January 25th, 2017
Shattering the Gold Ceiling
Marilyn Minter brings her brand of glittery feminism to the Brooklyn Museum.
By Maika Pollack
During these dark times, Marilyn Minter’s brand of empowered woman shines bright. Minter not only shared a bill with Madonna in a conversation at the Brooklyn Museum on January 19, the eve of the Presidential inauguration, but the sixty-eight-year-old artist herself has been a visible presence at a number of anti-Trump protests in New York and Washington, D.C., and her work figures prominently in fundraisers for Planned Parenthood. Minter’s retrospective Pretty/Dirty, curated by Bill Arning and Elissa Auther, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, also kicked off a series of ten exhibitions called A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum. These projects feature women artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to the terrific Beverly Buchanan, whose subtle work is presented in the museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art concurrently with Pretty/Dirty. Together, the Year of Yes feels timely even if so far—a week into the Trump presidency—2017 feels more like the year of “God, no.”
Pretty/Dirty opens with Minter’s 1969 series Mom in Mirror. The mom, in Minter’s black-and-white images, an aged woman the artist describes as a “reclusive Southern Belle,” is defined both by her liver spots and perfectly penciled-in eyebrows. In the 1970s, Minter’s first, somewhat tedious paintings show the life of domestic surfaces: close-ups of linoleum, tinfoil, and plywood. By the late 1980s, we are deep into Minter’s Porn Grid (1989), in which the banality of domestic spaces gives way to the canned shock of rasterized blowjobs—some feature three women to one cock. Trying the same application of paint with yet a third subject, Minter finds food: 100 Food Porn (1990) features phallic corncobs, swollen zucchinis, and items evocative of female genitalia (melons, artichoke hearts). Fingers splay a split salmon like a vagina. Minter, in her application of enamel to metal, is an indifferent painter, but her politics deftly take a page from Joan Semmel’s porn-positive feminism. We’ve recently seen other shows that celebrate women depicting sexually explicit material, in particular, Coming to Power, at Macaronne, in which Minter’s early work also appeared.
At this point, the work in Pretty/Dirty suddenly shifts as we jump a decade forward and find large, photorealistic enamel-on-metal paintings—the Minters we often see at art fairs today. At first they seem to focus on the “flaws” that are edited out of commercial images of women: stubbly armpit hair, or the pink impression sock elastic leaves on white skin. In Blue Poles (2007), a single zit sits between two eyes, dappled with blue glitter. Titled after the iconic Jackson Pollock painting, the work is pretty and carries a low-wattage critique of beauty norms. But soon they lose this grain of commentary: Pop Rocks (2009) is just a woman’s mouth close-up, orgiastic, fellatio-like, on the verge of abstraction. In Drizzle (2010), a model appears with gold paint dripping from her mouth. A mixture of vodka and metallic food coloring create the effect of liquid metal, the wall text informs us. What beauty norm might this critique? It’s not so simple anymore. Instead, the interest of the piece lies in the way gold paint drips from a woman’s mouth—it’s seductive, and silky, and while the pleasure is somewhat sensual and pornographic, the content is just paint meeting body.
Another room features Minter’s recent work in fashion, music, and advertising. A concert backdrop created for Madonna, Green Pink Caviar (2009), features women’s lipsticked mouths that that look like Bukkake anemonies, sucking and spitting up various colorful and slimy substances. The series Plush (2014), commissioned by Playboy, celebrates public hair and the nailpolished female hands that caress it. In an adjacent chamber, a video titled Smash (2014) shows a well-heeled woman’s foot breaking a glass wall. The message is clear—as clear as Hillary Clinton hiring the Javits Center with its glass ceiling for her never-consummated victory party in New York.
I remain uneasy about Minter’s signature work. Sure, she is riffing on Baudelaire’s equation of painting with makeup; at best, it’s decadent and rich, smeary and brushy stuff, with technique that might suggest, to some, a feminist Gerhard Richter. Yet Minter’s project also feels limited. Women are all sexy silver body glitter, goo-sucking lips, and alligator eyes. I like that Minter got “hers,” in the sense of commercial and even critical success, and I respect her political commitment: she doesn’t have to be a great artist to be a good feminist. But her images, at least in this later phase of her career, appear too market-ready, and their large scale reads as expensive, deluxe, and ultimately inoffensive.
Minter seats her viewer squarely in a quintessentially male position of power and erotic surveillance—what Laura Mulvey might have called “the male gaze.” Her relationship to Surrealist photography or historical experimental work is shallow, while its relationship to corporate tie-in culture and art-fair capitalism is profound. I find myself wondering if her empowered woman is too easy to assimilate with the often-violent visual pleasure of patriarchal visual culture and winner-take-all capitalism. Meanwhile, Minter’s earliest work is too dull to spark much interest. Pretty/Dirty is an evolutionary step in thinking about how to make art by women a serious and central part of museum culture. A Year of Yes is doing that subtle work, but the bold, ostentatiously successful, “one-of-the-boys” feminism of Minter’s work provides just one model.
Maika Pollack is an art historian teaching at Sarah Lawrence College.
Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty is on view through April 2, 2017 at the Brooklyn Museum.