betty tompkins refuses to shut up or be censored
The 73-year-old artist talks making paintings of sex in the 70s and getting her “second act” in 2002.
Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #5, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 44 x 77 in. Courtesy of Betty Tompkins and P•P•O•W, New York.
When 73 year old artist Betty Tompkins first joined Twitter several years ago, she made her avatar a picture of one of her paintings – a close up of genitalia, which she had created from old porn magazines. “I hoped it was abstract enough, so that nobody would bother,” she explained during a visit at her sizable studio in Soho where she’s lived and worked with her artist husband, Bill Mutter, for many decades. Unfortunately, the social media platform caught on and took down her account.
However, by some strange twist of fate, artist Richard Prince had screenshotted her original page, and painted a version of it for a series of work on social media accounts – the painting now hangs on Tompkins’ living room wall alongside the works of other artists, a representation of her experience navigating the world as an artist who has long been interested in observing culture and painting images that reference female sexuality and heterosexual intercourse.
While Tompkins’ early series, Fuck Paintings, which was produced in the late 60s and early 70s, was largely dismissed by other art critics and feminists, her work has recently been gaining more public recognition. As her formidable artwork has taken many twists and turns - for example, in her Women Words series she painted crowdsourced text about women onto pages torn from art history books, and in her Apologia series she painted apologies issued in response to accusations of sexual harassment onto art historical images created depicting women - the artist has remained true to herself: loud and unafraid to shut up and or be censored.
In honor of the artist’s current show at J.Hammond Projects in London, called Fuck Paintings, Etc., i-D spoke to Tompkins about her experience navigating the art world, that time Joan Rivers came to her art opening, and what her work represents.
How did you first become interested in art?
I grew up in Philadelphia and I was discovered on the floor of the art room in high school by a teacher named Gladys Block. I went there to model for a friend but when I arrived, she was busy and told me to get some materials and amuse myself. So, I got a piece of board and paints and set up a little still life. I was very bad at art and had gotten really bad grades in junior high school. But all of a sudden, a woman was standing over me, looking at what I was doing, and she held it up and said, “Everybody, I want you to look at this.” And she started talking about my painting and then, turned to me and said, “This club meets every Wednesday, be here.” So, I owe my life to Gladys Block.
What gave you the idea to create your Fuck Paintings ?
My first husband had a big pornography collection. At that time, it was not legal to send that stuff through the US mail. Before he met me, he had gotten a PO box in Vancouver, BC and would reply to ads in the backs of these magazines, and then eventually drive over the border from Washington state to pick them up. So, he had this fabulous collection.
Meanwhile, I was going around and seeing art shows, but I didn’t like any of them. I was really bored by what I saw. But I would talk to people at the front desk and ask if they’d be open to seeing my slides. And they all said, “Don't come back for 10 years when you’ve found your voice.” Actually, almost all of them said, “Don't come back then either because we don't show women.” But they did not crush my spirit. I actually felt very liberated. Nobody cared so I could just do what I wanted. And I decided I would do paintings that I would want to look at.
Then, one day I was going through my husband's porn collection and I started cropping the images with my fingers and took pieces of paper so I could really see what I was doing. It was abstractly gorgeous, and it had charge. It was arresting. So, the next day I built the stretchers and started Fuck Painting number one. I cropped the photo until I got down to the money shot, taking out everything including the hands, feet, face and hair. In about three or four years I did a nine of them.
Did the original Fuck Paintings ever get shown?
The Fuck Paintings were in two group shows, and then, they were headed for a group exhibition in Paris but they never got there. They were repatriated and it took me a year to get them back.
There was no internet and no email then. A long-distance call was a fortune, so it was mostly snail mail back and forth, and it took forever. But I finally did get them back. It was really nasty experience and I just didn’t feel good about it. Then, decided I didn't want to do this work for a while because it was being censored by the government and I decided to work on other things. Even though there was no social media and no internet, somehow everybody knew about it and I couldn't get those things into a group show for over 30 years.
What happened after that?
I had been working my way back to [that subject matter] through using some soft-core porn in my drawings. This was in the late 90s, early 2000s. And somebody I knew called me up and said, “I was at a panel last night and Jerry Saltz said he is going to curate a show about sex.” So, I wrote Jerry a letter. I had never met him, and it said, “Dear Mr. Saltz, I understand you’re thinking about curating a show about sex. If you do, I hope you will consider my work. Sincerely, Betty Tompkins,” but I never heard from him.
