Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty, at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Marilyn Minter, 100 Food Porn #7, 1989-90
Enamel on metal, 24 x 30 inches

In 2013, thousands of women and their supporters occupied the Texas Capitol building in Austin, attempting to halt onerous, anti-abortion legislation. Proposals included a ban on abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy; the requirement that physicians performing abortions have hospital-admission privileges within thirty miles of the procedure site; the requirement that those clinics be certified as ambulatory surgical centers, analogous to a hospital; and restrictions on medication-based abortions – via, for example, RU-486. 

Despite temporary victories and the historically unusual, statewide mobilization, those laws were ultimately approved by the Texas Legislature and signed by extreme-right Governor Rick Perry. Assaults on reproductive rights continue to intensify around the country.

Abortion-rights supporters occupy the Texas State Capitol building in 2013.

In this political context, “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty,” currently at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), is relevant. The exhibition was co-organized by the CAMH and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCAD). Bill Arning, CAMH Director, and Elissa Auther, Windgate Research Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design and the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, co-curated.

Marilyn Minter graduated from the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1970, and one of her first solo shows was in 1975 at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. The work for which she is now better known began during our own century and critically scrutinizes visual conventions of contemporary fashion, pornography, painting, and their many intersections. In this review, I will focus on key works, and their political implications, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.

Marilyn Minter, Spill, 1977
Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches 

Spill (1977) is from a mid-decade series of similarly themed, conceptual paintings. Depicted is a sickly green, worn, linoleum floor – like that of a kitchen – with a coffee-colored spill and stains. The vantage point is high, but from an angle and not perpendicular to the ground. Although no objects are visible and depth is reduced, a space into which a viewer could “enter” is still implied. The square, linoleum tiles do not parallel the canvas edges, and, further, their decorative streaking alternates from vertical to horizontal. 

Thus, the emphasis here is less on the flatness, materiality, or shape of a tile – or on any homology to those properties of the canvas or stretcher. The approach is a subdued realism with little relation to the era’s photo-realism – or its representation of public spaces and their shiny, reflective surfaces. The scene, a spill to be cleaned, references household and domestic labor, then still paradigmatically feminized even as the post-1960s women’s struggle made socially transformational gains.

Marilyn Minter, Big Girls, 1986
namel on canvas, 2 panels, overall 80 x 90 inches 

In the mid-1980s, Minter began the series “Big Girls, Little Girls,” which are in a very period style. They feature an appropriation of mass-media imagery; through the prominent, halftone-styled dots used in hardcopy print, a highlighting of those newspaper and journal origins; a quasi-mechanical production process, as Minter painted over velox, dot-screen transparencies projected onto the canvas; and close cropping. 

Marilyn Minter, Little Girls #1, 1986
Enamel on canvas, 3 panels, overall 68 x 86 inches 

A black-and-white photograph, from the 1950s, of actresses Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield is the basis for Big Girls (1986). Three separate pieces of canvas are montaged on the larger panel: two multiples of the main image, with a third image of a young girl standing before a funhouse mirror. The latter is seemingly lifted from Minter’s Little Girls #1 (1986). On the smaller panel, at the work’s upper right, the original Loren-and-Mansfield is rendered with a sepia-tone effect.

As in, for instance, the postmodernism of Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman, both form and content unambiguously evoke an era prior to the second-wave women’s movement (I have discussed this here). Specifically, traditional women’s roles – Mansfield in the 1950s was a popular sex-symbol and is, um, showing off her assets for the camera – are projected into the past and critically evaluated.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #5, 1977
elatin silver print, 30 x 40 inches 

This is clear through the ways that the montage denaturalizes the source. The primary image is repeated, staccato-like. The composition is broken. Multiples do not physically align to recreate the objects or imaginary space depicted in the source; edges remain marked. Those multiples, moreover, are oblique to the larger panel’s edges and do not align there either. A disjunction is accentuated between the photographic form and that painterly form on which it appears. Lastly, distortions in the funhouse mirror are analogous to distortions in the mass media – and their negative impacts on women and young girls in a patriarchal society.

What are the effects of framing this critical take in terms of the past? Moreover, is there an underlying political logic here (whatever the artist’s intentions)? 

