Betty Tompkins is no stranger to controversy. The 70-year-old artist started making her “Fuck Paintings”—large-scale photorealistic renderings of vaginal penetration—in 1969. The grayscale works’ source material was outlawed pornographic images. Earning dismissal from gallerists, the ire of the anti-pornography feminist wing, denial of entry into France (in 1973) and criticism for their clinical detail, Tompkins’s “Fuck Paintings” were known only to a handful of people until the early 2000s. Since then, they’ve had celebrated presentations, including at the 2003 Lyon Biennale.
Now, several examples from Tompkins’s iconic series are on view in “Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics” at the Dallas Contemporary (through Mar. 20). The four-artist exhibition, curated by Alison Gingeras, considers the fringe feminism of Tompkins, Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel and Cosey Fanni Tutti. The artists used explicit figuration in their work, defying the anti-objectification edict of many second-wave feminists. The exhibition also parses the fractious nature of the ‘70s movement, staging conversations among artists who didn’t always see eye to eye four decades ago.
At New York’s FLAG Art Foundation, Tompkins is debuting “WOMEN Words, Phrases and Stories” (through May 14), a new suite of 1,000 paintings portraying words describing women against stylized backgrounds. For this work, Tompkins sent out emails soliciting phrases commonly used to describe women, first in 2002 and then again in 2013. The resulting salon-style hang of paintings, which range in size from 4 by 4 inches to 36 by 16 inches, produces loose configurations of meaning among words. Ranging from “Venus,” “divine” and “Baberaham Lincoln” to “burned at the stake,” “castrating bitch” and “easy lay,” the paintings provide an easy springboard into conversation about the state of gender and its oppressions today.
A.i.A. spoke to Tompkins at the FLAG Art Foundation about the arc of her career, remaining “theory-free,” and why her new “WOMEN Words” paintings are among her most dangerous to date.
WENDY VOGEL How did you start the process of collecting the words for “WOMEN Words, Phrases and Stories”? I read that there was an open call.
BETTY TOMPKINS I used to do figurative pieces that were composed only with language. If it was a cow, the piece would say “cow cow cow,” and the lightness and darkness within each letter formed the volume. In 2002 I sent a message to my email list: “I want to do another series using language. This time about women. Send me your words and phrases about women. If it’s not in English, send me a translation. Thank you.” I got around 1,500 unique words and phrases in seven languages. It was fascinating to me. Then when I actually started to paint them—which wasn’t until Jan. 1, 2013—I wondered if language had changed. So I sent the email out again and I got even more words and phrases. People sent stories, too. They made comments. It was very personal. But the same four words were the most popular. Actually nothing has changed.
VOGEL They were bitch, slut . . .
TOMPKINS . . . bitch, slut, cunt and mother. Go figure. That part was really discouraging. These words came from men and women—invective and praise in equal measure. There are some that when you read them, you know they’re written by a guy. Like that one: “Women are asymmetric, unbalanced, curved and inside out, outside in. This is my point of view. Please let me know. Kisses.” A guy sent that to me. He’s basically called me a nutcase.
VOGEL When you were composing these paintings, did you start by deciding on the different background treatments?
TOMPKINS I went through so many painting processes. Part of the point was that my own work is already defined. It sits within certain parameters. I thought, Here’s this project that’s going to go on for God knows how long—as it turned out, 33 months of solid painting—so I might as well have a lot of fun with it and do different things. Somewhere along the line I also got the idea that I wanted to own some of the big boys. There are some Pollocks. I have the Richter painting film, so I wanted to do some Richters. There are a bunch that are Abstract Expressionist-ish. And there are some slashed Fontanas in here, too.
VOGEL And of course some are in your signature style, too.
TOMPKINS Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to own yourself. If I can’t own myself, who will?
VOGEL How long were you working on the previous language series, the one that played with light and dark?
TOMPKINS I did those in the late ’70s for about five or six years, immediately after the “Fuck Paintings” [1969-74], and then I moved away from that. I was never really done with those paintings.
