Marilyn On Top: Artist and Floridian Marilyn Minter Opens Up
The famed artist and activist on growing up in the Sunshine State, sexual agency and sunlight as disinfectant.
No sooner am I allowed inside Marilyn Minter’s Manhattan studio than she remarks on my freckles, saying, “No wonder you like my work.” The artist is known for making visible what is typically airbrushed: sweat, pimples, body hair—or what is often thought private: addiction, sex. She’s also renowned for honoring what’s regarded by patriarchal standards as unimportant: housework, fashion, glamour. Freckles are a favorite subject. As sunlight draws melanin to the skin’s surface (skin and surfaces are Minter’s fascinations), so are disgust and desire brought to the forefront and made to commingle in Minter’s work, which for the last five decades has broken down cultural barriers for women by querying society’s contradictory attitudes toward the feminine body.
Clad in all black, with black-rimmed glasses and icy-blue eyes, Minter is warm, if slightly distracted, as she leads me into her spacious second-floor workroom. Behind her, facing the white walls, assistants are making final strokes with their fingers on three paintings going to Art Basel—Minter’s collaboration with her assistants has been described by one of them in The New York Times as “the closest thing there is to a Renaissance workshop.” The paintings are enormous, photorealistic enamel-on-metal depictions of women bathing behind steamed-up panes of glass simulating showers. “Have you ever noticed that art history has a lot of women grooming themselves?” Minter says. “All throughout history, this is a way to present women to the male gaze. I just thought, ‘How can I do it in a way that is empowering?’”
Her models have character; they’re not the kind of girls you see in Pantene commercials. They’re mixed-race, full-bodied, with tattoos, pubic hair and piercings. During our conversation, Minter gestures at a redhead in one of the paintings, to whom her studio manager is busy adding armpit hair. “She just looked too pretty, so I thought I’d make her more real,” she says. “You go to Brooklyn now, and all the girls have long armpit hair.”
I ask her if the humidity frequently depicted in her work has anything to do with her Florida upbringing.
“I wonder about that too,” she says. “I’m a sweater. I used to make everything wet.”
I note her signature use of condensation on glass.
“There’s condensation in Florida because everything is air-conditioned,” she says. “I thought everything looked better a little wet. Sweaty. And now I think everything looks better if”—she deploys another aquatic term—“there’s some kind of filter.”
She invites me to sit at a long folding table. Stacks of books and papers rest at either end. I ask her how she felt about her own freckles as a child coming of age in South Florida with what she terms “cheap Irish skin.”
“I just hated mine,” she says, apologizing for having to multitask while we talk. She begins rummaging through files. Along with Art Basel preparations, she is gathering reference images from her paintings for a monograph that publishers Paul Schiek and Lester Rosso are compiling for the art press TBW Books.
Her paintings begin as photographs, which she shoots in the 2,500-square-foot SoHo loft she’s rented for a thousand dollars a month since she moved to New York in the 1970s—a rent-controlled rate that is shocking to anyone with a cursory knowledge of real estate in that neighborhood. “The landlord would love to get rid of me,” she laughs. “He’s got a camera aimed at my front door.”
After the initial shoots, she picks a photo to be painted, and moves it through dozens of stages of digital manipulation as the painting progresses. The final touches do not appear in any of the reference images, only on the enamel.
She spreads images out on the table. Among them is the photograph she used for Blue Poles, a close-up of the freckled bridge of a woman’s nose, caked on either side with glittery teal eye shadow, finished with a whitehead above the left eyebrow. “You’ve seen freckles now in the culture, but they were nowhere when I was growing up,” she says.
“I was a skinny, freckled rail. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s born without feeling that there’s something wrong with them, though. They might not admit it, or might even lie to themselves, or not know it, but everyone feels like they’re different.”
Later, doing commercial work, Minter discovered that freckled models looked fresh because people had never seen them before.
“Then other people started using them too.” She smiles mischievously.
A REALLY BAD GIRL
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Minter moved with her family to Miami Beach around the time she entered elementary school. Louisiana was conservative, too straight-laced for her parents, who were beautiful like movie stars and wanted to live like them. Minter says they liked to drink, do drugs and party. Though her dad had a job in Louisiana working for Caterpillar, he preferred to make money gambling, and once he moved to Florida, he never had a proper job again, Minter recalls. “He was a scratch golfer, a high-end hustler, a semi-gangster. In Florida, you could get away with anything,” she says. “People went there to escape. In the ’60s, it was the land of
Minter and her two older brothers ran wild. “We were riding our bikes all over the place. We ran in packs, barefoot.” It was hot, but they lived on Biscayne Bay, so there was a breeze. Everything was across a causeway. “You walked across bridges to get everywhere.”
