Once Shunned, Artist Marilyn Minter Is Having the Last Laugh

When Marilyn Minter exhibited Porn Grids, a series of paintings based on hard-core pornographic imagery, the critical response was so disparaging that she was more or less shunned from the art world. It was the end of the ’80s, when few female artists had explored such a taboo subject. Despite the criticism, she continued to build her own narrative, upping the ante with projects like Food Porn, in which she depicted fruits and vegetables in suggestive states. Eventually she created the sensual style of hyper-realistic photographs and paintings she is known for today.

Now, over two decades later, Minter is celebrated in both the art and fashion worlds. With fiery red hair, her features are as exotic as the imperfect models she seeks out for projects, where gender and race ambiguity are preferred. Her latest show, Paintings from the 80s, on view at Team Gallery, revisits her now-lauded early work. With just a week left in the exhibition, we caught up with the visual pioneer to talk about the turbulent time, bonding with Madonna, and having the last laugh.

Around 2006, it seemed like you became an overnight success, although you weren’t. Were you prepared for all the attention that came from the Creative Time billboards, and from your inclusion in the Whitney Biennial?
I was and I wasn’t. I always knew I had something to say even when nobody else wanted to listen. No one can ever really prepare themselves. When the art world finally paid attention it was a pleasant surprise.

Every guest book I sign in a gallery, you’ve been there first, and when I used to run a gallery, you came by to see every show. I always loved that. How important is it for you to stay current on what’s happening in the art world?
I love teaching and it keeps me routinely looking at contemporary art. The beauty of teaching at SVA [School of Visual Arts] is that I’m twelve minutes away from Chelsea. Every Thursday when class ends, I have an hour before galleries close to look at and discuss art with my students. I learn a lot from my students and we have a real dialogue. I think it’s important for artists to know what’s going on. Talking about other people’s art is an excellent teaching tool for everyone, including me.

All of the paintings in your current show at Team are on loan from collectors. How was it for you to revisit your older work, especially given how it was perceived at the time?
I was another artist when I made that work and honestly I wasn’t completely sure if it would hold up today. It was the first work that I made when I got out of rehab that I didn’t destroy. I was exploring the properties of enamel paint, getting some distance from Realism. Twenty years later they still look good to me and I can identify a consistent thread throughout my work.

When you decided to explore hardcore porn, you did so with one question in mind: Would the fact that a woman had painted them change their meaning? Do you feel like you have an answer for that now?
No, I still don’t know the answer. I did learn there’s a real glass ceiling when it comes to women working with sexual imagery. It’s probably difficult for any artist, male or female, as sexual imagery is so loaded. Yesterday’s smut is today’s erotica.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Madonna is a collector of yours and used images from your Green Pink Caviar series as a backdrop for her 2009 tour. You were both doing radical work around sex and sexuality in the 80s and 90s. Have the two of you commiserated on how difficult it was to be women exploring sexual themes?
Absolutely, that’s what we bonded over. She got thrown out of her respective world when she made the book Sex and she got let back in when she made the movie Evita.

Your images of Pamela Anderson for the art magazine Parkett show her without make-up on, more vulnerable than how we’re used to seeing her. How do you get someone who’s used to controlling her image turn that control over to you?
It wasn’t hard. She likes working with artists. Pam’s worked with Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons. She’s very savvy when it comes to art. The interesting thing is that she never really looks at her images because she doesn’t like looking at herself.

Who else would you most like to collaborate with?
You’ll see. I’m doing it now. It’s a surprise.

You have worked on several fashion campaigns, like Jimmy Choo, Tom Ford, MAC, and regularly shoot for Allure. What have you learned about the fashion industry?
It might even be crueler than the art world. They bury you before you’re dead in the fashion world.

You have said in interviews that one of the things you don’t love about the world of fashion is its emphasis on perfection. Is it ever a conflict of interest then to work in fashion?
If they are going to hire me in the first place, they are already on board with my vision.

When booking models, what has been your strangest request?
I don’t find it strange, but the agencies are always surprised I’m not interested in the It girls.

How do you define glamour?
I have no idea. I’d have to look it up!

By having the pieces in Paintings from the 80s shown again, and now celebrated by the art world that once rejected it, do you get to have the last laugh?