VOGEL What prompted you to want to start working with language again?
TOMPKINS I did one painting of the Venus de Milo called Slut. I had just been in a show about the Venus de Milo [“A Disarming Beauty: Venus de Milo in 20th Century Art” at the Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Fla., 2001], and when I got the catalogue I was thinking, What a slut! Anybody can do anything with her!
Right after that happened I was in the 2003 Lyon Biennale, courtesy of Bob Nickas, who had fought for me to be in the show. I said to my husband Bill, “I should do something for Bob to thank him. Let’s get a stamp made that says Lyon on it, and I’ll draw some of the images that are in the show.” I made three drawings with the stamp and then the part that said Lyon fell off. I decided I would then start making some cunt images with stamps. I needed to find someone who would make the stamps, because the Lyon stamp fabricator wouldn’t do it. It was against his principles. I was so impatient to get started that I looked through my own stamps. I found one that said COW and one that said CENSORED, from 1976. I did six or seven drawings with them, and each one got more complicated and dense. After I worked with the stamps on canvas for about two and a half years, I had tendonitis in both my arms. It was clear that I couldn’t do it anymore so I moved on to the airbrush. Then I had my list of words, and I picked it up and started 11 years later. Some ideas take a while!
VOGEL How does the divide between language and image function in your work today? In the 1970s feminist discourse took a binary viewpoint to text and image—woman as the speaking subject vs. the passive object to be looked at.
TOMPKINS That was the attitude of one very dominant group of feminists. I was aware of them, but I was never invited to any meetings. I am free of theory, which I consider a blessing, to tell you the truth. My impression over the years was that you had to go to the consciousness-raising meetings and read the books. I read a lot of material on my own. Some of it I thought was really revolutionary, some of it was stuff I thought all my life, and some of it I didn’t agree with. I didn’t agree with the un-pleasure principle. I didn’t think that was what life was about.
VOGEL Tell me more about the un-pleasure principle.
TOMPKINS It’s when you take something that everyone wants to do and make it a negative and find a political framework for it. As far as women being treated as objects, well, it’s a whole new generation and I don’t see that much has changed, which makes me very unhappy. I worry very much about your generation, that you have no idea how much of a backlash there can be.
VOGEL When you haven’t seen the other side it’s easy to assume that certain kinds of progress, like reproductive rights, can’t really erode.
TOMPKINS Exactly, and they already have in many states. It’s absolutely horrifying to listen to these people talk about what laws they want to pass, what laws they have already passed.
VOGEL I’d like to know more about “Black Sheep Feminism” in Dallas, which features four artists—you, Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel and Cosey Fanni Tutti—who were often shunned for working with explicit imagery during the second-wave feminist moment. Did you know the other artists in the ‘70s?
TOMPKINS No, I didn’t. I met Anita Steckel around 2003 or 2004. She and Joan Semmel and I were all showing with Mitchell Algus at the time, so we all kind of knew each other.
VOGEL Steckel and Semmel were part of an artist group called Fight Censorship in the ‘70s. Were you aware of it?
TOMPKINS No, I wasn’t, and I was censored in 1973 by the French! It’s very interesting to me in retrospect how isolated I was, considering what was going on around me. Your generation is more of a teamwork, lean-in generation. You somehow missed learning the attitude of “compete at all costs.” In my generation and the generation before me, there was so little room for women that I think people thought that if you got something you kept it to yourself and you didn’t share. I never had that attitude about it, but it would be really hard not to notice it from everybody else. I attribute a lot of what was going on at the time into that absolute lack of opportunity generally.
VOGEL The images that you were using in the “Fuck Paintings” were from pornography that was then outlawed.
TOMPKINS That’s correct. My first husband was 12 years older than me, so let’s just say he had more mature, developed interests. He lived in Everett, Wash., at the time, and he sought out ads for porn in the back of magazines. You could send a cashier’s check to a PO box in Singapore or Hong Kong. Because it was against the law to send pornographic images through the mail in the United States, he got a PO box in Vancouver to have the pictures sent to. When he figured enough time had passed, he’d drive up to Vancouver, pick up the envelopes, hide them in the car and drive back across the border hoping he’d look like an all-American boy. Which he was!
