Betty Tompkins spent decades working as, in her own words, “your typical rejected artist.” On and off again since 1969, she’s painted up-close-and-personal images of sex– literally, contact between nether regions, penetration, and other intimate moments. But it wasn’t until more than 30 years later that her work, more specifically her “fuck paintings,” began getting more attention than shame. Recently, the artist has revived the subject that inspired her the most and continues to evolve her process, as seen in her latest work now on view at BHQFU‘s project space and gallery FUG (Foundation University Gallery) in the East Village, as part of Tompkins’ solo show, Real Ersatz.
This show, as Tompkins explained in an interview, consists of a series of paintings that present a challenge for the viewer, who’s asked to distinguish between original paintings and works that are reconsiderations of pieces she made decades ago but that never saw the gallery lights. (Hint: If you’re down to play the game, don’t peek at the titles until after you’ve made your rounds.)
“The ersatz paintings were collected directly from my studio, so this is the first time that any of those images are being seen in public,” she explained. “I often get involved in the concept of a second life for art objects.”
While most of her “fuck paintings” from the past were done in grayscale, from a specific black paint Tompkins mixes herself, a few of the pieces in this show demonstrate Tompkins’ foray into color. “It made me feel really bold and courageous,” she said. And actually, the choice to use these specific colors are sort of a happy accident.
Tompkins taps photographs she takes herself as the source material for her photorealistic paintings. Recently, she began to notice that some of the jpeg source images were undergoing a sort of degradation. The colors, particularly pinks and reds, were coming out distorted, which created a potentially serious misunderstanding between a gallerist, collector, and Tompkins.
“But then I’m looking at the jpeg and I’m going, ‘These colors are really nice,'” she laughed. “I really like taking advantage of any tragedy or accident that befalls me. I like to succeed, but if I’m going to fail, I really want to fail spectacularly. Because there’s always something in that– you can’t fail a little, that’s just boring– but if you fail spectacularly, you’ll come up with something wonderful, something you didn’t think of before.”
Tompkins’ attitude about accidents says a lot about her career as a whole. Instead of letting things like rejection and doubt get her down, she’s rolled with the punches.
There’s an amazing photo floating around the net of a young Betty Tompkins taken in 1973 her hair is long, she’s wearing bellbottoms. She’s in her 20s, fresh out of grad school, standing shyly between two of her paintings, both of which dwarf her and feature male-on-female sex.
“Scale is so important,” she explained. “That’s the first decision I make.” Tompkins refers to her work by series– “fuck paintings,” “cunt paintings”– so matter-of-factly that it’s hard to imagine how she might have spoken about them to a much more conservative art scene in the early ’70s. Despite her tenacious conviction that she’s creating art and not pornography, Tompkins was censored and ignored for years.
But an added dimension of the suppression of her work comes with the territory– Betty Tompkins is a woman. “When I first started to do the fuck paintings, I was a young artist just out of graduate school and I had gotten my Master’s degree and moved to New York City,” she recalled. “I had gone out to the galleries and I noticed I wasn’t seeing any work by women. I’m embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to finally notice that. The art world was just so very, very, very different.”
The art scene Tompkins came up in was an unfathomably more difficult one than the notoriously cutthroat one that exists today. “When I was a student, I was told over and over and over again, ‘What we’re teaching in here are just basic things, and after you leave school, you drop all of this stuff and you start from scratch,'” she explained. “Now we groom them for the gallery scene. The art world was really very small, in fact it was just 57th street and the Upper East Side. In one Saturday a month, you could see every gallery show in New York and then on another Saturday you would go to the museums, and that was it.”
The artists she did see in the galleries were not only white men, they were white men in their 40s having their first shows. “I would talk to people and basically what it amounted to was, ‘Come back in ten years when you’ve found your voice, we don’t show artists so close to their schooling,’” she recalled gallerists telling her. “Then a huge percentage of them said to me, ‘Don’t come back at all, because we don’t show women.’ Straight out and blunt.”
Despite the dire prospects, Betty pushed on. “I was the wrong gender,” she explained. “I had a teacher when I was a senior in undergrad say to me, ‘Betty, what are you going to do after graduate school?’And I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to New York and be an artist!’ He said, ‘You’re never going to make it in New York unless you make it on your back.’”
The statement stuck with her. Several years later, when she’d finally lined up her first meeting with an art dealer, she recalled getting off the elevator and vomiting. “I was so scared,” she recalled. But thankfully the man was an “elderly gentlemen” who had no interest in her sexually. Still, things weren’t easy.
It wasn’t until Betty and her first husband moved to Soho that she got her first show. “The Soho scene had already begun and it was really building up and you know, I sensed there was a little bit more openness to showing younger artists and showing women.”
Things started to pick up and in 1973 Tompkins scored a group show in Paris. But her fuck paintings never made it. “At one point I got a letter that said my work had been held up in customs,” she recalled. The show went on without her, and it took more than a year for Tompkins to recover her paintings from French authorities. “That was kind of the end for this body of work.”
