Betty Tompkins on Her “Fuck” Paintings, Art Talk, and Being Discovered by Jerry Saltz
Before “gentrification” had entered the general lexicon, artists moved into the area to capitalize on cheap space, despite it being a less than hospitable environment, especially for women. “At the time, this was a factory neighborhood and we were a clear minority, so to walk on the streets in the daytime was an adventure in misogyny. There were probably artists on every block. We had a whistle system; if you were out at night and you were in trouble, you blew your whistle.”
It was back then that Tompkins, now 69 years old, composed the first of the large-scale, soft-focus grisaille compositions of closely cropped sexual scenes that she is known for. Among the canvases propped up against the walls of her Prince Street studio on the day I visit is one of an abstract dark mass framed by hands and an orifice, elements that organize themselves in the mind’s eye to form a mouth covering an erect penis. Nearby there are several others featuring curving, intersecting lines that coalesce into images of female genitalia when viewed at a distance—all with the hazy quality achieved with an airbrush. For Tompkins, who is ebullient and excitable in person, dressed in black sweats with a wild mop of curly hair, it’s this elastic quality that interests her.
“If you walk up close,” she tells me, beckoning me to the painting’s surface, “this is the distance where painters normally paint. It’s an arm’s length away plus a couple of inches, but there’s nothing there. The image dissipates, you have no idea what you’re looking at. And as you step back, the image starts to cohere. It’s a different painting wherever you’re standing. I really love that.” This sense of dialogue with the paintings—of becoming absorbed in their soft forms before resolving them into discernible images that give “a subject matter kick,” as Tompkins describes it, is where their power resides.
Yet for some three decades the artist was largely overlooked. “I was going around to all of these shows every month, and I found most of the shows to be really boring,” Tompkins remembers of her early days in the New York art world. “They were all by men, of course. Every dealer that I spoke to said, ‘Come back in 10 years when you’ve found your voice,’ because that’s what they were used to—Hoffman and de Kooning, all these Abstract Expressionist guys, they didn’t have their first shows until they were somewhere in their 40s to 50s. Some of the dealers said, ‘And don’t come back then either because we don’t show women.’ It was actually very freeing to me. I had no expectations.”
In an era when second-wave feminist artists were creating work collectively, Tompkins set out on her own. “I had grown up on the political left as a child,” she reflects. “My father was the head of the Progressive Party in Philadelphia, which was very far-left. And I’d had enough. I didn’t like how groups dealt with semantics and split hairs, and would have huge fights instead of coming together... I saw that as a big failing.” Did she consider herself a feminist, back then? “Oh, I thought I was one, but I never went to the meetings. And according to historical perspective, if you didn’t read the books and go to the discussion groups and the meetings, you’re not actually considered a feminist.”
While Tompkins’s work was no less subversive than that of her feminist peers—her paintings of masturbation and penetration inverted the male gaze and addressed taboo themes of female desire—she was driven not by an agenda, but by passion and curiosity, unhindered by the expectations of her sex. The subject matter for her “Fuck” paintings arose intuitively, in response to the discovery of her first husband’s porn images. “One day I’m looking at them, and I’m like, ‘You know, if you take out all of this crap, you’ve got a really beautiful arrangement of something.’” Porn, often of a vintage ilk, would continue to be her source for the series.
Tompkins speaks in equally frank and uncomplicated terms about the moment that language entered her practice. “It was in the late 1970s, and conceptual art was really very big. I got so disgusted with the articles about it, because they were written in gobbledy-gook. You know, art talk. I would get so pissed off, I would take my art magazines and throw them against the wall!,” she says. “One day, I said: People want things to read? Let’s write something. So I just started writing, ‘COW, COW, COW, COW.’”
This led to her stamp paintings—images composed with manual word stamps, applied serially to the canvas in various tonal shades—and, later, to “Woman Words,” a project begun in 2002 and repeated in 2013, in which Tompkins invited members of the public to send her verbal descriptors of women. The response was staggering; she received 1,500 unique words and phrases in seven languages to her first appeal alone. “The four most often repeated words were the same in both groups: ‘bitch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘slut,’ and ‘mother,’” she says matter-of-factly, sliding open a drawer and pulling out a small pile of scrapbook pages, torn from their bindings, each painted in black and overlaid with short descriptions of women in bold white text. These, along with two of her paintings, will be on view next week at Art Brussels, where they’ll be paired with the work of the young French painter
Fairgoers may well be familiar with her work now, but recognition came late to Tompkins. It wasn’t until 2003 that her remaining “Fuck” paintings were uncovered from beneath the artist’s pool table, applied to stretchers, and exhibited—thanks in large part to art critic Jerry Saltz. The story goes something like this: It was the ’90s, and Tompkins heard through the grapevine that Saltz was curating a show about sex; on a whim, she sent him some of her slides. Resounding silence. A couple of years later she got a call from New York dealer Mitchell Algus, after those same slides turned up on his desk. Algus hosted a solo show of her work soon after.
“I only did nine of the original paintings, “ she recalls, “and one got destroyed. It got a rip in it. I knew nothing about conserving paintings or getting them fixed—and I didn’t have any money anyway—so out in the trash it went. And then there were eight.” Two were sold early, one to Jack Klein, “one of the biggest landlords in SoHo,” she says, “who had amassed this incredible collection by being the landlord of people like Tom Wesselmann, and taking rent in trade.” Four were sold by Algus, and Tompkins kept two for herself.
In recent years, Tompkins has picked up her airbrush and returned to her “Fuck” paintings once more, to considerable success—both with the old guard, as seen in her 2012 exhibition with Brussels bastion Rodolphe Janssen, and a younger New York crowd. This past winter saw her solo show at Meatpacking gallery 55 Gansevoort, and in the coming months her works will be included at NADA with LES gallery Louis B. James and at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University’s new space this fall. “It was like my hand knew what to do,” she remembers, “It was going: At last! Welcome back! Ta-da!”