In the early '90s, Marilyn Minter was emerging on the New York scene when she suddenly found herself ostracized for a group of paintings based on photos from hard-core pornographic magazines. Sexual activity, especially fellatio, is the subject of an explicit series from 1989 called "Porn Grids," which offended viewers and incited brutal critical reviews—the New York Times wrote that her "anatomical displays not suitable for discussion in a family newspaper" made poor comparison to the "sexy" images of Rauschenberg and Rosenquist. Though porn was a short-lived source for her, she's maintained threads of provocation and sensuality in all phases of her career. Strong similarities tie her early work to more recent images of plump, moist lips and curled tongues fondling jewelry or food.
Minter made a major comeback when three of her paintings were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Recently her friend, dealer José Freire, remembered the controversial early paintings, and encouraged Minter to test the waters for a second time: A solo show, "Paintings from the 80s," opens at Team Gallery on Thursday.
At Team, the handful of porn pictures are hung in the small rear space while the main gallery features "Big Girls/Little Girls," a group of paintings Minter created by distorting magazine pictures of pre-adolescent females and busty movie stars. Shortly after they were made in 1986, Minter sold most of these pieces from her studio to various friends and collectors. This marks the first time in over 30 years that they'll be on view together.
LILLY SLEZAK: What happened when you first showed these porn paintings? It's no secret that the reviews were scathing. Were you surprised?
MARILYN MINTER: God, I was so naive! I thought everyone thought like I did. So stupid. I was just making my art, thinking there were all these pro-sex feminists out there like me. I was asking questions, but my mistake was that I didn't have any answers. I still don't have any answers. But when it comes to sexuality, I find there aren't any answers. Anyone who thought I was doing it for titillation, that was misguided. Artists make work from the soul—you're not even thinking what the repercussions are going to be. So it was a big surprise to me. I had a critic come to my studio, a very famous critic saying, "You can't show these!"
SLEZAK: Whose work were you looking at then?
MINTER: I was intrigued by Mike Kelley's work. I saw his show of stuffed animal sculptures and stuffed animal paintings. He would decoupage bureau drawers with eyes and mouths. I thought, "Wow! If a woman artist made this work, nobody would pay any attention to it." It was really mining a teenage or adolescent girl's bedroom. And he was this California intellectual—it was just so brilliant. But a woman artist wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole because they would lose credibility. I wanted to do something that no women artists were doing.
SLEZAK: And that led you to porn?
MINTER: After seeing Kelley's work, it occurred to me to do porn. But I thought, "I can't just do soft-core, it has to be hard-core. Cum shots!" I started asking myself if I could change the meaning of this imagery in the culture. I was thinking about how women should be making sexual imagery for their own pleasure. There was this really small group of pro-sex feminists, most of them were lesbians, who were making literature for their own pleasure. Things to read for pleasure.
SLEZAK: Where did you get your source material for "Porn Grids"?
MINTER: I went into porn stores and bought magazines. The aisles would just clear out when I came in. It cracked me up. I felt so much power, walking down the aisle and then all of a sudden, I'd be the only person in it.
SLEZAK: The series "Big Girls/Little Girls" will occupy the main gallery. What inspired this body of work?
MINTER: Prior to making "Big Girls/Little Girls," I saw an image of a little girl in an encyclopedia from the 1950s. She had saddle shoes on; she was a '50s icon. Then I saw this picture of Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield. Jayne was this busty icon and Sophia Loren was considered an earthy actress and here she was eyeing these giant boobs. Is it a picture of envy or what? Anyway, it's an iconic image. But they were all products of the culture they live in, and it's no different today. I just wanted to make an image of what it felt like to be looked at or to look. I won't use the term "female gaze"; I'm not going to go there. You can intellectualize it all you want, but I think about it as competition—about growing up female.
SLEZAK: You used this Pop-inspired approach, using Ben-Day dot grids and blocks of color to distort, flatten and stylize the images. This may come as a surprise to people who know your hyper-realistic style of painting.
MINTER: There were a couple of things going on at the time. I was part of a collaborative group of artists right before that and I was working with oil paint. I went to rehab and the collaboration broke up. I had to make something and I didn't want to make anything that looked like what I did before. I was starting off brand new—this was the first thing that I made that I didn't destroy.
I wanted to get rid of my skill level. I had this ability to be able to copy anything and I hadn't figured out a way to use that skill that was adding anything to art history, or to the context of Realism. There were only a handful of people that made real contributions-Chuck Close, for one—but I didn't see myself as one of them at that point. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I made the mistake of giving up what I do the best. I think I was trying to make something that fit the prevailing winds rather than just owning what I do and letting it take me where it would. I was trying to pound my gift into submission—to fit the mold of the time. The Pop style, the distortion, this was a way I could distance myself a bit from being a painter. But I went right back to being a painter again.
SLEZAK: Given that assessment, why show the work again now, 30 years later?
MINTER: I think there's a thread that you can see throughout all my work. It's definitely helpful to see the early work because there's a sensibility through everything.
SLEZAK: It's hard to miss your recurring use of this mouth-this plump, red-lipped mouth. Is it an oral fetish?
MINTER: Oh, it's not my oral fetish, it's the world's! I'm just taking a fashion trope and pushing it. In the fashion world, they always have mouths lightly kissing jewelry or putting their little tongue on the tip of an egg. I'll just have the model bite into the egg, because that's how I think. I take everything that already exists and just push it.
SLEZAK: Do you still look at a lot of fashion magazines?
MINTER: I never do. Unless I'm getting my hair cut.
Currently on view in the group show "Redux" at New York's Cristin Tierney Gallery (through Feb. 4) are two works by Joe Fig, both related to his 200