A painter, photographer and video artist, Marilyn Minter freely explores sexuality in ways both celebrated and condemned. She moved to New York from Florida in 1976 and has since become a fixture on the downtown art scene, showing in Soho and Chelsea as well as on the Lower East Side. In the ’90s, she began using hard-core pornography as her subject matter, a move that didn’t play well with the art world (she also advertised her work on Late Night with David Letterman). Starting with the 2006 Whitney Biennial, her stock began to zoom upward as she switched to deconstructing fashion tropes and conventional notions of beauty. With her retrospective opening at Brooklyn Museum, Minter spoke with us about her interest in porn, feminism and bringing back pubic hair.
The earliest works in the show are black-and-white photographs of your mom in her negligee, putting on makeup and admiring herself in the mirror. They seem both harsh and voyeuristic. What made you do them?
They were just something I shot one weekend when I was home from school at University of Florida. I didn’t even think the pictures were interesting. But when I got back and printed the proof sheets, people were aghast, and I had waves of shame coming over me. I hadn’t realized that this was not what other people’s mothers looked like. Why would I?
In the late ’80s, you created what you called the “100 Food Porn” painting series, which featured close-up shots of food. Then you ran commercials of them during David Letterman’s show. Were they meant to be art or advertising?
Both. I wanted to have the first commercial gallery art ad on television. At the time, it was only $1,800 for a 30-second spot on Letterman, while Artforum charged $5,000 for a full page ad. But the paintings were also inspired by the fact that I watch a lot of Letterman, and back then, late-night television was filled with phone-sex ads.
Was that what led you into using actual porn?
As a feminist, I wanted to reclaim those images from their abusive history.
But that work received a tremendous amount of flack.
Yes. I was trying to be sex positive, but it was a very anti-sex, politically correct moment, and I was being unorthodox. My side ultimately won the debate, though.
You recently created photos showing women caressing their pubic hair. Are you back to toying with taboos?
It’s not taboo; it’s natural. Many men under 40 have never seen female pubic hair, so I want to make it beautiful enough to put in your living room. I also think young girls should stop lasering. You can trim your public hair into a question mark if you want. Just don’t laser, because it won’t grow back, and you’ll be sorry!
“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” is at Brooklyn Museum Fri 4–Apr 2