Marilyn Minterhas been a part of the New York art scene since the 1970s, though her careerhas been anything but a smooth ride. She made a series of now-celebratedphotographic studies of her drug-addicted mother while still a student inFlorida, and in the early ’80s she explored Pop-derived images that often had asexual undercurrent. Then, at the end of that decade she painted herselfstraight into fevered and often bitter controversy when she began using imagerytaken from porn magazines. Her infamy was exacerbated in 1990 when she producedher own TV ad, 100 Food Porn, which ran during late-night mainstream television shows. The 1990s and the earlyyears of this decade saw her gradually refining her style and imagery so that,while still suggesting pornography, her photographs and paintings seem equallyto breathe the atmosphere of high fashion (a world that she claims to knownothing about) and glamour. Her painting technique is equally startling,employing many layers of translucent enamel paint on metal to produce anincandescent, almost hallucinatory finish. Her work came to the attention ofentirely new audiences last year, when Creative Time commissioned a series ofgiant billboards from her that were hung in Chelsea and, a few months later,she was included in the Whitney Biennial. Now, in the summer of 2007, she’ssuddenly everywhere. She is guest designer for the current issue of FrancisFord Coppola’s magazine Zoetrope All-Story, and her work is featured on the cover and in the centerfold ofthe current issue of the art publication Parkett, for whom she produced an editionedphotograph of Pamela Anderson that immediately sold out. She shot the campaignimages for Tom Ford’s new fragrance, Tom Ford for Men, which will be launchedin September, and Gregory R. Miller & Co. has just published a lavish $60monograph of her work.
Last week, onher birthday, she shared coffee and cake with ARTINFO in her SoHo loft, wherethree assistants were hard at work on a group of new paintings. We began bytalking about the new book.
Marilyn,congratulations on this new book. It really manages to convey the physicalcharacter of your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that used suchheavy, glossy paper before.
Thank you. Isn’t it great? The designers are pretty brilliant. From dayone they said, “We’ll use different papers. We’ll use pink, we’ll use silver.We’ve got this shiny paper, we’ve got paper that feels like it’s wet.” I can’ttake any credit for anything of it. It was their idea.
But you musthave given them some direction?
I’m a catalog collector. I showed them all the catalogs that I love,and I said to them, “Do what you always wanted to do and no one would let you,”and this is what they came up with.
I can’timagine that’s how you work with your painting assistants here.
I’m sooverwhelmed with everything that’s going on right now. In the last year I’vebeen constantly pulled away from painting. I’m at the computer, figuring outwhat we’re going to do, figuring out images, and ordering prints. If it wasjust me in the studio I’d be making one painting a year!
I invented thetechnique, but at this point, I’m their [the assistants’] underpainter. But Iam also the director. An assistant might do the painting, but I’m constantly changingwhat she does. Whether I’m painting on the painting or not, I have the visionof what it’s supposed to look like. I’m still the painter. I know that thingsare going to slow down, and I’ll be back to painting again.
Can youexplain the difference between the photographs that you make and yourpaintings?
Every photo Itake is to make a painting, but sometimes a photo is so good that I don’t needto make a painting out of it. It’s like when a conventional artist makes adrawing and then makes a painting from the drawing. Sometimes the drawing’sjust a perfect moment, a finished artistic project, so the painter doesn’ttouch the drawing. That’s how I sometimes feel about a photograph: It’s a perfect sketch.
Plus I’m aconventional photographer. I don’t Photoshop any of my photos. They’re notcropped or anything, whereas in the paintings I use different photos fordifferent parts of the image. I’m using five photos to make this painting ofStephanie Seymour: one photo to make that jewelry at the bottom, a differentphoto to make the baby’s hair, a different photo to make the pearls inside themouth.… I combine these different photos. In photography you can’t dothat. In painting you can.
Also, I thinkthat something really happens with this painting technique that I’veinvented, with layers and layers and layers of enamel paint. You can’t get thattranslucency with a photo. The painting’s so rich. So it might look like thesame series, but the paintings are way different from the photos. People thatdon’t see the difference, I think their eyes have died or something. It shocksme that some critic would go to a gallery—as someone did—and say, “Well, youcan tell the paintings from the photos, because the photos have glass in frontof them!" No, there’s a little more difference than that.
I’ve neverquite understood your attitude toward the glamorous images that you present inyour work. Are you celebrating glamour, or criticizing it?
Both. Because I think it’s a complex emotion when you look at glamorouspictures. I can’t say that everybody gets pleasure out of it, but I do, and alot of people I know get a lot of pleasure out of looking at the most glamorouspictures. But you’re constantly aware that you’re never going to look thatgood. So there are two feelings there, not just one, and I’m just trying tomirror that, to make a picture of what that feels like.
Does thatmean you’re not taking a position at all?
As soon as youtell people what to think, it’s not interesting. It becomes an illustration. Iconstantly have to walk the tightrope of metaphor. The more layers ofunderstanding I can add, the stronger my images will be. And it’s so easy tofall off that tightrope, so I have to be careful, because for me it’s thedifference between something interesting and bullshit. If it looks to me likeI’ve made any moral judgment at all, or I’m trying to tell you what to think,then I’m not interested. It’s like when you see a movie—if you don’t come outthinking, “What did the director mean? What did that mean?” then there’ssomething wrong. I want to do the same thing with my paintings. All you can dois ask the questions. There are no answers. People are constantly trying togive you answers, but there are exceptions to every rule.
