Sex, power, feminism—Marilyn Minter reflects on her rise, being banished from the art world, and her return and personal revolution.

Wheat Field

Marilyn Minter

ARTIST

2020

ART / PHOTOGRAPHY / FEMINISM / DIANE ARBUS / EVERGREEN REVIEW / CHRISTOF KOHLHÖFER / MIKE KELLEY / LADA GAGA / PLAYBOY / ACTIVISM / PROTEST / FLORIDA / RACISM / BRENDA STARR / UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

There is paradox in the work of Marilyn Minter. High fashion meets corrosion. Vulgarity dovetails with beauty. Focus gives way to sheer distortion.

At first it may seem wholly unexpected if not jarring, as it was to the artworld that initially rejected Minter’s now-iconic photographs and paintings as pornographic, profane, and assured her the works would destroy her career. But it might not have been had anyone looked to the juxtaposition that was her childhood. 

Born in Shreveport, La., Minter was raised in the self-described “Wild West” of Florida—Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Her father was a gambler, an alcoholic and a hustler, and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown after the pair split. She turned to opiates and pharmaceuticals, leaving Minter to raise herself. (She taught herself to drive at the age of 12.)

[“My mother] was at one time a really beautiful woman, and she was very conscious of the way she looked,” Minter told Lenny in 2016. “She worked on herself all the time, but it was always off, because she pulled out her hair, so she had to wear wigs; she had acrylic nails, but she didn’t take care of them, so fungus would grow underneath them, and it was kind of an off-beauty.”

Even Minter’s color palette can be traced to her upbringing—the 1960s pastels that defined the Florida and Louisiana of her youth still pervade her work today.

As an escape growing up, Minter drew day in and day out. She got her BA from the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1970 (where she was enrolled when she shot the photos of her addicted mother that she would later credit for a career resurgence), and eventually fled the state for graduate school at Syracuse University. After moving to New York City, she launched collaborations with Christof Kohlhofer, and later drew both rage and fascination with her erotic paintings and her exhibition 100 Food Porn. 

As she told The Creative Independent in retrospect, “You have to listen to your inner voice no matter what. People love my early work now. At the time, nobody could see it. I’m glad I didn’t destroy that. And it gave me street cred. I lived through being eviscerated by the art world. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? You have a point of view that makes you unique. You’ll be able to see and say things that no one else will be able to see and say.”

Ever since, Minter has done so, seemingly uninterested in ideals, and embracing the world for what it so often is: a paradox.

“Why would we dismiss glamour and fashion when they are giant cultural engines?” she asked The Standard. “Why would we dismiss pornography as shallow and debased? There would be no internet without pornography—wake up! The fashion industry does so much destruction, and it gives so much pleasure. It creates body dysmorphia. It creates a robotic, nonhuman ideal, which is so destructive. But it also gives people so much pleasure. Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we examine that?”

On this episode of Design Matters, Minter and Debbie Millman do just that. This installment was recorded remotely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—perhaps harkening back to Design Matters’ origins on the radio, where Millman interviewed guests by phone.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman