing with it more and more and then I started working with an infinity fountain and it’s Corian. The face of it was milled and it got delivered this morning, and I’ve seen it for the first time this morning, and this afternoon when I get back, I’ll see how it looks when it’s all put together.
SB: I was thinking, when I was researching for this, the only water fountain reference I could find was in relation to some of your early activism, which had to do with growing up in the South during Civil Rights.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s when it started. Yeah. Oh, because I would go drink at the colored drinking fountains. Oh, that’s so interesting. I never thought of that. Yeah. Well, it just seemed so unfair. I can’t stand injustice. I started getting in trouble at 16.
SB: Well, I did want to get into your childhood, which is, like your work, incredibly complex. [Laughs]
MM: That’s true. Yeah. I always think of my childhood or the past as life lessons, not a life sentence. I like to think of it like that. I’ve had a pretty good life for the second half of my life. First half sucked. [Laughs]
SB: I love this idea of the first fifty and the second fifty.
MM: That’s really sort of how it worked. I actually say the first thirty-five, thirty-eight was pretty bad. Then I went to rehab, and it’s been pretty good ever since.
SB: Tell me a bit about your mother. I know you’ve spoken about her quite a bit, a lot of it in relation to the “Coral Ridge Towers” pictures, but also the fact that she was, like your father, anti-Semitic, racist, sexist—certainly not a feminist.
MM: Oh, god, no. No. I think if you’re born in my generation in this country, you’re automatically racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Jew, and you just don’t act on it. That’s my theory. That’s how I felt all my life. You gotta act like you’re not, even though that might be your impulse. I’m not going to say I’m pure, but I sure work like hell, as hard as I can, towards justice.
SB: And your mother—
MM: My brothers, also, both of them are leftists in the Deep South, except they were very successful.
SB: Were they… What was it like navigating this, let’s say—
MM: Horrible childhood? [Laughs] I just blocked it out because I got high all the time. We’re genetically loaded in my family. Soon as I picked up drugs, that’s how I got through everything.
SB: When did art-making come into the picture?
MM: Oh, by the time I was 5. Yeah. I didn’t know I could draw and I was drawing with my friends and my drawings were so much better than theirs, and I was stunned I could do something better than other people. Yeah. Then I made everybody teach me how to draw what they knew how. But I was living in a cultural desert, so it wasn’t like I went to a museum, or—I didn’t even see snow until I was 21.
SB: Right. You were drawing comic strips?
MM: Yeah. I learned from the comics because there was nobody to teach art anywhere around me.
SB: I read it was also as a Girl Scout.
MM: I was drawing [while in] Brownies, yeah. That was the moment I saw I could do something that other people couldn’t do. Yeah. Then I got better at it. Then I self-taught. Then if I was drawing, I could escape anything. So, I would read books and draw all the time until I started getting high. All three of those things. I sort of didn’t even look at my childhood until I was in my forties, honestly. It catches up to you.
SB: These photographs of your mother, I imagine not all of the people listening to this will know of them, so I was hoping we might be able to get into it a little bit. And I think a really fascinating aspect to this work is [that] you made these pictures, you showed them to your University of Florida class—your junior year—and the students were repulsed.
MM: Well, they were shocked.
MM: Yeah. They weren’t used to seeing mothers that looked like that. Their mothers might have looked a little more… But I grew up in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Miami Beach, it was like going to Vegas. People went there to escape in the fifties and the sixties.
But I was in a conservative school where they came from Pensacola, Florida, or, I don’t know, Tampa, and they didn’t see high-end drug addiction. If you saw drug addiction, it was like Jim Goldberg, the needle hanging out of your arm, and my mother was a high-end addict. It was pharmaceuticals. So it didn’t even occur to me that she looked different. I know, no one believes that. But my brothers and I don’t know what you’re talking about. We just see Mom, and I didn’t think it was even unusual.