So I was looking at the pictures one day. They were super tiny—2 by 3 inches, 3 by 4 inches. Formally they were mind-bogglingly gorgeous. Plus they were really charged images.
VOGEL What kind of work were you making before?
TOMPKINS I was coming out of Abstract Expressionism. That was my first love as a painter. I wanted to paint something that was abstractly and formally beautiful and challenging and varied. But when I saw the images my husband collected I said, “I’m doing these.” And I started painting them the next day.
VOGEL Why did you start out working so big?
TOMPKINS I settled on 84 by 60 inches. At the time I had an Econoline van, and that was the biggest you could fit in the van. Very practical!
VOGEL The “Women Words” series started out with you working on 4-by-4-inch canvases, which is probably as close as you can get to the size of those original photographs.
TOMPKINS That didn’t occur to me, but yes, you’re right. Originally I thought all 1,000 of my series would be 4 by 4, but then I realized I had words that wouldn’t fit. So I started moving on up.
VOGEL The sweet and nasty messages in the sans-serif font make me think of Valentine parody heart candies today.
TOMPKINS I was thinking if you took a cunt and packaged it and put it on a supermarket shelf, it would be about that size. It was not something I intended, but at a certain point Bill said it to me and I thought the words worked like brand names!
VOGEL I’m curious about how much the reception around your work, particularly the “Fuck Paintings,” has changed so much over the years.
TOMPKINS Well, they disappeared for thirty-odd years. No one saw them. So when they were shown again in 2002 [at Mitchell Algus] it was not just one, but three generations of people who had no idea about them. And even in my generation, there were five or six, maybe 12 people tops, who had seen them.
VOGEL Even formally the reception has changed. I read that a Texas critic in 1975 thought they had no value because they were so. . .
TOMPKINS Graphic. . .
VOGEL Yes. And that they looked like a medical textbook.
TOMPKINS That was the exact phrase. I was going to have my calling card say that. They were shown in an artist-run space. The person who put me in the show was Paul Schimmel, who had been a high school student of mine. At the time he was working for James Harithas [at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston.]
VOGEL What’s interesting is that in the 1970s, the “Fuck Paintings” were critiqued for their graphic nature, and now the way the works are talked about is completely different, both in terms of their formal beauty and also the nostalgia for this era of soft-focus pornography.
TOMPKINS It has completely flipped and I agree with you entirely.
VOGEL You talked about being theory-free and not being involved in consciousness-raising groups in the ’60s and the ’70s. Would you describe putting together this series as collaborative or community-building?
TOMPKINS I was having a moment of being tired of being alone in my studio, and this was an easy way to reach out and satisfy a curiosity I had about the language describing women without being responsible for the words. I was curious to see what would come in when I did the open call. When I first started to paint the words, I thought they were among the most dangerous paintings that I had ever done. By now I am so inured to the language, but in the beginning I would think, “I can’t believe that I am painting this! This is an awful, awful thought! If someone said this to me I would deck them, without question.”
VOGEL Do you feel that today these words have more violence than images, because we’re in such an image-saturated world?
TOMPKINS I think we’re also in a language-saturated world. People still get upset when they see my paintings. I just can’t be responsible for their actions.
VOGEL Do you have any thoughts about the new wave of figurative painting?
TOMPKINS It never went away. Every year we try to kill off painting. What death throes are left?
VOGEL Now it’s the death of abstraction.
TOMPKINS There’s always action and reaction. I see it as a cycle that will reverse itself in a short period of time. The art world is always wondering what’s fresh looking and what’s new. There are some people who get bored very easily. That’s their problem. My problem is to keep myself engaged in my studio. It’s very easy. I know what my job is: Get up in the morning and do something.