On Sitting, Roxane Gay
When I met my wife and first used her, now our bathroom, the first thing I saw was Marilyn Minter’s “Absinthe, 2017.” It is a painting of a woman, nude. Her eyes closed. The length of her neck bare and exposed. Her arms raised, hands clasping the back of her head. Breasts, also bare and exposed. The whole of this image is shrouded in condensation. In a moment, I learned something interesting about this new woman in my life, about what she’s drawn to, about what she wants to lay her eyes upon.
Now I am far more familiar with Minter’s work. When I look at her paintings, I am always struck by the intimacy. Shiny lips saturated with color. A pair of eyes, painted with garish eyeshadow. A gold-tipped tongue. A mouth yawned open, overflowing with costume jewelry. A woman’s face, her eyes closed, shrouded in condensation. The images are always visually arresting. They are a reminder that we live in human bodies that are the sum of unique parts. And through Minter’s gaze, we see these parts rendered as complex terrains.
As a writer, my work is on the page. I am not the center of attention, the object of anyone’s gaze. Instead, my words are and that’s exactly how I want it. Anytime I am asked to come out from behind the page, I feel slightly stunned. But when Marilyn Minter reached out and asked if I would sit for her so she could make a portrait of me for a new series of work, I tried to overcome my aversion to being seen, trusting that perhaps an artist might see something different than what I see when I look in the mirror. I had no idea what to expect when I went to Minter’s Soho studio. No two studios are the same, not really. There was a colorful seating area with art hanging, a workspace with desks and computers. Throughout, but neatly organized, the detritus of works in progress. Near the center of the space, a stand to hold frozen panes of glass with a chair on each side. Every member of her studio team was warm and friendly, clearly devoted to the artist and the task at hand. My make-up was done with a dark, exaggerated eye and a dark shiny lip. Marilyn draped a colorful scarf around my neck, took a step back, then leaned in to adjust the scarf until she created the silhouette she wanted.
Everything I knew about sitting for an artist up until then, I learned from the movies—lots of posing, perfectly still, trying to be a muse as the artist works pensively. “Draw me like one of your French girls, Jack,” I kept thinking, imagining a Titanic scenario wherein I draped myself across a settee. Of course, it was nothing like that. Instead, I sat in front of a pane of frozen glass while Minter sat on the other side, holding her camera, waiting. We chatted as we waited for the condensation, as the glass warmed, to make itself into something interesting. When it did, Minter would spring into action, pulling the camera to her face. If lights needed adjusting, they were adjusted. If she needed me to move, I moved. As the condensation disappeared, studio assistants would take a new pane of frozen glass from a nearby freezer holding more frigid canvasses, waiting to become what they were meant to be. When Minter was satisfied that she had enough images to work from, my work as a sitter was done.
We chatted a bit more. She introduced me to the pleasures of Deborah Roberts’s amazing art and then I left without knowing what my eventual portrait would look like, knowing the outcome was never in my control. That, I suppose, is one of the many reasons I prefer to hide behind the page, where almost everything is in my control. At home later that evening, I looked at “Absinthe, 2017,” still hanging in our bathroom on the wall opposite the door, so you are confronted with it each and every time you enter that marbled space. I thought about the confrontation Marilyn Minter would eventually craft into my portrait.
And in the anticipation, there was a quiet thrill.