SB: There’s something to these pictures that seems like you’re bringing an empathic eye. To me, looking at these images, I don’t sense that this is a daughter being like, “I’m going to show how…”
MM: Not at all. Because that’s how my mother was, in a nightgown all day long, or a negligee. She was a high-end addiction, remember. She smoked with, what are they called, cigarette holders [laughs] and had marble tables. Yeah. That was just Mom in the living room. I just took a picture for the week and didn’t think anything of it.
SB: There’s this one image of her standing looking in the mirror with a wig on, and the eyes are so striking, the look in her eyes.
MM: Yeah. That’s just Mom. Yeah. Everyone says, “Oh, she was agoraphobic.” She was not that. She was just high all the time, and if she did anything, she had to go to bed—for days. So, I drove her car to high school, and I was a wild kid. I was a rotten kid to have if you had a drug addict mother. Believe me.
SB: So, you show these pictures to your class and then for twenty-six years, you don’t show them again. It was actually [for] a presentation at the Drawing Center in 1992 that you brought them back out again, and this was at a kind of crucial moment in your career. I was wondering if you might—
MM: Well, that’s so interesting. Well, it’s interesting to me, of course. I don’t know if it’s interesting to your listeners, but I was excoriated from the work I was doing with pro-sex feminist porn. But I wasn’t going to stop doing it. I was in that place. But when Linda Yablonsky was doing a reading, she said, “Can you design a set for me at the Drawing Center?” I said, “Well, there’s drawings up. They don’t want you to take the drawings down.” So, I thought, Well, I have these photos from the sixties. I could blow them up really big and hang them over the drawings in the Drawing Center so you don’t have to take anything down and I’ll just pin them to the wall, and that’s what I did.People loved them. It was like, I hadn’t seen any praise in a long time; I was just called a traitor to feminism. I thought, Wow. Then I realized what happened. In hindsight, it was, Oh, she comes from dysfunction; she must be a serious artist. So, I was let back in. They were surprised. I think it was Kim Levin who wrote in The New Yorker, “Surprisingly, these new photos are amazing.” Something like that. Surprise, surprise. [Laughs]
SB: I also wanted to mention the Diane Arbus connection, that she had visited your class at the University of Florida.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. She was visiting. It was a very romantic school, but it was a really good technical school. I learned how to print, where you print two or three negatives on one piece of paper, and he was an expert at that. Jerry Uelsmann was very romantic, with a seashells in the sky kind of thing and everybody was really good at this multiple negative printing.
She hated everything, and I didn’t know her. I didn’t talk to her. I was a lowly junior. But I walked by, and Jerry said, “Marilyn, go get your negatives and show Diane.” So, I showed her my proof sheets and she loved them. She said, “Oh, these are interesting.”
SB: The photos of your mother.
MM: Yeah. Photos of my mother. I thought nothing of it. She was just so remarkable looking. Oh, yeah. I was trying to… Because she was in a silver miniskirt. We were all hippies, you know. She had on silver sandals and she was really hot, with big boobs and no bra. I thought, how does she go in a 7-Eleven? She just was like—I’m in awe. Who is this?
MM: But I didn’t know who she was. So, then I went up north and I got into Syracuse University and I saw in Life magazine that she committed suicide and then they showed the pictures. Then I put two and two together, because they didn’t tell me. I was a lowly junior. I wasn’t allowed to talk to the visiting artists. They were only for the grad students and the seniors. Yeah.
SB: Tell me about this journey, Syracuse to New York. In 1975, you had a show at the Everson Museum of Art at Syracuse.
MM: Yeah. Right out of school. Yeah.
SB: Most M.F.A.s now are like, “Oh, yeah. I deserve a Chelsea show,” right out of school.
MM: I had a museum show.
SB: But you actually got that.
SB: That actually happened.
MM: It’s pretty amazing. Yeah. This director of the Everson, his name is James Harithas—actually, he just died. He showed Yoko Ono, too. I worked on that show, too. I saw John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I was a grad student working for the show. He’s the first person that showed Joan Mitchell. He was this real radical.
