the gentlewoman

The Calling

There’s no one quite like Marilyn Minter. For nearly four decades the 70-year-old artist has been stunning and startling with her provocative, hyperrealist paintings and photography, which are now exchanging hands for six-figures. As political as she is super-fun, Marilyn has recently been using her bulging address book to rally the American art community behind causes such as the New York-based organisation Downtown for Democracy. But cut through the glitz and the grit and Marilyn’s a prolific multi-tasker and perfectionist with a keen eye for spotting and nurturing new artists in her studio – that is until they leave.

Marilyn Minter

Richard: Marilyn, how do you start your day?

Marilyn: I tend to stay up really late at night, until about 2am reading so I usually sleep until 9.45am. I drink a lot of coffee and play with my dogs, Bowie and Sid – one’s part-German Shepherd, the other’s part-Dachshund. Then, I read The Washington Post, the Guardian and The New York Times – I’m sorry to say, but I’m a political junkie! Most days I get to my studio in Manhattan’s Garment District around 11.30am.

R: Do you have a desk in your studio?

M: I have a laptop. I move around a lot. So while I’m working on a painting I’m also on my computer. I always have other things going on at the same time, but I want to be able to see the paintings as I go about the day. They tell me what to do. From the corner of my eye, I’ll see it and it will suggest to me, “Yes, do this”.

R: If you were to draw me a pie chart, what activities take up the biggest and smallest shares of your day?

M: For around 30 per cent of my time, I’ve been working steadily since the 2016 US presidential election. The rest has been occupied with the group Downtown for Democracy. We’ve been raising money for progressive causes by selling artist’s prints at affordable prices. But now that the mid-term elections are over, I’m going back to making art because I have all these demands for my work. But I’m always going to dedicate at least 10 per cent of my time to politics and activism.

R: What’s the one item you need in order to work?

M: A computer. It’s how I create my images. I shoot photographs and then combine the digital negatives to make a painting. I’ll take a bit from one image, a few inches from another; my works are quite large so there’s usually about 20 to 30 images involved. The painting is actually the most relaxing part because all the decisions have already been made on the computer beforehand. Filling in the surface takes a long time; it’s rather therapeutic.

R: What are you working on right now?

M: I’m working on this Bathers series. I’m trying to create images of a redheaded woman bathing. Historically, there are all these images of women grooming, but they’re never real looking. Mine has pubic hair, all the others don’t. I’m making pubic hair so beautiful you can hang it in your living room!

R: From conception to execution, how long on average do you spend on a piece?

M: The shortest amount of time has been one month, but that was for a small painting. The large-scale ones take about a year to do. I work on maybe two paintings each year.

R: Do you impose deadlines?

M: No, no if a piece isn’t done, they don’t get it. Nothing leaves my studio until it’s perfect. So sometimes we’ve missed deadlines.

R: How many people do you manage?

M: I work with six other artists. I’m really good at identifying a person’s particular skills set and then organising them. I’ve had the same people working with me for the last 15 years. If one of my artists is becoming successful in their own right, they’ll start loosing money working for me so I encourage them to go out on their own. Even though I secretly want to sabotage them leaving! Someone’s leaving me this month after 13 years. If you train someone for 13 years, of course, they’re going to be tough to replace.

R: Are you interested in knowing who buys your work?

M: Not particularly.

R: Is money important to you?

M: Yes, because it gives me a certain amount of freedom. It was a lot harder when I had none. But I only got money recently; it’s made it a lot easier to do the things I want.

R: What was the attitude towards work in your family?

M: My dad never worked, he was a compulsive gambler, and my mother was a drug addict. So they weren’t exactly shining examples, growing up. But my brother and I have very thorough work ethics and we’ve done alright.

R: What were your ambitions as a schoolgirl?

M: I didn’t have much ambition, but I knew I wanted to be an artist. It was the only thing I could do well. I was five years old when I discovered I could draw better than my friends; it was the first time I was able to do something better than anyone else and it was stunning to me. But I realised later on that as a skill it wasn’t that important – everyone at art school could draw! Art is about ideas.

R: What would you say to your teenage self now?

M: Oh, I was pretty wild as a teenager. I got arrested at 16 for doctoring people’s driving licenses so that they could get into bars. I was a very bad girl!

R: So what advice would you give to her now?

M: Keep it up!

November 2018. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Ryan McGinley, courtesy of Marilyn Minter.