Marilyn Minter. Word of Mouth, 2020–22. Enamel on metal. Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.
Marilyn Minter. Sweet Nothings, 2022. Enamel on metal. Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.
Marilyn Minter. Hush, 2023. Silkscreen in 28 colors. Edition of 40. Published by Two Palms, New York.

In Conversation: Marilyn Minter

by Michael Bullock

This past spring, LGDR gallery on New York’s Upper East Side presented Marilyn Minter, the artist’s first solo exhibition in the city since her celebrated retrospective Pretty/Dirty at the Brooklyn Museum in 2016–17. The expansive show of paintings, video, photographs, and prints highlighted Minter’s fifty-year exploration of beauty, representation, autonomy, and desire through a feminist perspective and introduced several new bodies of work, including Minter’s first foray into portraiture. Michael Bullock, associate publisher of PIN-UP magazine and founding member of political advocacy groups Downtown for Democracy and Weekly Senator, spoke with fellow activist Minter at her Manhattan studio. 

Michael Bullock: Much of your work adopts a warts-and-all strategy—but there’s an element of seduction. There’s glamour but always realness. A wrinkle or a hair, dirt, sweat.

Marilyn Minter: When I started taking photos, I was never looking to make things off-kilter, even the photos I took of my mother. My mother was a drug addict. She was quite a beauty at one time, but she used to pull out her hair and so she had to wear wigs. She had acrylic nails, but she didn’t take care of them so fungus would grow underneath. Everything was askew. I was thinking, “I know this exists, and how come we never see a picture of it?” Human beings are shot through with imperfection, and we’re living in a culture that tries to erase it, and I feel like that is making us very sick. Whatever you don’t see, the eye seems to crave. So part of me is always trying to take a picture of something we all know exists, but we never see. You might have a great pedicure but if you’re dancing all night your feet are going to be dirty.

MB: Was subversion a conscious strategy for you? Or a natural instinct?

MM: I didn’t even know that I was subversive. That is the truth. I never think anything I make is disgusting. People were gagging while watching my video Green Pink Caviar. I thought, “Wow! So it’s that disgusting?” I was just thinking about painting with color using your tongue. The models had to hold their breath and spit out the liquid. I was excited that it looked really good when shot from below using different colors and candies. I just thought, “Oh, that looks great!” It’s not disgusting to me.

MB: You’ve been very politically engaged your whole life. Have you always thought of your art as political?

MM: I’ve always been an activist who happens to be an artist. I was just another marcher most of the time. But once I started getting known as an artist, I was able to raise a lot more money.

MB: You’ve done more than that. You’ve made ads and headed up an art auction for Planned Parenthood and Downtown for Democracy. You also fundraised through your Trump plaque featuring the President’s face and his “grab ’em by the pussy” quote, which has been acquired by the Whitney Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

MM: I would drill it into buildings or the sidewalk late at night, almost like graffiti. I wanted to remind us that the President of the United States said that and not let it go.

MB: Your most recent exhibition featured your icon series—portraits of Monica Lewinsky, Glenn Ligon, Gloria Steinem, Mickalene Thomas. The photorealism of your paintings is so sharp.

MM: They’re all people I really admire. Making portraits is so much harder than I thought it would be because it also has to feel like the person. When I was doing Roxane Gay, she kept giving me side-eye—which is really hard to capture. I had to use a couple of images to get it. But my work is never one-for-one. It’s always a composite of moments collaged into one shot. It takes a week just to make the reference image for the paintings. But it always starts with shooting. I love to go in and play with the model, with the makeup artists, with the water and steam on the glass. I never know what’s going to happen. And I love that.

MB: Scale is also a huge part of your work—taking the tiniest moments and magnifying them so they’re larger than life.

MM: I love doing billboards. The first billboard I made was in 2006 with Creative Time of these really expensive, muddied shoes. I think I had five billboards all over Chelsea. Whenever I had a show, I used to make one. If anyone wants me to, I’ll make a billboard!

MB: It’s a subversion of advertising space in which you’re projecting your own personal vision. You were also the first artist to make a TV commercial, in 1990.

MM: I used to listen to NPR all the time while I painted. I remember listening to an ad for a museum show and thinking, “Why doesn’t an artist make a TV commercial?” I watched David Letterman every night and found out it was only $1,200 for thirty seconds. I bet you didn’t know that! I had no money at all back then. I traded my paintings with the director and sound guy—both MTV people—for production. I took the money we would have spent on art magazine ads and bought spots during Letterman, Arsenio Hall, and Nightline. Nobody watching knew what they were. It was very obtuse—but that was the whole idea.

MB: Did it create a strong buzz within the art community?

MM: I think people like it a lot more now. There was a real fear at that time of collapsing commercial and high art. But I have always liked doing that.

Goldkicker and Kicksilver by Marilyn Minter are available through Maharam Digital Projects.