Arts / Museums

In Anticipation of the Provocateur Marilyn Minter

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 04.03.15

In this PaperCity exclusive, Marilyn Minter chats en studio with one of the prognosticators who launched her career: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning, co-architect of the provocative artist’s traveling retrospective that begins its four-stop, two-year national tour Friday, April 17, in Houston.

Flashback to the 1980s

Bill Arning: Okay, Marilyn, I’ve been an early studio visitor for hundreds of artists over the years, and then I’ve given artists shows in different parts of my life, and there’s always that fantasy of “One day I’ll be curating your retrospective.” So far, this is the first time it’s actually happened. When we did that first show together at White Columns [in 1989], was there any sense that this was the start of a sort of multi-decade dance?

Marilyn Minter: I remember after you left, I thought, ‘Well, that was a real bust.’ I can usually tell if there’s some enthusiasm. And it was this huge disappointment because you were the notorious spotter of fresh talent. And then a week later you called me up and asked if I wanted to have a one-person show at White Columns, and you wanted to buy some work. I almost fell over. And then you told me … that you have to have a poker face, because artists get too invested in every single word you say.

Bill: You were one of my educators, in terms of the actual politics of being a woman artist in that period. I had assumed, because my generation of art folks and museum folks coming up were so open to being centered around women, gay people and people of color, that this was what the art world was. And, I was coming out of the alternative space scene, where that was our focus. You were like, “Oh no, honey, when you walk into the Odeon as a woman artist …”

MM: I think back in the ‘80s, the collectors were all men … They weren’t used to feminism. They were mostly older gentlemen, and they all had mothers that didn’t work. So the only painter that they knew that was female was probably Susan Rothenberg. And there were so many terrific artists. Joan Mitchell was just genius but was considered second-rate back in the ‘80s. It was our lot in life, and my theory then was just “I’m not going to go away. You’re going to have to pay attention to me sooner or later.” But you were in the alternative world, and White Columns was in an alternative world, and that’s why I liked it.

Bill: But people blame my years at White Columns for the turning of the emerging into this hot commodity. Like, those years were when …

MM: I think it was Julian Schnabel.

Bill: A Texan, of course.

MM: I remember distinctly that he was a conspicuous consumer, and the work he made was really fresh looking. All of a sudden it didn’t matter if he was getting critically lambasted, because all of the popular magazines were presenting his incredible lifestyle. He drove around in a white Bentley convertible in SoHo, and it was a really small art world. I thought he was a terrific artist back in those days, and he made sure you knew that he was enjoying his success … I don’t think I would ride around in a white Bentley, but I would have had a sports car if I’d had any money back then.

Bill: And there were so few places to show. When you and I met, it was the height of the East Village period, which was right when the hierarchies of serious/non-serious, the welcoming of pleasure, the welcoming of dance music into the art world happened. I remember going to Holly Solomon parties at Area and thinking, ‘Why would I ever leave this? This is such a fun time!’

On Gazing Forward

Bill: Now you’re getting to look at your work in a full retrospective mode. I mean, we’re in your studio surrounded by 10 new paintings. You’ve got that dichotomy of being very focused on the now, and you’re also having to look back at things that the general public has not seen.

MM: I have no idea how the retrospective is going to be received, because it’s all about stuff that’s been in my closet forever.

Bill: You were a known category. I mean, people saw the work. I think eventually, you’ll be perceived as someone like Louise Bourgeois, who never stopped showing. There was a show every year in New York for her entire career, but she was just never brought into focus until later.

MM: The art world loves old ladies and young bad boys, and you get to the old-lady age, and they’ll resurrect you in a nanosecond. All of these artists that didn’t have any careers at all are now showing at major galleries right now. They are dead or barely alive.

Bill: So, if you had been a guy making the same work, your success would have come when you were younger?