She remembers walking to the drug store for a cherry Coke. This was during the Jim Crow era, when black people were not allowed to sit at the fountain counters. But even as a child, Minter knew racism was wrong. She insisted on using the “colored” drinking fountain. “I was pissed off that there even was one,” she says. “I saw a guy go to a counter to get a grilled cheese sandwich, and he couldn’t even sit down. He had to stand up to get it.” She invited him to sit and ordered it for him. As she says now, she’s always been an activist.
She recalls that her father was a womanizer. Shortly after the family moved to Florida, when Minter was 8, he joined up with one of his wife’s friends, and Minter’s mother had a nervous breakdown. They divorced, and she became a drug addict. Her father moved in with the friend. “My mother got a little crazier all the time,” Minter says. In her 40s, she felt she had been discarded. She had never had a career and had no money or training to fall back on. She didn’t even believe women should work. “I’d seen my mother being this Southern belle, depending on a man to take care of her. I did the exact opposite. I was always going to take care of myself, and I always have.”
Minter’s relationship with her father grew distant due to her mother’s resentment and obsession with getting money from him. One of her brothers had moved in with him. When Minter was about 11, her mother moved the remaining two kids to Fort Lauderdale. They lived in an isolated co-op, the first one on the otherwise virgin Galt Ocean Mile. The first four floors of the building were a luxury hotel; the upper 10 floors were condos. Minter’s friends lived a mile in either direction. No one she went to school with lived in her building. Within a few months, her brother graduated high school and went to college.
Minter was left alone with her mother, who spiraled deeper into her addiction. She talked about Minter’s father incessantly and began compulsively pulling out her hair. “It was so frustrating to just get my basic needs met,” Minter says. “She couldn’t pull it together.” That year, at the age of 12, Minter taught herself how to drive. “I was hungry,” she says.
“No one took any care of me. People made fun of me because I was dirty. I was an open wound.”
By the time she reached Pompano Beach High School, she was what she calls a “really bad girl.” She got in trouble all the time for confronting her teachers for their racism. People bullied her for her beliefs.
“I was at the dean’s office every week,” she says. When she did see her father, he always had a girlfriend with him. “I grew up with my dad dating girls that were 18 when I was 16. There’s this old man, and then these really beautiful young girls. It was very distorting.”
Her desperation to leave home reached a fever pitch near the end of high school. She began making money from her brother’s friends, drawing reproductions of Vargas pinup girls. Then she figured out how to backdate driver’s licenses, turning eights into threes, for instance. She went to jail for that. She had her driver’s license taken away for speeding three times before she was 21.
“I was high,” she says. At 17, she escaped home to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville. She first majored in art—she’d begun drawing when she was 5: “I was drawing since I could breathe, practically”—then photography, drawing with light. Exposure.
When Minter finally left Florida, it was with her first husband, a Vietnam veteran and fellow anti-war activist whom she’d met as an undergraduate. She’d enrolled in the graduate program at Syracuse University, where she’d study for two years before teaching school to save for her move to New York City, a “liberal bubble” where she’s lived ever since. The couple drove up from Florida in a 1950s Jaguar they’d restored in a garage. “We almost died from the exhaust,” she said. “We had to drive with the windows open.” Before Syracuse, she had never gone to school with many black students—even after integration, there had been barely a hundred black students in the entire student body during her time at the University of Florida. All of a sudden, at Syracuse, she was surrounded by a mix of people. It was what she’d been looking for her whole life. “I felt normal,” she said. “I didn’t feel normal ever in Florida.”
I HATE THE SOUTH
A few weeks later, Minter invites me to a panel titled The Art of Sexuality, a part of Playboy’s New York City “Playhouse” pop-up. The weekend gathering brings the magazine’s Gender & Sexuality issue to life with events like an educational talk by Playboy Advisor Dr. Chris, a build-your-own-vibrator workshop and an erotic coloring session. The panel is being held in a basement room furnished with furry, padded stairs the color of labia minora, atop which are splayed listeners of all ages, colors and genders. Jerry Saltz, Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic for New York Magazine, moderates. Minter is joined by the African American artist Xaviera Simmons and artist and model Natalie White, who has appeared in Playboy numerous times.