Then one day, Mitchell Algus called and said he was doing a group show, and he came over and reviewed my work. And I said, “Who gave you these slides? How do you know this work? Nobody knows this work,” which was what interested him. As a dealer, his specialty is giving artists a second chance to show their work in a contemporary setting. Work that was from the sixties, seventies, eighties, sometimes the fifties. Then, he finally said,Jerry Saltz. And I said, “If you give me a show, I can't say, he'll come and review it.”
But the group show he was doing didn't pull together the way he had hoped you for. So, he canceled it and said, “I want to show these Fuck Paintings and it will open in three weeks.” And I said, “But they’re not on the stretchers” and he said, “We'll get them put on the stretchers.” And I said, “But the drawings aren’t framed” and he said, “We’ll get it done on time.” And I said, “There’s no press release.” Back then, there was a very strict schedule for when you sent it out because everything was done by snail mail. So, you know, three weeks ahead you're stuffing envelopes and sending them all over the place. And he said, “I'm a very crude writer, Betty, don't worry.” So, I told him I had to think about it.
Why were you hesitant to show them?
I still didn't trust any positive reaction to those paintings after a lifetime of rejection. But Bill, my current husband, took me to dinner and said to me, “What's really bothering you? Why are you hesitating? How can this hurt you?” And I said, “I'm afraid that they will look dated.” So, he said, “Well, why don't we look at them when get home?”
They had been rolled up under the pool table but the one thing I had done right was that I had folded them outside the roll, not face in, and I had put a cotton sheet between each painting. So whatever condition they were in when I left them, that's the way they were decades later. So, we put out three of them on the floor and walked around them. And he said, “What do you think?” And I said, “They need a little cleaning up.” And he said, “What are you thinking?” And I said, “They look like I just painted them”. And he said, “Why don't you call Mitchell and tell him you’ll do it.” So, I called him at like nine o'clock at night. And I said, “Mitchell, I'm looking at them and you're on.” And, that's how I had my first show in 2002.
How did it feel to get this work exhibited finally?
Good. I was really nervous the day the show opened. I decided the anticipation of an event is always worse than the event itself, so I went to the show early, and as I walked in the door, Mitchell said, “Oh, here's the artists now.” And this guy turns around, smiling ear-to-ear and it was Holland Cotter of The New York Times who said, “Congratulations, this is really a great show.” We had a very small chat but the next morning at seven o’clock my best friend calls me up and she says, “I know it's really early, but it's Friday and you're in the New York Times.”
So, I wake Bill up and he runs out and gets five copies of the paper. At the time, there had been two other feminist shows up but right stuck in the middle of his review, he wrote about me and my show. And Bill said to me, “You know, what's really interesting about this review?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “There's only one adjective in the entire thing.” And the one adjective he had used was formidable.
What was the opening like?
Crowded. The gallery was in Chelsea at the time and all the galleries had their openings on the same night. So, it's like roving crowds. And Joan Rivers came. I was her painting teacher for a couple of years. So, I had invited her to the show and I'm not celebrity struck or intimidated by wealth or other things but it was like the ocean or waves parting when she walked in. And after that, the Centre Pompidou bought a piece. And Robert Gober and Donald Moffitt bought one of the paintings, which they donated to the Brooklyn Museum a couple of years ago with my permission.
When did you decide to revisit this subject matter?
I don't like just doing what I once did. I do like, once in a while, to see if I can reinvent the idea from scratch. So, I started having dreams about working with an airbrush and I went to Pearl paint on Canal Street, and I got myself two airbrushes and it was very interesting because it had been so many decades since I had done it. For the first two days it was really weird. And then the third day it was like, okay brain, you can come back. We're okay. But what was really interesting is that I picked up the airbrush and my hand literally said, where have you been all these years? I had never had a physical reaction like that So, I taught myself how to do it again.
What are these paintings representative of for you?
I don’t talk about what they mean to me. I decided very early on that because of the subject matter, everybody who sees it will have their own personal reaction, which has to do with their own experiences, attitudes, and sexuality. If I said what I thought they meant, it would make it really easy for the viewer because then they can stop thinking and reacting altogether. I'm not responsible for their reaction. And I am not interested in easy art. So, I thought I'm going to keep myself out of it. You can Google every article I'm quoted in and what you won't find is an answer to the question, what do they mean?