MM: I really don’t know. I don’t mind the way everything has turned out; I’m not at all bitter or angry about it. I feel like getting slightly marginalized keeps you hungry. It’s not like I had a big success at 25, and I could make parodies of what I’m known for, for the rest of my life. And that’s another trap. Success is really dangerous. I feel like I’ve been really lucky because I’ve always had enough; I didn’t have to go teach high school five days a week and have terrible burnout. I did teach high school, so I know what it’s like, and I passed out after class. I’ve managed to support myself, and I think that’s a good life! I’m happy that I can keep making my work and not have to get a day job.

Bill: Part of being able to survive the ups and downs is the vision … And looking back on the decades in the [exhibition catalog], there’s this vision that begins with your earliest, when you were in your 20s, and then goes through these more schematic paintings …

MM: That is my vision, that paradoxes the norm. Working with glamour and images of popular culture, which can be despised because they’re low culture … That’s what I’m more interested in, rather than depicting or telling people what to think, even about high-culture [such as] fashion. You get a lot of pleasure out of looking at these glamorous images, and yet you have shame because you even want to look … And then you also know that you will never look like that. Nobody ever looks that good; it doesn’t exist. And so I’m trying to make that feeling in my work. What it feels like to look.

Bill: You have to have retrospectives. You have to have a certain specificity about the size, and about the presence in the room, and the fact that looking at the paintings here, when I walk the 30 feet between here and that painting, it changes. It has like, six layers.

MM: That’s what I’m interested in working in, between all of the different meanings and trying to show them all at once.

Bill: In case anyone thinks that they don’t need to travel to get to see the whole thing …

MM: Oh, yes, the whole idea of my paintings is how juicy they are. They’re really well-painted … I mean, that’s maybe not very modest of me, but I spend so much energy into making them just as luscious as I can, with all of this translucency. I don’t work with oil paint; I work with enamel … and I work in these abstract areas until the whole thing comes together, and you can only experience it live.

Arning and Minter on the good old days:

Bill: It was such a different art world then. Think about how innocent we were!

MM: How small it was! And how everyone knew everybody else. It was fun. It was terrific. Judy Pfaff had shows, and you literally couldn’t get into the show until 6:15 or 6:20 because she was still installing. You had to wait to get in, and then you walked into these environments.

Bill: One of my memories was sitting with you having dinner when Jeff Koons was working on the “Made in Heaven” show [Sonnabend Gallery, 1991]. We had heard about it, but it hadn’t happened yet. I remember you calling him over to the table and saying, “Jeff, what’s the story with this porn thing?” And he was like, “Oh, Marilyn.” And it sounded like he was reading us his press release. And they call it “Jeff speak.”

MM: No, I think they call it “Koons speak.” It was sincere though. I don’t doubt for a minute that he believes everything he was saying.

Bill: And the retrospective … It was a really interesting moment, because we all had to confront our suppositions about who this artist was and reconsider them.

MM: I actually loved his Whitney Museum retrospective, and I love Bob Gober, too [MoMA retrospective]. They’re both really good, and I could see the antipathy against Jeff, but it still doesn’t take into account that he’s a terrific artist. It’s just crazy to deny that.

Bill: And I remember visiting Martin Wong’s studio during that time … These really eccentric characters.

MM: I loved Martin. Judy was a successful SoHo artist, but Martin was an underground East Village artist, and he was a real iconoclast. [And] Mary Heilmann was always making the same work, but nobody could see it until the ’90s.

Bill: And she was showing at Holly Solomon at that time.

MM: She was really marginalized there. There was a new phenomena, too. Maybe it wasn’t something I’d ever heard about, that you could recontextualize your career by showing it in an emerging hipster gallery. You saw a lot of people like Ross Bleckner doing that. And it worked. That totally revitalized their careers by having an East Village presence. I don’t know about Richard Prince … I don’t know where he was showing, maybe at Metro [Pictures], but showing at International With Monument created his career. I watched Jeff Koons’ career take off from there. These were great shows. They really were game changers. Fresh visions.

Bill: I always get sad when I look at artists that don’t live to see their retrospectives, like the apotheosis of Greer Lankton.

MM: Oh, she was a good friend of mine. We used to have girls’ nights, and she always came. All we did was just drink and get high.