The second-wave women’s movement was, in the 1980s, still expanding its influence in broader culture, gaining political and legal victories, and maintaining an optimism about the future. Against this background, reactionary politics around women and gender could be understood as historically superseded or substantively headed in that direction. Founded precisely on the optimism resulting from post-1968 gains, there is a strong teleological sense, here, of the world moving forward towards greater freedoms. So, in 1986, using a picture from three decades prior centers those advances and gives women’s roles a strong sense of historical artifact and changeability. 

Such confidence strikes us in today’s catastrophic situation, of course, as problematic or no longer applicable, insofar as it is disassociated from vigorous, on-the-ground women’s struggle which, precisely, went missing by the mid-1990s. 

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (detail), 1987
Stuffed fabric toys and afghans on canvas with dried corn; wax candles on base of wood and metal, Overall 120 3/4 x 151 3/4 x 31 3/4 inches

Artist Mike Kelley’s project Half a Man was a next inspiration for Minter. Kelley inverted dualistic gender expectations and used, in his work, materials traditionally coded as feminine, such as afghans, knittings, and plush toys. Per Minter, he “’was basically mining the contents of a thirteen-year-old girl’s bedroom’” (Minter, “In Conversation With Heilmann” 16). Further:

[I]f a woman artist had done it, no one would give her the time of day. And I thought, What is the subject matter that women never do? Porn. (Minter, “In Conversation With Yablonsky” 37)

The subsequent “porn paintings” were done between 1989 and 1995 and were to prove controversial. 

Marilyn Minter, Porn Grid (detail), 1989
namel on metal, 4-panel grid, each 24 x 30 inches, overall 51 x 63 inches

Based on print magazine images, Porn Grid (1989) features mostly heterosex blowjobs. Genre conventions (then) of pornography, the mass media, and painting are active in the composition. As with much hardcore, there is close cropping. Represented bodies are fragmented: mouth, dick, breasts, and other parts; faces are cut off by edges of the metal panels. Media sources are signaled by simulated halftone dots, again, and through the artificial, glossy colors. Other picture areas are rendered with smooth brushstrokes and minimal facture. In a more painterly vein, fast-drying enamels drip a la a abstract expressionism, or jizz. Coeval works, such as 100 Food Porn #7 (1989-90), have a similar style – and even a sexualization of what initially appears as very different content, food preparation. 

The “sex wars” within the feminist movements are widely considered to have begun with the infamous Barnard Conference in 1982. These disputes, which could be quite unpleasant, continued throughout the decade and well into the 1990s. Pornography was debated, as were bondage, domination, and sadomasochism (BDSM); butch-femme; public sex; monogamy versus polyamory or promiscuity; penetrative sex; bisexuality; and heterosexuality itself; among other things. There were basically two camps, one “pro”-sex and the other “anti”-sex (I bypass here any revisionist, historical accounts and their interpretive subtleties). Minter was in the “pro” camp. 

An initial exhibition in 1989 of some of the works was greeted with near-total, critical silence. A second in 1992 elicited a rather different response, structured by the context of the “sex wars.”

The artist “suffered through blistering confrontations with her … peers, including anonymous phone calls and threatening letters about the works’ perceived collusion with the porn industry and its victimization of women” (Auther 27). As she stated later, in an interview from 2014:

[T]he straight porn show … was a disaster. I thought everyone thought like me. It was a big shock to find that I was in the minority. (Minter, “In Conversation With Yablonsky” 38)

The negative reaction was such that a grouping of sympathetic, artworld feminists reached out to Minter, and she became a member of their reading circle, one focused on the latest thinking around gender and sexuality.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #263, 1992
Color photograph,  40 x 60 inches

This time, there were a number of critical commentaries. Here is Elizabeth Hess in the Village Voice:

Minter, unlike Sherman, turns the volume down on her sexual rage. It’s too bad. This work, dedicated to exploring pornography as a sexual text for women, doesn’t stray far enough from the mainstream…. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and rethinking the content, she went through numerous skin magazines like a kid in a candy shop, stealing whatever caught her fancy.... Minter describes her images as ‘sex positive,’ yet she depicts rote sex. Sex by the book. (108)

To boot:

[T]he artist refuses to rewrite the traditional script. There’s nothing wrong with banal pornography, but why present it as Art? (Hess 108)

Hess counterposes this “porn” series to Cindy Sherman’s recently debuted “sex pictures” and upholds the latter over the former. Those photographs by Sherman had been widely interpreted – quite unlike Minter’s paintings – as a deeply pessimistic critique of heterosexual sex, constitutionally and politically suspect.

Sherman’s work intentionally leads us to despair, while Minter’s wants to please…. Minter’s bed is empty while Sherman’s is filled with demons. (Hess 108)

Three more points on the overall situation then:

First, the grassroots politicization of the AIDS crisis had begun in the LGBT communities by the mid-1980s and ultimately gave rise to organizations such as ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and Queer Nation. As Arning notes in his catalog essay, women activists in this milieu developed new, sex-affirmative dialogues around, specifically, the sexual practices of lesbians and queer women. (This can be contrasted to the more anodyne, socially acceptable categories of sexual identity or consciousness, which have a tendency to elide the naughty bits). Such dialogues were not as intensely presented concerning the practices of heterosexual women.

Second, a strong women’s movement did exist in the 1980s (contrary to popular belief). From 1988 to at least 1993, anti-choice groupings such as Operation Rescue were on a national campaign – which hit Wichita, Buffalo, Baton Rouge, Houston, and many other cities – to physically blockade abortion and women’s-health clinics. Thousands were mobilized in generally successful, on-the-ground defense of such clinics, and these mass efforts prominently included elements of the women’s, AIDS, and queer movements. 

So, abortion rights were under pressure from on-the-ground foot-soldiers of the extreme right but were still relatively secure, at least with a fight. Now, however, that pressure comes far more from the state itself, i.e. the legal, official sphere of politics; and those rights are mortally endangered. From roughly the August, 2013 passage of the Texas restrictions to October, 2014, the state’s number of licensed abortion providers dropped from forty to just eight (Aaronson). As well, 205 restrictions on the procedure were enacted around the country in a mere three years, 2011-2013 – more than the 189 enacted during the entire, preceding decade, 2001-2010 (Nash). The right has been sufficiently emboldened to even open up a new front against contraception.

Third, right-wing legislators, in this same period, were attempting to slash federal backing for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – and systematically subverting the very idea of such public funding tout court. One “wedge issue” here was vitriolic attacks on so-called “obscene” artists who focused on gender and sexuality – such as Karen Finley and Holly Hughes. All of this is obviously characteristic of an ascendant neoliberal strategy. (These “censorship wars” were yet another key locus for counter-organizing by progressive movements on-the-ground.) 

In this reactionary debate, the traditional, conceptual division between high and low culture was strongly presented – and is unsettlingly duplicated in Hess’ troublesome distinction between capital-A Art and mass, popular culture. For example, this could take the form of a “low” pornography, on the one hand; versus a high “eroticism” – or complete sublimation of the erotic altogether – posited as more legitimate for Art, on the other hand.

Hess’ perspectives were thus developed in dramatically different political conditions and are now dubious for that reason alone, whatever other doubts can be raised. Among those conditions: a discourse concerning heterosexual practices among women was absent; and the right to abortion seemed far more guaranteed. Also note how “rewrit[ing] the traditional script” or “sexual text” would fall solidly within the realm of high Art and solidly outside the “debased” realm of the everyday and quotidian. Given today’s necessity for a reinvigorated reproductive-rights struggle, an affirmative emphasis on really-existing, actually-existing sexual practices – which include those which can get someone pregnant – is a necessity as well. Hess’ call, for “throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” today would seem inopportune and wildly ultraleft. 

Minter’s purpose was to overturn gendered expectations, along the lines of Kelley, and to create an artform not commonly associated with women. What applied to men, however, did not in this case apply to her, and images of women sucking dick were deemed unacceptable. 

The ensuing imbroglio around the “porn paintings,” while perhaps firmly in the past, still raises relevant questions about the political and material foundations for such a strikingly utopian call as Hess’. Other early works such as “Big Girls, Little Girls” further reveal a sense of historicity – and, by extension, futurity – that is peculiar to the women’s movement at its transformational powers’ height. In 2015, conversely, the bad, “old” days have returned to the present in force, and a new sense of historicity and futurity is needed.

“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” is on view until August 2, 2015 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver from September 18, 2015 to January 31, 2016. The show then travels and will be at the Orange County Museum of Art, CA from April 2 to July 10, 2016; and the Brooklyn Museum, from September 19, 2016 to January 22, 2017.


Paul Mullan is an activist and writer living in Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Paul also blogs for Red Wedge at "Conditions" and can be reached at


The condition of art sutured to the condition of politics. A blog by Red Wedge writer Paul Mullan.