He also had this program where I taught in a prison. I taught in Jamesville [Correctional Facility]. I taught arts to the inmates and he took teachers and artists to Attica. He hired some of the prisoners to be guards afterwards. He was a pretty radical guy; he just died. And he saw my work. So I started working at the museum, and I showed him my work and he gave me a show. It really fucked up the faculty. [Laughs] One of the teachers came in—someone told me this—he grabbed his balls and said, “This work has no balls.”
SB: Was this the… Which work was it?
MM: It was a bunch of stuff. It was big paintings of things on the floor. Toys—
SB: Mm-hmm. The linoleum.
MM: —underwear. Some of it was linoleum, some of it was wooden floors. I had no idea who Sylvia Mangold was. Yeah. She was doing that, too, but she was in New York City, and yeah. They’re not terrible, even now, if I pull them out. But I was right out of grad school. It was the stuff I made right out of grad school. Then I taught in an elementary school, K through 6, and then I saved money and I came here.
SB: Yeah, and it was in New York, you started working with Kenneth Snelson, the sculptor.
MM: Worked with Kenneth Snelson, yeah. Because I knew how to solder. Because I worked for my plumber. Yeah. When I first got here, it was all these people, it was SoHo, the early days—well, it wasn’t really early. They’d been there before me. But my plumber went to Sarah Lawrence in literature and my electrician was from Wharton Business School, and they hired me to solder because I knew how to work with wood. I knew how to build stretchers and they’d never seen a girl working on a table saw. They were shocked that I knew how to use that. So then they asked me if I wanted to work with them, and I said, “This is cool. Yeah.” I loved it. So, we worked in all these buildings installing plumbing and he would make a blue line and say, “T,” “Union,” and I just followed the blue line and the red line.
SB: That’s good.
MM: Then Kenneth Snelson saw that I could not solder because a friend of his soldered… We did a plumbing job and he said, “Oh, he’s looking for someone who knows how to solder.” So, he hired me and then I went from that to teaching.
SB: You had another art collaboration, in the eighties, that I wanted to bring up. Christof Kohlhöfer, an artist I wasn’t familiar with before this. But I found how you worked together really fascinating. So, Kohlhöfer was a German artist who had worked with Sigmar Polke. And you learned a lot of technique from him, but it doesn’t sound like it was the easiest process. You were basically painting over each other.
MM: Each other. Yeah. I didn’t know what he was going to do and he didn’t know what I was going to do. But we made these really good paintings. It makes me sad that no one ever wants to see them.
SB: Yeah. I noticed in one of them, there’s actually, it looks like a pocket watch and a group of people wearing 3-D glasses.
MM: I painted all of that and he covered it all up. [Laughs] He covered it up with the 3-D glass piece. Yeah. But I think we made some really good paintings. But when the collaboration split up is when I started having a solo career.
But when I worked with Christof, he was a really well-known artist. Barbara Gladstone wanted to show him. He did a show at Max Protetch, and he worked with Polke all the time, but I think they had a falling out, and came here and he was the art director for the East Village Eye. It would be like the Village Voice of today.
SB: During this time, from what I understand, drugs were also—
MM: Oh, yeah. Big time.
SB: And it was in 1985 that you—
MM: I went to rehab. He didn’t. That’s why we split up.
SB: And you’ve been sober since?
MM: Yeah. Yeah.
SB: Early nineties. This is one that’s been talked about quite a bit, but I have to bring up because I decided to watch it in preparation of this. You purchased airtime—
MM: Yeah. thirty seconds.
SB: —per thirty seconds.
MM: That was what happened. Yeah. No, I wanted to be the first artist that advertised on TV an art show, because I saw people were advertising on NPR. I don’t know what I was trying to do, but I knew sooner or later people were going to make TV commercials to advertise a commercial show, and I wanted to be the first one. That was really my goal. So, I made these “Food Porn” paintings, and I traded—I had no money, so I traded the paintings for production. The director used to be an MTV director. MTV was everything back then, and he worked on Decade. So, everybody I worked with were MTV people, like Tomandandy did the sound. They came over and recorded the sound of the projectors being on, and I paid everybody off with those “Food Porn” paintings. [Laughs] The art world didn’t know what to make of it.