On Influence, Doubt and Being Untouchable

Bill: You’ve taught for years, and you’ve had a lot of really great artists work for you. What does it feel like to be such an influencer of hot young artists today?

MM: I don’t think of myself as an influencer. I just focus on what I need to do next, and I don’t have any expectations; I work really hard not to have them. I just stick to my vision and protect it. All artists have terrible ups and downs. Nobody escapes. I could think of maybe one or two exceptions to that rule. A person has to protect themselves in the self-loathing downtimes, and also not become so sure that … I guess you do have to be slightly delusional and believe in your vision, no matter what people say to you.

Bill: I’ve always thought there was something generative about the doubt artists live with.

MM: Doubt is part of the creative process, and it keeps you exploring … I really believe you need to have doubt, and everyone has a dark night in their soul. You have to just get up and keep working through that. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. Be an artist if you have no other choice. It’s so rewarding, but it gives you an incredible amount of pain. But that’s life.

Bill: How do you avoid believing your own hype?

MM: I don’t believe it when people tell me I’m worthless, so I have to keep that same attitude [about the hype] … I’ve never had that overall acclaim, so I don’t know. I have my fans, but there are certain people that are untouchable; they’re like Teflon, and no matter what they do, they get praised. I’m not one of those.

Bill: Having been a close-up witness to all these stages of your career, I’ve seen you struggle, and I’ve also seen you enjoy your success. When most young artists get success in their 20s and early 30s, their sense is that they’re entitled to this, and that it will never end … When celebrities come to your openings and buy paintings, I usually get a text message from you, saying, “You have no idea who I just met. This is fabulous!” The fact that you enjoy it so much is the result of all the years when you weren’t getting it, and now you can appreciate it. You’ve seen the transience of it.

Knowing your work as intimately as I do, what kills me is the amount we had to leave out in order to make the retrospective coherent and comparative. Unless you have a stadium — and then the audience doesn’t care.

MM: Oh, I know. It’s so painful! I mean, I’m an old lady. There’s a lot of work.

On Photography, the Art of Photoshop and Painting

Bill: When you think about the history of Mannerist paintings, bodies that look beautiful in a Mannerist painting couldn’t physically stand up. The parts don’t fit together, and you’ve got bodies around us that couldn’t exist. It’s a form of Mannerism in that this gorgeousness seduces, but it is impossible. We live in a culture where everything is Photoshopped, and everything is controlled, and we rely on that for our production of reality. [I saw a number of] exhibitions on this trip to New York where computer graphics were the entire subject of the show.

MM: Photoshop enables me to extend my vision, because I do shoot [with a camera] to make paintings. But if the photo is perfect, I don’t do anything to it. I might crop it, but that’s about it. Whereas, with the paintings, I can really push it. The things I make can live for an instant — but no more than an instant. I’m much more interested in the metaphor rather than the world I operate in. The fact that I don’t make judgments has worked against me in some areas, but in the long run, the lack of judgment is the only way you can appreciate everything that’s being thrown at you at all times. It’s too easy to criticize. It’s too easy to talk about how we Photoshop all the pores away, or we give people body dysmorphia. We could see the danger already, about how young girls have such terrible broken eyes when it comes to their own bodies. That didn’t exist when I was growing up.

On Miz Minter’s First Retrospective

Bill: What’s the most satisfying part for you of having your first retrospective?
MM: Oh gosh, I’ll tell you when it happens! I’m hoping I learn something and become a better artist because of it.

Bill: When the show comes to Brooklyn, it’s going to be the nearest to home, so you’re going to reach people that may have doubted you in the past. Any revenge fantasies?

MM: Not really. I have them, but I don’t really feed them. I like to think that people can change their minds. I have had people come up to me and say, “I was really wrong about you” — and I have to admit, it feels good. But it’s not like I’m going to smack them down. I believe in redemption.


“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” Retrospective
When: Opening night Friday, April 17, 6:30 to 9 pm
Where: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Note: Media sponsor PaperCity; art-world chic attire; exhibition on view April 18 – August 2, 2015
Contact: camh.org

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