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.