Marilyn Minter has been pushing boundaries both as an artist and an activist for decades. At the opening of her exhibition in Hong Kong, she talks to us about pornography, protests and an encounter with Ivanka Trump
When I call Marilyn Minter in her New York studio, she is not painting, taking photos or doing any of the things you might expect of an artist preparing for their first solo show in Asia. Instead, she is planning a protest.
“Donald Trump is a monster, he’s my worst nightmare,” Minter exclaims. “We’re fighting fascism now in the United States. I’ve never seen democracy so fragile—and I’m old. I saw Nixon, I saw the Aids crisis, I saw Reagan, and this is the worst it’s ever been. I’m planning something with [the political action committee] Downtown for Democracy at the moment, but I’ve always been an activist, it’s just that nobody knew my name.”
That’s changed. Minter, who turned 70 this year, is one of the most famous feminist artists in the US—and the world—and one of the few who is both taken seriously by critics and loved by the public.
The work of the self-confessed “radical bad girl” is collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Beyoncé; she has given academic lectures at UCLA and hosted panel discussions with Madonna.
This success is hard-won. In the early days of her career, when the young artist was scraping a living in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, she was slated for her glossy paintings incorporating imagery from fashion advertising and pornography.
“I’m drawn to things that people find contemptible or shallow,” Minter explains. “Pornography is one of the giant engines of our culture—there’d be no internet without pornography. And the fashion industry and glamour is another giant engine of our culture. It’s a billion-dollar industry.”
Aside from the criticism that Minter’s subject matter wasn’t serious enough to warrant a place in art history, misogyny often underlay the vicious dismissal of her work.
“Fashion gives women a lot of pleasure,” Minter says. “I think women should have the agency to make imagery for their own pleasure and their own amusement. I think it’s time for women to have agency instead of constantly being the object. It’s a real taboo for women to own sexual power and it’s amazing to me that more artists aren’t examining this.”
For her exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong, Minter is turning the tables on something that has inspired artists from Paul Cézanne to Edgar Degas to Paul Gauguin: the image of a female bather. “The bather is a trope of art history and I thought it would be a fresh vision to have a 21st-century bather,” Minter says.
Unlike the vulnerable young women that appear in historical portrayals of the bather (most of which are painted by men), Minter’s photo-realistic paintings feature confident women standing behind steamed-up shower doors, sometimes writing explicit messages in the condensation.
The works are undeniably sexual—featuring dewy beads of condensation dripping off glistening, plumped-up lips—but these women are not objectified; they’re in control.
Just as Minter has seen the reception of her feminist art change from openly hostile to laudatory, she has seen enormous shifts in society at large.
“When I was growing up, it was very rare to have doctors or lawyers that were women. There were no CEOs of any corporation that were women,” she says.
“Women were teachers, they were nurses, librarians. I never had a woman teacher in art school. I was the only girl in the entire grad school of painters—it was 17 guys and me. The women’s movement, feminism, I think is the biggest change I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Yet there is still work to be done—especially now that Trump is president. Minter has been a vocal and seemingly tireless opponent of Trump since before he was elected. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, she co-hosted a panel discussion with Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum during which Minter urged the audience to “fight back. Don’t accept anything he does.”
The next day, she was one of hundreds of thousands of people who descended on Washington DC for the Women’s March. Since then, she’s made anti-Trump posters that are available to download for free online and organised a pop-up store that raised funds for Planned Parenthood and other charities, among many other protests.
Like many leading artists, Minter has had personal encounters with the Trump family because Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, are avid collectors of contemporary art.
“Their art advisor brought them to my studio a long time ago—2011 or maybe 2012,” Minter recalls. “She was very nice and he was very full of himself. They don’t collect my art—he hated my work. He was very dismissive. I could tell he wasn’t even slightly interested. At that point in time they weren’t political animals. I was just really polite. I’m a radical bad girl but I’m very polite because I’m from the Deep South, so I was inoculated with politeness at birth.”
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Minter is now an avid participant in the anti-Trump “Dear Ivanka” campaign, for which celebrities who are followed by Ivanka on Instagram post personal messages to the president’s daughter urging her to act against her father’s most harmful policies.
On the day of our interview, Minter posted another “Dear Ivanka” message on her account because—for the third time—Ivanka had begun following her on Instagram. “Can you believe that idiot followed me again?” Minter asks with a cackle. Soon after Minter’s latest message was published, Ivanka once again unfollowed her.
The Trumps clearly infuriate Minter, but she never loses her temper or sinks into despair when talking about them. In fact, for all her anger and sadness that Trump is in office, Minter seems surprisingly positive about the future.
“Millennials make me hopeful,” she says. “They are the most justice-minded of any generation. I mean, look at the kids who survived the Parkland shooting. They’re amazing. My generation has to age out—we’re not going to change the baby boomers’ minds. Trump is the last gasp of a dying patriarchy.”
Marilyn Minter's exhibitions runs until October 27 at Lehmann Maupin, 407 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central; +852 2530 0025; lehmannmaupin.com