ArtWord: Betty Tompkins

tompkins gallery

The large scale photorealistic paintings of heterosexual intercourse which Betty Tompkins made between 1969 and 1974 were practically unknown when they were exhibited together for the first time in New York in 2002. Knowledge of Tompkins’ paintings immediately broadened the repertoire of first generation feminist-identified imagery. More significantly, their materialization made manifest an unacknowledged precursor to contemporary involvement with explicit sexual and transgressive imagery.

With inclusion of her paintings in more recent shows like Screw You and In the Pink I became interested in how her work finds itself in various periods in art history.  I continue to be fascinated by how even through continuing censorship, her paintings re-enter arts conversations from Abstract Expressionism to Feminism, to Pornography with her signature Fuck, Cunt and Kiss paintings.



Sex painting #1, 2009


I understand your painting interests are grounded in Abstract Expressionism and in particular the conflict between abstraction and figuration. This was and perhaps continues to be a formalist debate artists engage in the studio. The birth of this debate is a bit difficult to pin, but it is easy to point to Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning as a participant in this conversation. (I’ve not decided if I am setting you up or him), but I wonder if you can talk a bit about how de Kooning worked through this problem with his Women paintings. I ask you because I see your Fuck Paintings not only as a response to paintings of nude women throughout the history of art, but perhaps as a direct response to de Kooning’s Women.

My training as an undergrad was based in AE and de Kooning is one of my favorite artists. I never saw a piece of his that did not engage me. And it is true that I stress an awareness of the formal elements in painting being equal to its subject matter. I am fascinated by the pitched battle between the two. In my best work, neither side wins. When I was a student, I was told over and over and over again not to make forms up but to look at things -objects/places/photographs- anything at all to pick out a line here, a curve there, a combination of light/dark, rhythms or forms. As I was a slob, this was easy for me. I had stuff all over the place. I remember thinking that it was great it was for a reason. It is a terrific way to avoid visual clichés. I don’t see how you can pull out of yourself what you have never put in but if you have lots of visual stimulation, you can be free and creative because of it. I believe de Kooning did the same and I see his Women paintings as a natural step in organizing his energy and pushing him towards wilder and more creative painting experiences. They are obviously more referential than other work of his. And they allowed him to use collage elements from magazines. They are fully realized, dynamic compositions pitched against a gestural approach to the subject matter. We perceive them as violent. He also used this subject matter in earlier paintings when he was moving toward abstraction and before he was so gestural in the handling of the paint. Some of the late paintings also reference women. We all have these default settings – themes, subjects that show up over and over in our work that allow us to explore different facets of painting. Women were de Kooning’s. I am curiously finding a parallel to my own work here. It never occurred to me before. I do everything I can to keep the making of my paintings a raw experience (as if each is the very first one I ever did) and de Kooning did the same.


Fuck painting #42, 2011


Along these same lines, I am interested in the fact these paintings have been referred to as portraits. It is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One, there are few faces. While the source of your paintings is porn, you make a conscious decision to remove the faces of those in the original photograph in order to focus on the part that is “most compelling.” Further, if we refer to these as large scale portraits, I can’t help but to compare your work with Chuck Close. With portraiture, the combination of abstraction and the figure as well as the grid are part of a visual language shared with Close

Hmmm. I don’t refer to them as portraits. And I certainly don’t think of them as portraits. Where did you read that? (When Cincinnati Art Snob first initiated this interview an online review made this reference that is no longer appears to be live) When I was working on the first group of the fuck paintings in the early-mid ‘70’s, Chuck and I lived in the same building. I was on the 3rd floor and he was on the 7th floor. Visitors to my studio would invariably say, “Oh. Just like Chuck Close but lower down.” As this was literally true, it drove me bonkers. This plus not being able to find exhibition venues for them were key in my deciding to stop doing them and move on to other ideas. Chuck and I had also had the same painting teacher. Different schools and 5-6 years apart but the same teacher. He raised us all to be abstract expressionists and, for my generation of student, to be involved with Pop Art. When I look at Chuck’s early portraits done with an electric eraser, I think every square is an homage to de Kooning. I am aware that neither of these answers approach the questions in a historical manner. I don’t talk about my work from that point of view. I consider that to be the job of critics, art historians, and curators. I am always fascinated by what they say/do too. I also feel that when they talk, the conversation about my work gets bigger and that when I talk, it limits the way my work can be seen or discussed. Because of the subject matter, I am happier with the broadest, rawest range of reactions though I don’t care at all whether the reaction is positive or negative. I don’t do the paintings with the audience in mind.