Let me pursuethis a little further. You’ve just done the promotional shots for Tom Ford’snew perfume. Ford has used a particular sort of glamorous soft porn inpromoting his designs. What do you think of him?
Well, you know, I don’t really know what Tom Ford stands for. I don’thave that experience. I don’t know anything about fashion. I had to be told whoTom Ford was. I had to go and buy his book.
All right,then. What about Pamela Anderson? Do you admire her?
Of course Iadmire her. I like Pam because she’s not a victim. She doesn’t have someSvengali taking care of things. She owns the production of her own imagery.She’s not an actress or a comedian, she’s a personality who makes a fortunefrom the way she looks. She’s real savvy. She works with Richard Prince, andshe works with Jeff Koons, and now she works with me.
She doesn’t have education. She comes from some little town in Canada,and now she’s a multimillionaire and successful and a happy person. She’s veryself-deprecating, extremely funny, very sharp. If you make money because of theway you look, the world’s gonna help you do it. They’re gonna give you money toput those shoes on. Those guys are gonna put silicone in your boobs. It’s soeasy not to admire her. It’s so easy to make fun of Pamela Anderson. Actorssnub her and they’re mean to her, but anyone who writes her off is stupid.She’s not Anna Nicole Smith or Marilyn Monroe.
And is thatwhy you wanted to photograph her?
The only reason I did Pam Anderson was because I wanted to put her in Parkett. I wanted to take all her makeup off andget to the animal activist. I wanted to photograph the person who’s soempathetic toward animals that she’s a PETA person. I’m not. I might admirewhat they do, but I don’t do anything. I still wear leather. Pam’s a longtimevegetarian. I don’t think she’s ever had a piece of meat. Isn’t that amazing?And she’s made all these millions of dollars being a pinup, but I see her as ananimal activist, basically.
How did the whole project come together? Did you just phone her?
How it started was David LaChapelle wanted to commission me. TonyShafrazi’s his dealer, and they knew about the Stephanie Seymour painting. Pamwas marrying Kid Rock, and so David LaChapelle wanted to commission me to makea painting as a wedding present. And then the wedding fell apart, but in themeantime, I got asked by Parkett to be one of theirartists, and I said, “Yes, but I want to make Pamela Anderson your centerfold.” Of course, she’s very savvy. She doesn’t do anything for nothing. It takes a milliondollars to get her to take her clothes off. So I had to have somebody producethe whole thing, and I have to make three paintings. I’m going to make threereally good ones though. And she gets a free painting!
You know, Ithink a lot of people just imagine that they’re a few more pictures of PamelaAnderson. Do you think that most people underestimate your work?
I think that whenever you make something that looks good, people wantto underestimate it. They immediately want to dismiss it. If it looks reallygood, there’s an automatic rejection. But it doesn’t really matter, because Iknow that these paintings are going to look good in 20 or 30 or 50 years.So if people don’t get it now, they’re going to get it sooner or later.
I’m surprisedyou’re so relaxed about people’s responses. You’re an artist who’s been utterlydemonized because of your work.
Good point. I was. Nobody ever asks me about that, so I’m glad you did.I was demonized. People hated me. I fell from grace. I was cast out of the artworld. The generation of the late ’80s clung to politically correct ’70sfeminism, and I was seen as a traitor. But it’s been a really healthy thing formy work. It was a lousy thing in terms of how it made me feel, but I think thatyou’re a better artist if terrible things happen to you. I hate to say thatbecause it’s such a cliché, but it’s true. I’m a better artist because I wentthrough that stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. I almost had to step outside of mybody, that’s how painful it was. Especially when you’re getting called namesover sexual imagery. What could be worse? Sex! Oh, you sick pervert! Waves ofshame! So I went to therapy, and hung out with this group of people whohelped me a lot.
It must have made you really question what you were doing.
I’ve never doubted myself, but I did have a few questions like “MaybeI’m just not supposed to be a painter.” But I swear that the reason I continued on, why Ithought, “I’m just going to keep doing it anyway,” was because I’d had thisloft since 1976 for $400. I had this really cheap loft and I didn’t have tokill myself to make rent payments, so I was obviously doing what I was supposedto be doing. I thought, “You’re so lucky with the space. You’re supposed to bea painter making work.” It was that clear-cut. I really believe in thatserendipitous thing.
You seem veryphilosophical about it now.
I’m old enough to know that it doesn’t mean anything. It all comes downto making the work. Back then the times weren’t open to what I was tryingto say, and I had a really hard time communicating. Whose fault is that? It’snobody’s fault. But now I am communicating, and people are hearing me. I’min a really unique position. I’m getting all this success, but I’m notgoing to go crazy, because I don’t really care. What does it really change? Ifeel really lucky. I lived through it. But I know the way the world works—I’ve got a couple of years and then I’ll get criticized again.