“There are no politically correct fantasies,” Minter says. “Sexuality is not politically correct, ever. I think it’s very frightening for people. It’s very frightening for women to own sexual agency.” She tells the story of being “kicked out of the art world” in 1989 for her series of paintings depicting hardcore porn stills. “Excoriating press,” she says of the public reaction to the series. “I got dropped from shows, and my gallery had to close the show a week early.”About the series of porn images that earned her such scorn, she says that she was curious whether creating the images as a woman would change their meaning. “I was ahead of the time in the sense that I was convinced women should have images for their own pleasure and their own amusement. Women should own the production of sexual imagery. That was unheard of. I was considered a traitor to feminism.”
What masks the truth? What prevents us from seeing it? What do we use to distort the truth, or hide it? How do we create, destroy or expose it? What is an exposure? “Sunlight is a disinfectant,” Minter says, paraphrasing the late Louis Brandeis, a former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who was known for breaking up monopolies, fighting for workers’ rights and defending civil liberties. When we share information, celebrate difference and reject the shaming effects of a political system that exacts control through the repression of the truth, we build community. We strengthen our society. We are collectively healthier and happier.
Even today, 30 years later, Minter sees young women like Miley Cyrus, with whom she’s collaborated as an activist, trying to work with sexuality and getting slut-shamed by men and women. “It just makes no sense to me that women can turn on each other so easily,” she says. We need to be mindful of why we criticize, because “equality is not a pie”: we don’t need to compete for it. Everyone can have it. Even Minter’s mother turned on her at one point. “I have letters from my mother that are about what a loser I was,” she tells me, for trying to make it as an artist.
In a strange way, though, it was Minter’s mother who saved her career after the hardcore porn upended it. The story goes like this: Minter was an undergraduate at the University of Florida. The legendary photographer Diane Arbus visited the school. She hated everything she saw by the graduate students, romantic pictures of seashells in the sky and such. Minter, a lowly undergraduate, happened to walk past the room. “You’re going to like this,” Minter’s teacher said to Arbus, ushering Minter inside. In her hands, Minter held a contact sheet of photos she’d taken of her mother, smoking and grooming herself, at home in her nightgown, a lens into Minter’s dark childhood. Arbus loved them. Other students were horrified—they had never seen addiction depicted so honestly. Ashamed, Minter ultimately stuck the film in a drawer for 25 years.
“I didn’t even think about it at the time [the photos were taken],” she told me. “I just said, ‘Hey Mom, will you pose for me?’ I had nothing else to shoot. Nobody sees their mother as unusual. She was all I knew. But when I showed the pictures in 1995, it was, ‘Wait a minute, [Minter] must be a serious artist because she comes from dysfunction.’ So, she was a horrible mother, but she really helped my career.” She laughs. “I always think, you know, she made up for it.”
At the end of the panel, someone asks if any of the artists had reservations about being at an event hosted by Playboy. “Not at all,” says Minter. “I read two issues before tonight, and I thought, ‘This is like the Playboy when I was a kid.’” She describes an issue from the 1960s she still has at home, containing interviews with Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin. “I was in the Deep South, and it was the only liberal magazine I could get at a newsstand.”
Later, I ask her whether she still considers herself a Southerner. She says bluntly, “I hate the South.” She hates the politics and what she describes as widespread ignorance. She hates that she was told in art school that women aren’t great artists. One reason she persevered despite the pushback of the patriarchal culture was that she had access to another liberal publication, an art magazine called the Evergreen Review. “There were these women who were well known in the ’60s that I was reading about,” she says. “Eva Hesse and Helen Frankenthaler. There were always women artists, they just were written out of history.”
With a name similar to that of the most tragic classic film star, an archetype of the dirty underside of glamour, it’s fitting that Minter is driven by the power of exposure. She has a last name homonymous with a maker-of-money. Its suffix means more-than, means a person-who-does.
And she does. “I’ve had people—literally, my studio—rebel because I spend too much time doing activism,” she tells me. She views her activism as part of her art practice; art and activism have always coincided. She’s been honored by Planned Parenthood for her reproductive rights advocacy, raising millions of dollars for the organization. Recently, she took part in the Women’s March, and has done work with Swing Left, the Halt Action Group and the political action group Downtown for Democracy. On the day we meet, she’ll find out whether the PAC has secured funding for an action. “If it works, we’re going to do it in Alabama and Missouri and [other] places with the abortion bans,” she tells me. I ask her if she’ll reveal what exactly they’re going to do. She says no—for now it’s a secret.
“But you’ll know immediately,” she says. “It will be everywhere.”