In a talk at the Flag Art Foundation in New York last week, artist Betty Tompkins, best known for her sexually explicit “Fuck Paintings,” revealed the very personal history behind one of her works.
Tompkins’s talk with curator Alison Gingeras, which drew a packed house, was on the subject of Tompkins’s series of “Women Words” paintings, displayed on the upper level of Flag. These are small paintings, displayed salon style—floor to ceiling—containing words such as “cunt,” “bitch,” and “mother.” Tompkins’s process in creating them was to send a mass email in 2002 asking for words that are used to describe women; she has since received some 3,500 words and phrases, with the senders’ guaranteed anonymity. Tompkins deletes the emails, she told Gingeras, so that in the end even she can’t recall where many of the words came from. At Flag, there is a small desk where visitors can contribute their own words for future paintings.
In response to a question from the audience about which words have particularly personal meaning for her, Tompkins pointed out a canvas that reads, “With her, you never know if you are going to get a ‘fuck you’ or a chicken dinner,” and revealed that it is a reference to an incident that took place when she was in college. A fellow student rubbed her the wrong way—“He struck me as wrong,” she said—and she told him, “Fuck you.” The next time she saw the man, she made him a chicken dinner, so the phrase came to her. When she was creating the “Women Words,” she told this story to a friend and the friend suggested that Tompkins make a painting of it. But that was against the rules—she couldn’t take words from herself, only from others. Her friend helped her get around that hurdle by going home that day and emailing the phrase to Tompkins.
During her talk with Gingeras, Tompkins explained that the installation of the paintings at Flag took many hours, with each work being moved as many as five times, because she wanted to create resonant juxtapositions. And so the show contains a hint about the very personal status of “chicken dinner”: it is positioned just to the left of a painting that says, simply, “Betty.”