Inside Art Basel: Meet Betty Tompkins — That Hard Core Edge

Thursday November 14, 2019

Betty Tompkins in her New York studio. Photo by Ali Smith.
Betty Tompkins in her New York studio. Photo by Ali Smith.  (Source:Art Basel website)

Betty Tompkins has been an artist since the 1970s, but it wasn't until this century, when in 2002 she received her first major solo show at NYC's Mitchell Algus Gallery that featured works painted from 1969 — 1974.

"Thinking about the American artist's now-celebrated 'Fuck Paintings,' one can only wonder: Why weren't they welcome in the artworld and pop culture until the 21st century?" asks writer Fiona Alison Duncan in an interview with the artist published on the Art Basel website.

Duncan met the artist in her SoHo studio loft, which doubles as a home. Tompkins was working on her contribution to a display honoring Carolee Schneemann's painting legacy to be presented by P.P.O.W. at the forthcoming Art Basel Miami Beach.

Specializing in work that featured close-ups of intimate sexual acts, both straight and gay, has made Tompkins work controversial over the years. Her first body of work from the late 1960s was called Fuck Paintings in which she used vintage pornography (banned at the time) as her source materials.

In 1974 her work was seized by French custom officials for being obscene, which led her to create newer work defined by grids. Those that featured controversial images would be covered white with the word "censored."

In the interview, she commented on her "WOMEN Words" project, in which she distributed an email that asked: "I am considering doing another series of pieces using images of women comprised of words. I would appreciate your help in developing the vocabulary. Please send me a list of words that describe women. They can be affectionate (honey), pejorative (bitch), slang, descriptive, etc. The words don't have to be in English but I need as accurate a translation as possible. Many, many thanks, Betty Tompkins."

"I sent out an email in 2002, and again in 2013, asking for words, phrases, or stories that defined women. The four most repeated words in 2002 and 2013 were the same — BITCH, SLUT, CUNT, and MOTHER. In order to co-opt another artist's style for the backgrounds of this series, I had to first study their work, even if I was very familiar with it. I had to really nail down how they did it. I was so enjoying doing the Pollocks that I just stayed with it for 100 paintings and quite a few on paper! Every one of them made me feel joyous. Throwing paint around is a very physical, positive gesture. I had read many times about his anger and depressions and I just couldn't reconcile the action with those emotions. To me, it was pure joy."

Follow this link to read the complete interview

For more on Betty Tomkins, visit her website.

Art Basel

This story is part of our special report titled Art Basel. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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