Cunt Painting #12, 2009


Today I read so many debates about accessibility of art to all. This is a popular topic with museums, civic programs, street art, online websites and galleries, discussions of copywriting laws and on and on. With the censoring of your work during the 60s, including you in a formalist discussion then was near impossible. Outside of talking with artists, I don’t always read or see these conversations happening today. Does today’s social acceptance of your work help renew the formalist debate taking place in the 50’s and 60’s or better, does it help initiate a new contemporary formalist debate?

I have no idea. The acceptance of my work is very narrow. Centre Pompidou in Paris is the only museum in the world to own works of mine and to show them. I have been in other museum shows in Europe. No American museum has exhibited or purchased or accepted as a donation my work. This is not a situation I expect to have change in the near future. It would be very nice, of course. I just don’t see it happening. As for the formalist debate, I think it is alive and well and taking place through the paintings themselves. I have been looking at so much gleefully abstract work across generations lately through the international fairs and biennials. It is a real conversation to me. I don’t see so much figurative work with the same kind of conviction or joy of execution.


I am most intrigued by how earlier censorship of your work has defined your participation in arts conversation. Even with the censorship during the 70s, you continued working through this particular problem of sexuality in the arts. Does the more recent acceptance of your paintings force you into a place (or two places!) in art history where you are expected to participate in feminist debates rather than formalist ones? Or by combining the abstract and the sexual is this role the one you have wanted, the conversation you’ve wanted? Do you think the initial reluctance by the public has defined your growth as an artist?

The earlier censorship and consequent inability to get anything exhibited anywhere led to my doing the cow/cunt paintings (at the time, my idea of less dangerous subject matter) and eventually moving as far away from this subject matter as I could! Gradually through a circular route of considering language, gender roles, the body, imagery from art history and soft-core porn, I worked myself back to it. By the way, I was also censored in Japan in 2006. I slightly hold my breath whenever a piece leaves the country and is subject to customs inspections. I am very pleased to see both the older work and the more recent work finding their way. It is important to me that people know I did them when I did them. Each generation wants to reinvent everything for itself and it is very easy to get forgotten. When you get older, you see the discussion as more of a continuum over generations. Or at least, that’s how I see it. It is always important to have work out and about making its voice heard. I am not too big on either/or situations. My work can be discussed in a feminist context and it can be discussed in a formalist context and it can be discussed in a subject matter/abstract context. I can have it all. I want all of the discussions.
I have worked mostly in obscurity for most of my professional life. While I exhibited almost everything I did somewhere with the exception of the sex works, my career really started in 2002 with my first show with Mitchell Algus. As I spent most of the preceding 30 years not in the gallery system, I was free to develop however I wished without regard to trends or to the market. It was frustrating because I like to show but also liberating. I am now enjoying the wider exposure wherever it is. It is a lot more fun.

Girl on Girl Painting #4, 2011


Even in its explicitness, I would think pornography as a source would offer some restrictions to your own compositional creativity. Looking at your work chronologically seems to reveal social conventions. For example, your earlier subjects include men fucking women almost exclusively. Women on women appear later in your oeuvre. I understand sometimes you make compositional changes including the angle of the bodies. Are these changes similar to your omitting the subjects’ faces? If so, then can we see your initial interest include form and abstraction rather than the body? Do you find the conventions of pornography constrict your creative interests in the abstract?

I feel free to crop, put things in, take things out, change gender and ethnicity. Rotating and flipping and cropping all substantially and essentially change the emphasis, intent, and emotional tenor of the image. I also work with a wide range of chromatic blacks and often use undercolors and slightly altered whites to help me along. Originally I only used mars black. I like the idea of making black and white paintings that have a sense of color to them. I have also expanded the range of subject matter. The original fuck paintings were all hetero intercourse. My first husband who was 12 years older than I was, he had, years before he met me, gotten a set of porn photos from Hong Kong or Singapore. It was illegal to transport them by mail to the US so he rented a postal box in Vancouver BC and drove from Everett WA to pick them up. When I did the cow/cunt paintings, he got me some beaver magazines to work from so I was able to find cunt images. But anything with insertion was impossible then. The girl on girl paintings have such roundness to them. The fuck paintings often are very angular. Sex is a big subject. I don’t think I have begun to scratch the surface of it.



*feature photo by Ari Marcopoulis of Betty Tompkins in her studio

Oneself might change on a single dosage and alter it, based on the discover this body reacts towards the medication.

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