Hippie with experience

Ahead of Art Basel 2014, Shana Beth Mason presents a considered look at the work of Betty Tompkins. Tompkins will show at Art Basel with Galerie Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels).

Tompkins in her Soho studio. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Bill Mutter

Tompkins in her Soho studio. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Bill Mutter

It’s enviable how content Betty Tompkins is. From her spacious Prince Street studio in Soho, you would imagine she’d be burdened with a plethora of concerns: keeping up with rent, keeping up with collectors, keeping up with a generation of artists often three to four decades younger than she. None of the above apply. Tompkins, 68, is completely at ease with it all. Producing mammoth paintings of hetero and homosexual intercourse, oral sex and genitals at the macro level didn’t faze her forty years ago, nor does it now. A small, faithful gaggle of American and European collectors bolster her commercial value and her primary dealers (Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels and Sarah Gavlak in Palm Beach) tirelessly remind the contemporary art world that she was creating groundbreaking work while artists like Hirst, Emin and Barney were still in diapers.

Born in 1945 in Washington, D.C., Tompkins created the first in an ongoing series Fuck Paintings in 1969. At the time, the likelihood that a young female artist would garner significant attention (let alone a viable collector base) for works explicitly, albeit elegantly, depicting sexual acts was slim to nonexistent. Female artists such as Ana Mendieta, Lynda Benglis, Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono and even an aged Louise Bourgeois had still not been included in collective critiques or studies of modern aesthetics. The term ‘feminist’ was broadly applied to exhibitions or reviews of female artists; their practices invariably obscured by a socio-political label and a public unready or unwilling to embrace works created in the pantheon of male ‘master’ artists. But apart from navigating the social, political and cultural climates in New York during the late 60’s and early 70’s, Tompkins also had her own agenda to consider. Shortly after moving to New York from Washington state (on US’ west coast), Tompkins experienced a bitter divorce from her first husband, in which many of her original source materials and photographs for the earliest drawings and sketches for the Fuck Paintings were lost. She was still in the throes of determining the future course of her work and how to digest a minimal public response.

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #1 (1969). Acrylic on canvas. 84" x 60". Courtesy of the artist and the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #1 (1969). Acrylic on canvas. 84″ x 60″. Courtesy of the artist and the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris

In 1973, Tompkins’ Fuck Painting(s) #1 and #5 were selected for a group exhibition in Paris, but never made it there. The subject matter was deemed obscene and/or pornographic by French customs officials, and they retained the works for an entire year. With no efficient form of communicating with the foreign customs officers or government attorneys (international phone calls were astronomically expensive), Tompkins not only lost additional exhibition opportunities, but valuable funds in the process. This ordeal repeated itself in 2006 when customs officials in Japan not only denied her works entry into the country, but refused to release them back to her. If other female artists suffered belittling criticism or outright blindness to their practices, Tompkins endured both with the added weight of being stripped of her own monetary and emotional resources. Still, she continues to work at a grueling pace, with her quietly infamous works slowly becoming properly mainstream, institutional material. [Post-script: her first Fuck painting, the one initially refused by the French government, now sits in the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou.]

Her large-scale paintings are created using a calibrated airbrush, gracefully swiped over a web of words comprising the final image. The painting is not, and cannot be, created without these words acting as the visual skeleton. Tompkins utilizes a series of found images from pulp popular and porn fiction as her source material, but the act of copying the image does not provide the final effect. Observing these works is to break down commonly held associations between genitalia and penetration: the viewer is forced to regard the work independently from the blaring anatomical accuracy. To accept the series of blurred gradients, calculated paint sprays, the simmering conglomerate of letters composing the head of a penis or the cleft of a buttock, is – in totality – to ignore psychosomatics. Can you observe a woman licking another’s vagina or the series of fingers collected in a masturbatory motion without shuddering from memory or experiencing instant arousal?

Betty Tompkins, Masturbation Painting #6 (2011). Acrylic on canvas. 54" x 42". Courtesy of the artist

Betty Tompkins, Masturbation Painting #6 (2011). Acrylic on canvas. 54″ x 42″. Courtesy of the artist

Tompkins challenges her audience to remember the obvious fact that these paintings are just us, unfiltered. Even greater is the seamless integration into them of an aesthetically sound study and a commentary on current attitudes towards image consumption and gender identities. On a large table near the window of the studio is a collection of tiny canvases slathered in waves of Richter-esque painted layers. In Roman font, any and all references to ‘woman’ are written: hussy, bitch, chick, pink taco, pussy galore, brick house…the list is seemingly endless. While not as immediately compelling as her grandiose black-and-white Fuck or Cunt paintings, these little gems serve as the perfect description of Tompkins and her practice, as if to say “show me what you see, I’ll paint it and prove that you don’t see that clearly, after all.” Text is structure, color is body, shadow is actually a deeper shade of light.

‘I don’t tell anyone what my work is or isn’t,’ Tompkins says, ‘it is, as you can see, quite explicit. It does most of the talking.’ On her ‘re-discovery’, she is casual but visibly pleased. ‘It’s amazing, there’s no doubt about it. To think I was making work that wasn’t looked at or taken away from me thirty years ago — now it’s actively pursued! It’s wonderful.’ It seems that no matter what the future may hold, Tompkins retains that easy, comfortable attitude that belies the assertive, sometimes aggressive nature of her imagery. She is still the teacher everyone wants to hang out with after class, the seasoned hippie with a fat cat parked on her couch in the studio, the gentle presence that attracts younger artists to her and is too often misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with her work and personality. The woman, herself, is the perfect balance against the work: mystery versus obscenity, the profane offset by the peaceful.

Betty Tompkins, Censored Grid #10 (2008). Pencil and ink on paper. 17" x 14" Courtesy of the artist

Betty Tompkins, Censored Grid #10 (2008). Pencil and ink on paper. 17″ x 14″ Courtesy of the artist

Galerie Rodolphe Janssen will be showing Betty Tompkins during this year’s 44th edition of Art Basel at Booth G5. The article is previously published in KUNSTforum 2 / 2014.

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