NOW DID YOU REALLY THINK I WAS GOING TO SHOW YOU THE PORN SEX PICTURES, REALLY? OR THE ONE’S TITLED WITH F-CK? AFTER YOU ALL GOT SO UPSET AT A WORD IN A TITLE? BUT FIFTY SHADES OF GREY WILL DRIVE YOU WILD WITH GLEE!
FUNNY-THE F-CK ART WAS DONE IN MANY SHADES OF GREY! YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO GO SEARCH FOR THEM
It was in the 1970’s that Betty 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.
EVEN WITH SEX IT TAKES A LONG WHILE TO BECOME A FAMOUS ARTIST
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.”
WE KNOW WHAT HITLER DID WHEN DISSED BY AN ART SCHOOL
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.”
PORN NOW FAMOUS ART, HAVE WE SEEN THIS IN OTHER CULTURES? LET’S HEAR FROM THE PRUDES!
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.
ART TALK = COW, COW, COW THEN BECOMES SOMETHING ELSE
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.’”
WOMEN’S WORDS-BITCH, CUNT, SLUT, MOTHER-DON’T JUMP DOWN MY THROAT, NOT MY WORDS BUT SO VERY TRUE
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.