When I arrive at Marilyn Minter’s Manhattan studio on an unseasonably warm March afternoon, the artist is presiding over her assistants the way an Old Master might. She lopes around a high-ceilinged room, where six young people are hunched before bright, large-scale canvases, each performing different tasks. Minter is the director-producer of the operation: she corrects details of one painting and then—midthought—wheels around to blurt out another. “Matt, can you hear me?” she says to an assistant who is wearing headphones while he paints. “See—he’s wired in.” In a way, it’s a mix between a Renaissance studio and the programming department at Facebook.
Minter, who is 64, stands at almost 6 feet tall, with a shock of red hair echoed by an even brighter shade of lipstick. She strides around her studio in motorcycle boots, asking questions of her team and surveying the massive canvases hung around the room. She’s preparing for an upcoming show at Regen Projects in Los Angeles (opening April 6), which will put five of her new, large-scale paintings next to early photographic work.
We sit down for our interview in a corner of the large studio, where a freshly poured Diet Coke is precariously placed on the edge of a low coffee table. Within minutes, someone has knocked it to the floor—sending shattered glass and ice cubes sliding in every direction. But Minter doesn’t bat an eyelash. An assistant immediately descends on the scene with a dustpan. “Looks just like one of your paintings,” he says about the mess.
And it’s true: Minter is used to a little broken glass. Her paintings are composites of grimy body parts oozing with sweat and makeup. They’re photographed under broken glass that has been sprayed with water, sprinkled with debris, and—in her new works—even covered with neon graffiti. In short, her work is giant spill.
But her process is anything but accidental; in fact, it’s more than a little painstaking. To produce her large-scale paintings (which, she says, can take up to a full year to complete), Minter begins with straight photography, using both digital and analog film. She then manipulates an image using Photoshop to produce an eye or a pair of feet that is actually a composite of many different photos—and then takes a picture of that photo under glass that has been broken or covered in writing and water. That goes through many rounds, and then all of those pictures—using the drip of water from one image, and the dirt from another—are Photoshopped into one final picture. That final product is then projected onto canvas, where assistants called “blockers” record the shape and make notes of which colors are meant to appear where. After the first two coats have been applied, a “finisher” steps in to compete the process, adding accents and smudging the final lines with his or her fingers, which enhances the slightly gritty, out-of-focus effect of the subject.
Though Minter is often referred to as a photo-realist—an artist employing the technique of transferring photographs to paintings by grids, in the style of Chuck Close—she calls herself a “photo replacer.” “The thrill of a photo-realist painter is if you get really close to the painting, it looks just like a photograph,” she says. “Whereas in my case, if you get close to my paintings they totally fall apart—so I’m about as far from a photo-realist as it gets.”
The idea to paint bright graffiti over the images came to Minter from a friend. “Somebody sent me an iPhone photo of makeup being tested in a drug store,” she says. “Someone was trying out the lipstick colors and the nail polish and it was just covered with graffiti, and I went, ‘Wow, I gotta do that.’” The result is an unexpected swash of color that beautifully offsets the soft-focus subject. But the graffiti is a direct descendent of her work with signage: Minter painted walls in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the 1970s, and created several billboards that were displayed around New York with the Creative Time agency in 2006, as well as a digital billboard of a video piece, Green Pink Caviar, which was on view on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard in 2009.
But in the upcoming show, the bold new paintings are complemented by early photographs Minter took while she was an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, on a weekend visit to Coral Ridge Towers, an apartment complex outside of Ft. Lauderdale. The photographs depict Minter’s pill-addicted mother in a negligee wearing a wig. “When I brought them back to school and I showed them the proof sheets, people were horrified that this was my mother,” she said. “All of a sudden, I got the picture: this is not what other people’s mothers look like.” Though the photographs caught the eye of Diane Arbus, who was a visiting professor, Minter says they were ridiculed by her fellow students. They went unprinted until 1995.
The thread that connects those haunting early portraits to the bright graphic paintings is Minter’s sense of skewed glamour. Her worldview centers around an off-kilter sense of beauty—traditional objects of desire rendered slightly awry. There are her signature fetishistic, large-scale paintings of muddy feet, and her recent series of Pamela Anderson paintings, which rendered her as an otherworldly being, taking a bath.
But for all of Minter’s recent success, she’s not about to forget her past. From those early days at the University of Florida to the mid-2000s, Minter has never been a critical favorite. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, her experimental, bold work often landed her unfavorable reviews—which pushed her to the periphery of the art world. It wasn’t until a solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Biennial in 2005 that Minter finally became a commercial success. But, Minter insists, it’s not her style that changed—but rather the world’s opinion that has changed around her. “I always knew I had something to say even when nobody else wanted to listen,” she has said.
Now Minter feels that those challenges were instrumental to her career. As she puts it: “I sort of feel like if you’re slightly marginalized, you’re hungrier, and you can take more risks and be more playful.”