Marilyn Minter’s Dirty Pretty Things


“Pretty/Dirty,” Marilyn Minter’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, begins with a series of photographs that has haunted her career. “Coral Ridge Towers” was created in 1969, when Minter was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The images feature her mother, a beautiful Southern belle turned drug addict, insolently smoking and primping her striking yet ravaged features. It’s a far cry from the powerful, outspoken feminist nature of Minter’s work from recent decades, though not a complete deviation. Minter is best known for pieces that visually thrust together adjectives that seem oxymoronic — shiny, grotesque, glittering, filthy — paintings and photographs featuring blurry female parts, coated with dirt, makeup, and other substances, cropped close to show pores, freckles, and flaws. It’s easy to see where a vain yet crumbling mother fits in. But Minter comes across as expert witness rather than victim. “Pretty/Dirty” is the rare retrospective that also acts as an engrossing biography, skillfully revealing the key shifts in Minter’s career, the points where the green artist transformed into skilled provocateur, the path that made her a star.

We see Minter as a young pop artist in New York City, playing with found images of women and Benday dots (in Big Girls, 1986, an iconic image of Sophia Loren eyeing Jayne Mansfield’s rack is cropped and layered with an image of young girls looking at one another — the downside of the female gaze, if you will) and dipping a toe into photorealist painting. At the press preview, Minter laughed when speaking of these works. “I thought I was so smart,” she said. “Photorealism was everywhere, and I thought I’d just paint pictures of photographs.” They certainly lack the riveting power of her later output, and art dealers deemed the paintings boring; the debt they owe to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist is hard to ignore. Yet these rather traditional oil-on-canvas paintings of photographs, spills, and aluminum foil on the linoleum floor reveal an obsession with materials that becomes instrument rather than subject in her later paintings.

In the late Eighties, Minter made porn paintings: “Food Porn,” 1989–90, using images lifted from food magazines, and other works featuring sexually explicit acts in 1989, a year before Jeff Koons’s infamous “La Cicciolina” series, starring the male artist and his porn star partner. Both series were reviled at the time, but where Koons subsequently went deeper into high-gloss pop, Minter veered toward the transgressive. “I was called a traitor to feminism [at the time], yet I was going to abortion clinics,” she says of the porn paintings. “I think most people don’t know anything about the porn industry, [but] artists have to shine a light on the world around them.” The lasting byproduct of this period was the way Minter harnessed marketing to promote the work, subverting the form and subsequently catapulting herself to success.

Minter took the money she might have spent on an Artforum ad and spent it on television, airing thirty-second commercials for the “Food Porn” show during
Letterman and other late-night programs. “Pretty/Dirty” shows excerpts on a loop. Amid commercials for peanut butter M&Ms, Minter appears like a shock, painting, leading assistants, edgy music in the background. It’s the first indication of her intuitive sense of provocation and understanding of media, as well as how her work acts as foil against marketing images (M&Ms have never looked so disturbingly pornographic). “Food Porn” sold well, and Minter began to make paintings from self-made images, creating the original material in studio, distorting, and layering to make composites of female bodies and substances in close-cropped perspective.

In these fresh, confident enamel-on-metal paintings, female mouths, eyes, and feet seem almost to emerge from the ether. The links to her previous works are there, but her assumption of large-scale painting — panels extending upwards of nine feet tall — her ease and skill at directing and composing her own images, and the blurry photorealism that characterizes these pieces both stun and command. In Blue Poles (2007), glittering eyeshadow casts a woman’s face aquamarine; her abundant freckles and a noticeable pimple stand out just as vividly. From mood to material, there’s much Minter keeps ambiguous. Her latest creations have her layering photographs against glass, which is then subjected to frost or mist, adding an extra veil to both image and process (it’s easy to mistake these paintings for photographs). The results surprise, confuse, and awe.

Still, Minter’s work is most arresting when it’s a surprise. Take the video Smash, originally commissioned for the Brooklyn Museum’s 2014 “Killer Heels” exhibition. In an otherwise predictable array of towering stilettos and architectural platforms, Smash landed like a bomb. In this silver-screen-slick video, the feet of a large woman bulge through teetering, jewel-embellished platforms, splashing and stomping in chrome puddles as baubles drag and flop off. The close-up view renders things grotesque — chipped toenail polish horrifies; the silver paint appears toxic — yet the film dazzles.

Earlier venues for “Pretty/Dirty” used billboards to advertise the show, mimicking Minter’s collaboration with Creative Time in 2006, when four billboards featuring her images were prominently placed around Chelsea. In its own stroke of marketing genius, the Brooklyn Museum has partnered with Barclays Center this month to advertise the exhibition. An adapted version of Minter’s video Green Pink Caviar, from 2009, which features a lush, bulbous mouth licking and pressing against bright fluids, will play on the arena’s massive oculus screen at various points of the day. At 6 a.m. last Tuesday I happened to catch the film, or rather it caught me, its engorged mass of flesh and tongue lolling in the air and glowing in the sky, the mouth filling the height of the seventeen-meter pit of the irregular screen. I stopped, transfixed, and watched the world turn fuchsia, lime, and back again. I wrenched myself away to continue to my polling place after a few moments, returning to the world as abruptly as I’d left it.

Marilyn Minter: ‘Pretty/Dirty’
Brooklyn Museum
Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 5th floor
200 Eastern Parkway
Through April 2