Betty Tompkins was born in 1945. From the end of the 1960s onward she has devoted herself to visual arts, embarking after some experiments that were close to Abstract Expressionism on the Fuck Paintings series (until 1974 when it was interrupted, then started anew after 2003), which are now famous but were overall ignored until they were exhibited in New York in 2002. These paintings, inspired by photorealism and devoid of any moralizing assertions, represent genitals or erotic gestures which also include penetration scenes. They emerged in the artistic context of the 1970s avant-garde, when art history was still establishing itself as a sort of path where everyone would advance with new exploratory aesthetic propositions amid the perfect indifference of the art market, yet triggering violent intellectual and political debates among the handful of aficionados (that is to say, art critics, art dealers and mostly artists) who had chosen, one way or another, to dedicate themselves to the discipline. Betty Tompkins’s painting exceeded the discipline’s boundaries: decried by feminists, condemned by censors, it was and is still faced with various forms of protest that weren’t met with any kind of compromise on Tompkins’s part. “I’m 66 years old. It’s not that I’m a control freak. But I’ve always been an outsider. I’m happy to go along with things, but sometimes I get a proposal and it just doesn’t sit well with me. My father was on the left politically. When I was a kid the FBI used to follow me to school. One of my family’s jokes is that as a child my first full sentence was, ‘Do you have a search warrant?’ This was the era of McCarthy. I’ve always been an outsider. Even as a child.”
The work of Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, who was born in 1978 and has devoted himself to painting since the beginning of the 21st century, arises in a context that is naturally different from Tompkins’s; a context where, curiously, the idea of the end of the avant-gardes is readily accepted, where there is an aggressive, sprawling art market, where art criticism is replaced with Instagram “likes” and where in the field of visual arts itself, the political and aesthetic debate has been classified as an “endangered species”, spectacular charity auctions with avowed ambitions to save the planet notwithstanding. His painting is no more photorealist than it is realist or even figurative, at least in the classical meaning of these terms, for it could also be considered that his canvases represent painting itself, and that painting is their subject. Now, his paintings seem however to have for ambition to establish a dialogue with the history of painting, rather than with desktop images. With Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, it is necessary to see in this a choice to approach the question of pictorial activity that isn’t of an “intimate” nature, as he says. “I don't care especially about painting, even if this is what I'm doing and even if I like a lot of painting as a viewer like any other. There's no position in what I'm doing, I'm not defending or advertising anything. I didn't choose painting versus something else, I just probably found myself comfortable doing it in order to say what I have to say.” This painting, which doesn’t generate debates outside of the visual arts field, doesn’t elicit them either inside this very field, where its uninhibited relationship with seduction is a first-rate weapon.
When the context of their appearing and the reality of the discipline of visual arts within that same context are taken into account, very few things bring together the respective authors of these works. Thirty-five years separate them—much more than the nevertheless much-discussed age difference that distinguishes some current Presidents and their wives in France and in the United States. During these few decades, their discipline has evolved in such a way that it could henceforth seem to form two distinctive ones. It is Jean-Baptiste Bernadet who pointed out to me that in the exhibition I curated in 2015 where two of his works were exhibited, The Shell, I presented each of them right next to works by Betty Tompkins. Even though I was somewhat conscious about it, it was not such a deliberately considered ploy—I am convinced that to fully appreciate artworks, as Catherine Millet writes, one has to be in a state comparable to the “floating attention” of a psychoanalyst. But, as so to say precisely why…
That everything a priori opposes them is not enough of an argument to dissuade an exhibition curator from displaying these two paintings side by side. By doing so, it seemed to me that the disparity between the context of their production, the respective generations of their authors, the diversity of their aspirations; all of these disappeared to benefit and even reveal all that what was left, before anything else: two manners of painting, two distinct ways of dialoguing with the history of the medium. To brutally show the difference in their craftsmanship was the best way for me to precisely underline the importance of craftsmanship; and with both artists their manner of painting is decisive. Bernadet for example hasn’t chosen the classical weapons in use for painting nowadays, which is all too readily understood as being assisted with silkscreens and laser printing. In the era when it appeared, Tompkins’s painting too was the product of an aesthetic choice that ran against the tide. In their formal aspects the paintings she produces today could have been made thirty years ago, and vice-versa; they even seem more contemporary than Jean-Baptiste Bernadet’s. Each of the artists’ paintings sustains a relationship with time that seems pacified, establishing themselves in a sort of timelessness even, or, in any case, an aspiration to be timeless.
Evidently, the blurry aspect of Betty Tompkins’s paintings finds an equal counterpart in the “retinal” attacks of Jean-Baptiste Bernadet’s works: each of them inflicts a specific, technical exercise on the eye. The softness in the shaping of bodies, a consequence of the blurry image in Tompkins’s, may also meet in Bernadet’s painting a type of glaring sensuality exacerbated by the all over composition and its lack of apparent structure. In truth, it is difficult to say which of the two is the most erotic, or in any case voluptuous. These are paintings that transform softness into an assault weapon; they both turn this softness into a varnish under which the image rapidly imposes its violence.
As a curator of the Lyon Biennial in 2003 with Xavier Douroux, Franck Gautherot, Bob Nickas and Anne Pontégnie, we chose to present Betty Tompkins’s paintings in a room where they were associated with paintings by Steven Parrino. It is another possibility, but in the end it is exactly the same one.