SB: Yeah. There is this line between quite literally commercialism and then what we define as “high art” or something.
MM: Well, we didn’t have the internet, so people did watch Letterman every night. All my friends did, and people watched Nightline and we watched these late-night shows—at least the artists did. Or the people I knew did. Twin Peaks was on. I would’ve loved to have my commercial during Twin Peaks. But I could only afford thirty seconds on Late Night, which was really cheap. Back in those days, that art format was five thousand dollars. So I got sixteen thousand dollars, and I said, “No ads in any of the art magazines. Let me make this TV commercial.” Then we sent a postcard out to, like, three thousand people, saying, “Watch LL Cool J on Letterman,” and that was the first time LL Cool J had been on Letterman and that was when my commercial came on.
SB: Incredible. [Laughter]
MM: But if you see it now— I made it so that you wouldn’t know what the fuck it was. If you see it now, you go, “What was that?!” Really. That’s what I wanted. It wasn’t buy one, get one free, which is what people expected it to be. It’s very obtuse.
SB: Then, in the mid-nineties, you sort of shift from sex to fashion, obviously still focusing on sex—in so many ways, fashion is sex. But could you talk about this, how the gaze went in that direction, and how you think about this work that happened in the late nineties, the 2000s? Where was your eye turning? Where was the interest going for you?
MM: Well, I always was working. I was thinking what it looked like, well, what do guys look like in lingerie? Things like that, because you didn’t see pictures of that, ever. I thought, Oh, this’ll be interesting. Hairy armpits, hairy chests in lingerie. Or I was just slowing it down, like what you were talking about. What does it look like to the hairs under your nose? If you feel them, they’re so soft. Not you, but women. So, I painted every one of those hairs. Or what it looks like when you pull your socks down and then there are lines in your legs, things like that. I was interested in just slowing it down. But I never have left working with sexual imagery because I think it’s absolutely fascinating subject matter.
SB: Yeah. Yeah. It was through Neville Wakefield that you—
MM: Yeah. Playboy.
MM: Thank God. Playboy paid for every one of those photo shoots, and then they hated it. We had all races, all colors. Did you know pubic hair, if you’re Asian, is straight? See, little things like that, nobody knew. They’re great shoots. They’ve got all the lingerie, everything, and they just wanted no part of it once… Yeah. They were trying to get Neville to—he was really trying to make a fifties Playboy, which were actually progressive magazines back in those days. I know it’s hard to believe. Or sixties Playboy.
I have an issue that has… Oh, who does it have? It has James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, and Picasso. [Laughs] It was the radical left magazine, believe it or not, and the interviews [were] where people could get in a lot of trouble. He was trying to turn Playboy into that magazine. Then when feminism came along, I think Playboy lost their minds. But they were the anti–Vietnam War magazine. They were pro–Civil Rights, and they didn’t know what to do with feminism, so it fucked them.
I saw how pornography had changed, so I thought, Well, let’s just show… These young girls that I teach, they were lasering their pubic hair. I thought, God, that lasts forever. I just wanted to show pictures of beautiful pubic hair and maybe I could bring it back, bring back the bush. [Laughs] But I don’t think it’s happening. I still make these paintings and I love them. No one buys them. But I don’t care.
SB: They are, from far away—
MM: They’re really abstract.
SB: —quite abstract.
MM: Yeah. I figured, everyone tries to buy them, and then they find out what it is. Or people say, “Oh, I really love this. What is it?” Well, here’s what happened once. This is funny. A chairman of the board of a major museum was at a fair with me and he said, “Oh, I love this painting. I’m going to buy this painting.” I said, “Oh, I’m so impressed!” [Laughs] I said, “Really, I’m so thrilled—everyone’s afraid of these paintings.” He said, “What are you talking about?” “Well, the pubic hair,” and that was the end of the sale. True story. Jeanne said, “Why’d you tell him?” [Laughs] Somebody’s going to find out sooner or later.
MM: She was mad at me.
