Grit & Glamour: Marilyn Minter’s Pop Art Aesthetic

“We want to put everything in black and white, but I love the gray areas.”

Marilyn Minter challenged the status quo for decades as a painter, photographer, and video artist with her unique blend of grit and glamour. Born in 1948 to a substance-abusing mother and absent father, Minter derived artistic inspiration from her unusual upbringing.

As an undergraduate photography student at the University of Florida, Minter photographed her mother using black and white medium format film for a class assignment. Her professor and peers responded with horror upon learning the subject of these images was Minter’s mother, likening her more to a drag queen than a maternal figure.

Humiliated by her peers’ response, Minter did not print these images for almost 30 years, and went on to get her M.F.A. in Painting from Syracuse University in 1976.

Fig. 1 “Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Smoking)”, 1969. Black and white photograph.

After graduate school, Minter moved to New York City where Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein dominated the gallery scene. Heavily influenced by Pop art aesthetics and excess, Minter dove headfirst into East Village culture of the 1980s, which included “lots of substance abuse, going to clubs at midnight, staying up all night and then going to teach art at a Catholic boys’ school.”

During this time, Minter collaborated with fellow painter Chris Kohlhofer to create a series of works shown at the Gracie Mansion gallery in East Village. In 1985, Minter’s decision to go to rehab and get clean broke up the collaboration. For the first time in years, she was confronted with the challenge of creating art not influenced by drug use.

Minter spent the next several years borrowing imagery from magazines, advertisements, and pornography to create large-scale enamel on metal paintings that emulate Ben-Day dot printing techniques. Three major bodies of work emerged during this period that dealt with pop culture and female sexuality: Big Girls/Little Girls, 100 Food Porn, and Porn Grids.

Fig. 2 “Porn Grid #4”, 1989. Enamel on metal, 24” x 30”.

In her Porn Grids, Minter replicated scenes from pornographic magazines in an effort to “reclaim these images from an abusive history,” and explore the idea that “nobody has politically correct fantasies,” (Fig. 2).

Art critics and feminists alike scorned her work, denouncing the subjects as demeaning depictions of women sexually serving men. However, Minter sought to encourage women to make images for their own pleasure and amusement.

“I was really this pro-sex feminist,” she said. “I’m always trying to remove morals from art; otherwise, it doesn’t make sense because over time morality changes.”

In the 1990s, Marilyn Minter began to revisit her old photographic work, and reconsider using photography as an art medium. After 25 years, Minter printed her Coral Ridge Towers series, originally taken in 1969, and exhibited prints in New York and Los Angeles.

Finally, Minter received critical acclaim and the art world’s attention. The haunting yet beautiful portraits of Minter’s mother featured a woman fighting her faded beauty resiliently by covering her patchy, torn-out hair with styled wigs and her sallow, sagging skin with make-up and eyebrow dye (Fig. 1).

“The aesthetic of wig governs everything,” said Bruce Hainley of Artforum magazine, “suggesting that beauty, like existence, is artificial, askew, and concealing.”

Reexamining this early body of work inspired Minter to use photography to explore “the distance between representations of glamour in popular culture and the realities of the flesh.”

In 2000, Minter created Soiled, the first standout image of many to follow that juxtaposed glamour and grit to convey the “dirty realism” of the human body (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 “Soiled”, 2000. C print.

“I’m trying to say that it’s time to look at who we really are,” Minter said to Cay Sophie Rabinowitz of Parkett magazine.

Unlike her paintings, which she created by referencing photographic images that were heavily manipulated and composited in Photoshop, Minter did not crop or edit her art photographs, favoring the most realistic, true-to-form depictions of her subjects. Instead, Minter builds up her photographs in the studio using iridescent make-up and props alongside dirt, mud and grime. These materials serve as Minter’s “pigments,” which she applies to photographic space rather than metal surface.

Minter continues her photographic investigation of beauty gone awry with pictures that “look like high fashion throwing up: big, glossy close-ups of lipsticked mouths spewing diamonds, pearls and colorful, glittering goo,”

Fig. 4 “Tear Jerker,” 2004. C print.

(Fig. 4). These images convey a sense of violence and self-mutilation absent from Minter’s earlier works. The models appear to literally choke on and vomit gleaming strings of precious stones, a not so subtle reference to eating disorders developed by women desperate to mirror beauty idols and ideals. Beads of water drenching the skin mimic sweat, a visual metaphor for the hard work that goes into the daily process of artificial beautification.