After the incident, Betty packed up most of the work and tried out some new ideas that were met with “mild success.” But nothing got her going quite like the fuck paintings. Occasionally Tompkins would send out slides of her work to dealers and curators, only to have them returned or ignored. But in the ’90s, a friend told Betty that renowned art critic Jerry Saltz had revealed during a panel discussion that he was planning to curate a show about sex. Betty jumped at the opportunity and reached out to Saltz. “I wrote him a note and sent him the slides,” she explained. “I never got them back and I never heard from him, so I assumed he’d tossed them, of course.”
Years later, something finally came of the slides. “I get a call from Mitchell Algus and he said, ‘Do you know who I am?'” Betty recalled. The gallerist told her he was interested in seeing “those paintings from the ’70s.” Algus said he’d be at Tompkins’ studio in 20 minutes. “I put the phone down and said, ‘Well this is unusual for my life,'” she recalled.
Betty’s fuck paintings had met with so much rejection, she assumed Algus was interested in some other work she’d done in the ’70s, a series of paintings that had nothing to do with sex.
“So I took one of those out and he looked at it and said, ‘Well, that’s really very interesting, but this is what I’m here for.’ And he pointed to the fuck painting I had on a stretcher, the rest were rolled up and I hadn’t seen them in decades,” she recalled. “And then eventually he gave me a solo show– that was the first time these paintings were shown all together.”
Betty continued to work, but still kept the subject matter of the fuck paintings at bay — that is, until around 2002. “Eventually I bored myself silly and went back to the sex subject, because it had so engaged me,” she said. “One day I took out one of the pieces, and I said, ‘You just gotta do it.’ So I started to do it again.”
In 2003, Tompkins’ work made it into the Lyon Biennale. The moment was a turning point for her career, and a triumph over the censorship she’d experienced in France years before. “It was huge,” she said. Shortly after, the first piece in Betty’s fuck paintings, “Fuck Painting #1” (1969), series was acquired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Despite years of having her work shown in public, Betty’s work is still at risk for censorship. In 2006, her paintings once again landed in what she called “art jail,” this time in Japan. “Being censored is a blindsiding experience, there’s no way to prepare yourself for that impact, and this was out of the blue because my work had been in Lyon, my work had been in Paris, and my work had actually already been to Japan,” she explained. “The works were sent in a FedEx box with a high insurance value on in, and the customs official got curious, so he opened it up and he didn’t like what he saw.”
Before they would release the work, Japanese customs insisted that Tompkins prove the paintings were art. “That’s sort of a stunning thing to be asked,” she said. But getting the work out of art jail was much easier this time around. “Fortunately I had gotten a lot of press,” Betty recalled. Almost immediately after art critic Elisabeth Lebovici wrote a blog post about the incident, customs released Betty’s work. This time, her paintings made it to the show.
“I’m sort of expecting this might happen another time to me in my lifetime,” she laughed. “I always have a little shudder until someone tells me, ‘Yes the work is there.’”
Despite the evolution of Tompkins’ work over the years, Real Ersatz demonstrates some important consistencies in her paintings. Digital photos don’t really do the work justice. Seeing these large paintings in person overwhelms you, and though it’s very clear what you’re looking at, the work has a unique ability to invoke a certain sense of ambiguity. There’s a soft-focus to the paintings that makes it feel as if these encounters are going down in a soft-lit room, instead of on the pages of a health sciences book about sex. Moving closer and farther away from the paintings offers a different view on each perspective.
“The distance I work in, there’s nothing there— it’s all dots— you can’t tell anything, and as you move back it goes through this series of getting really clear and realistic,” Betty explained. “Personally, I get disappointed in paintings that look the same close-up as they do far away.”
And strangely, this characteristic is mirrored in Betty’s career in a way. The closer you get to the time period in which they were first made, the less clear it was to other people what Betty was doing. And the farther you travel to the present moment, clarity comes into view.
“I spend a lot of effort paying attention to both the formal elements of the painting and the subject matter, and to me, a painting that really, really works and what I consider my best paintings are when they both lock heads and they’re in a death battle and neither side can win. You’re aware of the abstract thing and the subject matter simultaneously and with equal force.”
This probably explains why Tompkins’ paintings are so fun to look at it– there’s an inherent tension between the subject matter, the beauty of the object you’re looking at, and your personal feelings about sex and a very public display of sex. That’s not to mention the bizarre sensory experience that comes with looking at such an intimate activity on a large scale and super, super close, anatomical views of sex in which the rest of the human is absent from that moment. Basically, you need to see them up close to truly experience Tompkins’ work.
“Everybody has said this to me, that the first time they see my paintings and it’s not in reproduction, they’re just stunned,” Tompkins said. “The physical presence of the painting is very important, as much as we love jpegs and the internet.”
Real Ersatz by Betty Tompkins is on view at FUG, 431 E 6th Street BSMT, through October 17th. Gallery hours are Thursday through Saturday, 12 to 5pm, or by appointment: firstname.lastname@example.org