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24 Nov

Feminist Betty Tompkins Is Changing The Art World With Sex

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Her art is rebellious, controversial, and ballsy—literally, in the case of some of her giant genitalia paintings (hello, large-scale, up-close scrotum and vaginas).

Native New Yorker Betty Tompkins is an iconic artist and an outspoken feminist—although, it hasn’t always been the case.

Tompkins has created paintings, drawings, and collages that celebrate images of graphic sexuality—with titles like Cunt, Pussy and Fuck—using pornography that belonged to her husband as references. While her early work in the 1970s was under-appreciated by art critics, and rejected by feminists, her provocative paintings now offer a timely feminist response to current issues in business, entertainment, and politics.

“My career was a joke!” Tompkins laughs raucously, speaking about her past from her studio in New York City, where she’s been working for more than 40 years. “But when I go into my studio I’m always excited,” she says, only taking one day off working every 90 days, “just to physically recuperate from what I do to a 72-year-old body.”

WOMEN WORDS #51 (DAVINCI) BY BETTY TOMPKINS
 / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK
WOMEN WORDS #51 (DAVINCI) BY BETTY TOMPKINS / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK

In 2010, Tompkins embarked on a major series of text-based works that would also gain her recognition with new audiences: Women Words. Inviting the public to send her their words and phrases about women, answers were sent back from all over the world and were shocking – but not surprising – exposing the corrosive, endemic misogyny in our world. Tompkins made 1,000 paintings of the words, putting the writing on the wall in unflinching plain-speak.

The project continues to evolve, and Tompkins’s latest paintings will be revealed at Art Basel Miami Beach at the start of December. Here, we caught up with the American artist ahead of her new exhibition to talk about women, the evolution of feminism, pornography and painting.

Your art is so provocative, it’s so in your face…

I’ve been told that on a scale from conservative to way out, I’m past away out. Which is a surprise to me because all I do is get up every morning and do what I want!

BABE NUMBER 3 BY BETTY TOMPKINS
 / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK
BABE NUMBER 3 BY BETTY TOMPKINS / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK

How did you first get involved in the feminist movement in New York?

Your question is interesting because in fact I was never a formal member of the early feminist movement. I was ignored by them, some of them had real problems with where I got my source material…

Where did you get it from?

I was using my husband’s pornography. There was a two-fold objection, one was that I was embracing the pleasure principle above everything else and the second thing was that the models were paid, and there are people who think that if you did porn, then or now, that you were being exploited. I’ve never used material where my sense of the people involved was exploitation – my sense is, they’re getting paid, they’re working, but also, they’re having a really good time, and that was one of my first takes on porn. When I first saw it when I was 21 years old I thought, ‘they look like they’re having fun. Let’s all have fun!’

WOMEN WORD #7 BY BETTY TOMPKINS
 / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK
WOMEN WORD #7 BY BETTY TOMPKINS / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK

I guess in the 1970s that kind of sentiment wasn’t acceptable to hardline feminists…

Their history of course informs mine, but I was never invited to meetings. This was way before the Internet so back then this was how it was done. They put signs up in Fanelli’s, which is the little bar-restaurant across the street from me in Soho, and when I was in my 20s and 30s, you would go and look on their bulletin board. It was a closed group. I would’ve gone if I’d been invited, but in fact I never had the opportunity.

You stopped making your large-scale Cunt and Fuck paintings, that you started in the 70’s, for quite some time.

I did, I left it for a couple of decades. I couldn’t get anywhere. I was young – when I left it I was 29, 30 – and it was hard to get shown as a young artist. I was a woman, young and making work about sex. I was like the wrong of everything!

SEX PAINTING #5 BY BETTY TOMPKINS
 / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK
SEX PAINTING #5 BY BETTY TOMPKINS / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK

Why did you start working with text and words?

I was totally disgusted with the critical discourse at the time, they would always talk about being able to ‘read’ the work. So I thought, let’s give them something to read.

How did your original Women Words project come about?

I got the idea in 2002. I sent an email to everyone I knew that I wanted to do a series about language and women. I asked people to send me their words and phrases about women. It was also a new idea for me to reach out to the world, and say ‘send me stuff ‘but they did, my god! I got responses from more than 1,500 individuals words and phrases, in seven different languages.

WOMEN WORDS #53 (INGRES) BY BETTY TOMPKINS
 / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK
WOMEN WORDS #53 (INGRES) BY BETTY TOMPKINS / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK

How did you come back to it in 2012?

We were at my studio and we were discussing [American artist] Jason Rhoades and his use of language and I started to talk about mine. I went over to a table with a pile of books and papers on it and lifted up a book and then there they were – exactly where I’d left them 10 years ago. Housekeeping is not my forte.

I decided to do 1,000 paintings of the words. I began to wonder then if language had changed – 11 years had gone by, things were supposedly different – so I sent another email out, this time promising people anonymity, which I hadn’t before. I don’t know if that’s why, but I got so many stories back. ‘Wench’ was more popular than it had been before. But the four most repeated words were exactly the same: bitch, cunt, slut and mother. Isn’t it crazy!

A lot of anger, violence and frustration towards women comes out through this process of audience participation. How do you deal with that?

I have a really good sense of humour, and I think it’s saving my life – and my blood pressure! There was one guy who had written ‘the only thing that would make her more beautiful would be my dick in her mouth’ and I thought, who is this guy? You have to laugh. Someone else had written ‘heck, most people don’t like women’ and I thought ‘okay, let’s think about this one!’

HECK...BY BETTY TOMPKINS
 / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK
HECK...BY BETTY TOMPKINS / COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND P•P•O•W, NEW YORK

Interestingly you also don’t know if these have been written by men or women.

Oh yeah, deleted and embedded misogyny is a real thing, as we’ve seen. These serial abusers, harassers, rapists, have often had help – women helped them. And we have to start to ask how, how did this happen? It’s something I’ve been aware of for a really long time but I’ve only recently begun to get articulate about it in my work.

Revelations about sexual abuse have also been happening in the art world, are you surprised?

When I started to do my paintings, no matter who it was, I always made sure I wasn’t the only person in my loft. When I was in college a Professor of mine had said to me, the only way you’re going to make it as an artist is flat on your back. This is an incredible thing to say to a 20 year old. It remains in my mind sexual terrorism.

The first time I went to see a dealer in New York, it popped into my head going up in the elevator, I got so scared, then when I got out, I went to the bathroom and threw up instead of going into the gallery. Even though my joke became that the women dealers were only interested in the boys, and the men dealers were only interested in the boys, and no-one was interested in women artists, it was always in the back of my mind. Lucky for me no-one wanted to talk to me anyway!

Nobody understood what you were doing for so many years. How do you keep going?

Stick to it, and do what you want, do what you believe in! In the long run, it’ll do well by you.

From ELLE UK

Hannah Kim
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