“I work with things that are considered debased and shallow, but the reality is…fashion and beauty are multi-billion dollar industries,” Minter said to Sameer Reddy of W Magazine. “To say that they’re superficial is too easy. That’s my position. They give people a lot of pleasure, but at the same time, they distort everything.”

Minter’s paintings and photographs rely on an “off-kilter sense of beauty” and depict “traditional objects of desire rendered slightly awry.”

In 2007, she produced a portrait series of Pamela Anderson, which shed a much different light on the actress and model. Known for her iconic bleach-blond hair, thick black eye liner, and artificial breasts, Anderson built her career as a pop culture sex symbol.

However, Minter portrays the star with little make-up; she is virtually unrecognizable to the viewer without her personal iconography. Staying true to her wet, glossy aesthetic, Minter photographed Anderson’s interactions with water and bubbles in a variety of scenarios and focused on capturing spontaneous moments, such as a drop of water dangling from the tip of Anderson’s nose (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 “Drop (Pamela Anderson)”, 2007. C Print.

Using a macro lens with a wide aperture setting and a fast shutter speed, the artist captured this close-up image of Anderson’s face at a beautifully

flawed moment in time. The drip, Anderson’s lips and the tip of her nose are the only elements in focus. Bright studio lighting reflects off the shimmering surface of the subject’s nose, cheeks and mouth, a technique used in make-up advertisements to draw attention to the product. The drop, however, would never appear in such a forum. The drop grounds the image in reality and reminds the viewer that the body will always fall short of aesthetic perfection.

As with her Porn Grids, Minter received negative reviews from art critics who disapproved of her personal brand of feminism and of Pamela Anderson.

“She’s the anti-Marilyn Monroe,” Minter said. “Sure, Pam is a product of her culture but she’s not a victim. She lives from the way she looks.”

To create this series of images, Minter stripped away Pamela Anderson ‘the celebrity’ and gave us Pamela Anderson ‘the human being.’ This is Anderson uncut: airbrushing, Photoshop manipulation, concealing make-up and artifice not included.

Marilyn Minter “collapses distinctions between photography and painting, part and whole, commercial and fine art… repulsion and desire” to create vibrant, shimmering works that serve as visual clashes between the ideal and the real.

Fig. 6 “Twins”, 2005. C print.

I first learned of Minter in 2009 during a lecture in my undergraduate foundations painting class about color. The first works I encountered of hers were Twins, (Fig. 6) and “Green Pink Caviar,” a simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque video featuring models licking and spewing neon-colored, viscous liquid on a transparent glass surface (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 Still from “Green Pink Caviar”, 2009. Video.

I was drawn to her work because it was both pleasurable and uncomfortable to view. Minter expertly meshes desire with disgust, conflicting emotions that many young women (including myself) feel when faced with the daunting standards of beauty and sex appeal that our materialistic commercial culture expects females to embody. I interpreted Minter’s works as technicolored satires and critiques of the fashion and beauty industries in this context.

I chose to research Marilyn Minter because I connect with her message and wanted to gain a better historical, autobiographical, and psychological understanding of her work. Minter’s photographs also differ greatly from the work I have produced in terms of subject, style, presentation and meaning. I wanted to explore images that depart from my previous artistic pursuits in the manner of an individual I admire both as an artist and a human being.

As a result of this research experience, I have gained respect for Minter because of her honesty and shamelessness when discussing her artwork and her life. She acknowledges her family background without exploiting her struggles, owns up to her battles with drug addiction over the years, and handles the harshly critical fine art world with grace and professionalism.

Despite decades of critical rejection, Marilyn Minter has “kept going and let audience, institutions, and collectors catch up,” staying true to her “powerful vision of glamour and sexuality, degradation and triumph, [and] dirt and luminescence.”

She creates paintings informed by photography and photographs that reflect a painterly sensibility. Her latest works depict repurposed photographs placed behind a glass surface that has been cracked, graffitied, splashed with water, and/or adorned with miniscule beads.

Minter now makes the glass, the subject of the image, rather than the model. These works continue to blur line between painting and photography with their emphasis on surface, not space, just as Minter continues to blur the line between beauty and desecration.

Pop art continues to inform and influence her work. Ironically, she has gained commissions from companies such as M.A.C. cosmetics to shoot images for ad campaigns. Minter’s vision has evolved powerfully since the soiled sense of glamour first captured in the 1969 portraits of her mother. Minter herself insists that the world’s opinion has changed around her over the years, not her artistic style.

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