SB: Yeah. Well, you’ve been painting all sorts of different body parts. It’s just another body part.
MM: Yeah. No. Really, and I made [it look] so good. I don’t think I’m creating a fashion trend, though. It started off [like] maybe that was happening. I don’t know.
SB: I wanted to end on your activism work, and in particular, the work you’ve done with Planned Parenthood, which you’ve been involved with for a very long time now.
MM: Very long time, yeah.
SB: Tell me about this app that you just created.
MM: Oh, thanks for asking. Yeah. I made an app with ADLAR and it just debuted. It’s a filter, and it has, working with steam—where I did a whole bunch of paintings, things behind steam and videos and people writing. So, they’re writing things like “My body, my choice,” [and] “Abortion rights is health care,” and then one’s a heart. Just a heart.
But eventually, it shows you. It’s a selfie; you take a selfie. It’s an app where you take a selfie and then you pick one of those three images, and then those words come [up as] writing, and then it melts like steam would, and then it’s used.
It’s only $2.99 and all the profits go to Planned Parenthood. Nobody worked for money. We just all volunteered—ADLAR too. So, it’s a way to raise some money for Planned Parenthood. So, all you listeners, go to ADLAR AR and download this app. $2.99.
SB: What do you think of this time spent with Planned Parenthood? What have you learned in all of your showing up, let’s say?
MM: Well, what I learned was—I saw this coming for so long and I was so shocked that nobody else was, because I was around in 1973 and I saw Roe v. Wade become the law. Then, listening to NPR—I listen to podcasts all the time—and I saw the TRAP laws happening. I saw them limiting abortion in all these different places. I saw them getting closer and closer. What shocks me is that nobody else saw this. It really is stunning.
So when the Dobbs decision happened, it didn’t surprise me, and it didn’t surprise Planned Parenthood, either. But I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I didn’t know that was going to happen. It woke people up. I think the right is… Honestly, I’ve been around a long time. They just fucked themselves [laughs] with that one.
SB: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask, have there been other interactions with activists or others that have surprised you in your time with Planned Parenthood? Meaning, has your mind shifted about how people view issues related to Planned Parenthood?
MM: Well, I saw that before the Dobbs decision, a lot of celebrities wouldn’t support us. Miley Cyrus was not one of them. And Lizzo’s been one. I saw that they were afraid. I understand it. They were afraid that if they supported Planned Parenthood, that the right would boycott their movies. So that was a kind of surprise. But I think when it was a law, everybody was complacent. I don’t know. I guess it’s always two steps forward, one step back. So, we’re taking this step back. But, I don’t know—Gloria Steinem says all the time that she’s a hope-aholic. I can see the momentum finally building in terms of justice, and on every level. Although, there’s a real last gasp of the patriarchy happening right now, and I think it’s the last gasp.
I’m so in love with these millennials and Generation Z. When I was growing up, the left was twenty percent of the population, even though everyone thinks, Oh, the sixties were when everyone was so radical. Uh-uh. Eighty percent were pro–Vietnam War and twenty percent were anti–Vietnam War. Now, I see from just the studies that it’s eighty percent are left and twenty percent are on the right in this new generation. So, it’s just the last gasp. That’s how I see it.
SB: Tide’s turning.
MM: Yeah. Tide is turning.
SB: The zeitgeist.
MM: You can’t stop it. Yeah. You can’t stop it. You’re never going to put that genie back in the bottle. This is human beings, and now we have language. We never had language before. So that’s my thinking. It’s, like, positive. [Laughs]
SB: To finish, what is next for you? Where do you see the tide turning in the world of Marilyn Minter?
MM: Oh, really, I don’t have a clue. I’m thinking, I have a show coming up. I did the best work I could possibly make. I have no control of it now. I’ve always known that you really have no control. Once the work goes into a gallery or a museum, then it’s another animal. So, we’ll see, right? I’m just as curious as you are. I’m putting my children out, throwing them out of the house.
SB: Marilyn, thank you. This was a pleasure.
MM: Thank you, Spencer.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 4, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo.