BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Marilyn Minter

BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 09 AUG 95

Marilyn Minter is best known for her enamel-on-steel paintings, which juicily smear the pristine gloss of the cosmetics, food and pornography industries. But if one doesn't pick up on their therapeutic spin, Minter's drippy, Ben Day-dotted paintings of bright red lips (hovering about lipsticks and penises) may smack less of critique than of the hedonistic adventures of the Rolling Stones' cartoon logo. So it comes as a doubly rewarding surprise to see an exhibition of Minter's black-and-white photographs, all shot while she was an art student in 1969 (the negatives, purportedly, had never been printed until this year). The works document the everyday rituals of Minter's mother, an agoraphobic shut-in living in a Florida housing development named Coral Ridge Towers, North (also the title of this show).

All nine photos depict the pale, 50-ish woman in various states of repose. Although it may be assumed that such non-activity is endemic to the agoraphobic lifestyle, it still lends the pictures an air of sickly elegance. In Mom Smoking Extra Long, she reclines on a couch like some washed-up vamp in a studio-lot trailer; in Mom Making Up, she purses her lips before a dressing-room mirror studded with burned-out bulbs. The lighting in these matte photographs is somewhere between garish and B-movie dramatic; indeed, most could be stills from films about evil (step-)mothers. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford comes to mind, as does the mirror-gazing sorceress in Snow White: in one untitled photo, the elder Minter is reflected in an ornate oval-looking glass straight out of that Disney fantasy. Fully made up but with no place to go, she smiles wanly at her fair reflection as she buttons the neck of her nightgown.

But rank tropical sweat and dated commercial props draw us back from the brink of fiction. A Diet Pepsi can from the bygone days of cyclamates, a once-popular beauty cream called Moon-Drops, a Miami newspaper with a dull headline ­ all are the kind of things usually edited from art photographs and commercial films. Likewise the crumbling of the woman's physical and psychological being, here so matter-of-factly portrayed.

At the time Minter took these photos, straight-shooting social documentarians like Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus were making, or were soon to make, some of their best work. Arbus, in fact, was Minter's photography teacher; hers and Winogrand's pictures of grotesquely ordinary Americans were surely an influence. In another of Minter's untitled works, her mother lies in bed, one spotty arm draped coyly behind a head swathed in curlers, surrounded by her pathetic accoutrements: a Christian Victory hymnal, an ancient radio, a hand-held mirror and a scattering of name-brand creams and emollients. After eliciting the first waves of revulsion and pity, however, Minter's photos settle into a strangely warm, familiar rhythm ­ one steeped in the same closeted love of the subject which Winogrand's own exquisitely cruel pictures emit.

Note, too, that in 1969 the careers and mature styles of the aforementioned snapshot-aesthetic practitioners were far from historically codified; in this sense, Minter the student photographer proved herself capable not only of mastering the fundamentals of that era's avant-garde style, but more importantly of understanding the ideas behind it at roughly the same time those ideas were being fomented. Unlike many of today's avant-gardists, Minter did not glean her revolutionary insights from a dusty French book.

Even if Minter's impetus was less a highly developed philosophy about American society than a young woman's dysfunctional relationship with her sick mother, she nevertheless grasped the dynamic thread which drew fiction, documentary and personal narrative together in the art photography of the time, as well as in tangential developments like the New Journalism. In yet another untitled photo, Minter's mother is seen exiting a hallway door flanked by an ornate electric candelabra, her movement blurred by the camera's slow shutter speed. Here, Minter's visual tropes of ghostly image, spare Baroque props, and dramatic lighting correspond exactly to those of Duane Michals' best works, again made during the same period.

Today, Minter declares these photographs as direct, documentary evidence of her own simmering rage and fascination with beauty rituals, as exhibited and exorcised in her current painting style. They may be; but that would be sacrificing these remarkable photos to the balance of Minter's frankly unremarkable oeuvre. Though the novelty of their being recently dug up may add to their charm, these works are surely intriguing as heretofore unknown

­ and unpursued ­ footnotes to one of American photography's most dynamic periods.