Since we last caught up with Betty Tompkins– the downtown artist best known for her “Fuck Paintings,” she’s been doing what an established artist should be doing, showing her work at art shows and galleries galore. But for most of her career, as we learned, Tompkins was subject to censorship, sexism, and flat-out rejection not just from gallerists and the art world, but from first- and second-wave feminists too. Nevertheless, Tompkins kept painting nether regions and money shots, all of it sourced from porn. “The problem is, I’m a slut for painting,” she said.
We heard all this and more at “A Woman’s Greatest Weapon is Her Tongue,” a Q&A held in conjunction with Tompkins’s new solo exhibition of “Word Paintings,” which depict some of the “awfully familiar” words used to describe women. (“WOMEN Words Phrases Stories” is on view at the FLAG Art Foundation through May 14).
1. “You could either be crushed or liberated by it […] I’m finally done dealing with other people’s expectations.”
Attendees of the Q&A found themselves crammed inside the FLAG space almost as densely as Tompkins’s series of 1,000 small-scale paintings were hung on the walls around us. As an artist, Tompkins has a refreshing manner of speaking about her work. She’s straightforward, sometimes brutally honest, and clear-spoken, all while maintaining a humble attitude (probably from years of being relegated to the art world fringes). But above all, she’s resistant to the sort of pseudo-intellectualism that plagues the industry, and makes it difficult to understand what, if anything, an artist’s work is aiming to say. “I know that’s not very intellectual,” she said at one point, excusing herself for being plainspoken. This is to her advantage– it makes her work approachable, relatable, and even empowering, which seems especially important given that many people might come to the hyper-sexual subject matter with some seriously heavy baggage.
These “Word Paintings”– or the artists’s ongoing series of compact, box-like wordplay on canvas– might feel new, but they’re actually part of a project that Tompkins has been working on for well over a decade. At first, they might seem like a major departure from her “Fuck Paintings,” a lengthy series she embarked on in the ’70s, consisting of looming, explicit yet soft-focused air-brush renderings of, well, fucking. And in many ways, they are. Aided by an enormous spectrum of pastels, super-saturated blood reds, pubescent pinks, daisy yellows, and teal greens, the paintings on blocky canvases pop out from the wall, with explosions of Pollock-inspired splatters, spray-paint smears, and even violent slashes that resemble stab wounds.
Alison Gingeras (who curated a recent group exhibition in Dalllas, Black Sheep Feminism: the Art of Sexual Politics, featuring Tompkins’s work) who led the Q&A, described the relatively smaller works as “candy-colored legos,” and Tompkins agreed that the size makes them “intimate.” “They kind of look like packaging,” she said. “If you saw a stack of them in a store, on the shelf, they would look right, they wouldn’t look out-of-place.”
But much like her other work, the subject matter of these paintings can be occasionally hard to swallow, even for the artist herself. At center stage are a seemingly endless supply of often painful and almost always degrading phrases to describe women. Occasionally there are pleasant terms, but that seems rare enough to almost be written off as coincidence. Even with monikers like “earth mother” I found myself carefully scratching away at the surface of the phrase, thinking that there must be some way that it could be interpreted as demeaning.
Physically, the paintings are united by their stamp lettering, which spells out words like “cunt,” “cocksucker” (and in German “schwanzlutscher”), “slot,” “slut,” “basket case,” “hot tomato,” “amateur Latina pussy,” “slag,” “a sight for sore eyes.” Ask any woman and it’s more than likely she hears several or more of these epithets on a regular basis– either dished out in the form of catcalls or flung at her in fights. Many of them feel deeply ingrained in everyday language, having first made their appearance on the playground. As Tompkins said, “The language is just awfully familiar language.”
2. “Like anything else you get inured to it.”
At first, Tompkins began creating this long list of these words through a back-and-forth exercise with her husband, a sort of game that she described as “hysterical.” It eventually expanded outward to include her friends, and she started to have stamps made in the likeness of these words. “And one time I actually picked them up, ‘Hi, I’m Betty Tompkins, I believe you have some stamps for me,’ and [the stamp maker], he looks at me and goes in the back room and comes back holding this paper bag far, far away from him,'” she laughed.
Tompkins was toying with the idea of doing a large-scale project based on the words for a while before she began collecting anonymous contributions to expand the list (a process that Gingeras called “pussy-word harvesting”). Tompkins told the audience at FLAG that word-centric painting was sort of a natural thing for her. “I’m very right-brained/left-brained,” she said.
Tompkins sent out her first email to recruit potential volunteers in 2002:
“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.”
She picked the project back up again in 2012-2013. “I went, ‘Huh, I wonder what I think of it now.'”
The end-result was a list of around 3,500 distinct words and phrases, 1,000 of which you’ll see right now at FLAG. When asked if there were any particular phrases that she simply couldn’t stomach, Tompkins admitted that army slang offered the darkest mine for offensive, oppressive terms. “‘The only way she’d be more beautiful is with a dick in her mouth’– that was a little challenging. And ‘little brown fucking machine’– I found that very, very challenging,” she said.
Gingeras pointed out that the words “slut,” “bitch,” “cunt,” and “mother,” are repeated most often on their own and inside of other phrases. “Those were the four most popular words both times I sent out the email– eleven years made no difference,” Tompkins explained.
Tompkins revealed that some of the word paintings held deeply personal significance. “The one that says ‘artist girl,’ is actually a form of a portrait of a friend of mine who died– it was one of the last things she ever said to me, and I painted it right away,” she explained. “There’s various resonance of meaning for me within them.”
“Is there one that you identify with the most?” Gingeras wondered.
“Oh yeah,” Tompkins said, straight-faced at first. “‘With her you never know if you’re ever gonna get a fuck you or a chicken dinner,’ was actually said about when I was an undergraduate by this guy, the first time that I met him, he just struck me wrong and every time he’d say something to me I’d just respond, ‘Oh, fuck you!’ and the next time he came with a friend and I made chicken dinner for him. I was about 20 years old.”
Was Tompkins’s answer in response to a male audience member who posed the question, “Do you always work alone, or does your husband at any time ever work with you on anything?”
“I don’t share my toys very well in my studio– it’s my place,” she added curtly.
While clearly a feminist, in some ways Tompkins seemed to feel less than comfortable with the label (even though her work is seen as a triumph by many feminists now) having been rejected by her contemporary feminists throughout her artistic career. On several occasions, when Gingeras brought up “feminism” by name, Tompkins was cautious in whatever came next. And yet, she beamed in response to another audience member’s comment. “You make feminism glamorous,” he said. “I really want to curtsy to that.”
4. “Perhaps if I have an agenda, it’s knocking down one taboo at a time.”
Tompkins courageously embraces the push-and-pull inherent in her work– whose subject matter is, on the one hand, representative of the systematic oppression of women, but also an act of reappropriation and reclamation. When it came to Tompkins’s source material, Gingeras wondered: “Are the words more difficult than the porn?”
“No, they’re equally difficult, or equally as enjoyable and equally as fun for me to work with,” Tompkins responded.
One way in which she bends toward the recuperative potential found in her work is through performance. So far, “Women Words” has been performed five times (including once at FLAG in March). Dozens of women, including some friends of Betty’s and some colleagues, volunteer to “speak, yell, sing, and perform however they wish” a selection of 20 words from Tompkins’s master list. “Here [at FLAG] was the first time that I read any of the words myself,” she recalled. “To me, part of the point of doing this is that, things come to me– I’m not the inventor of these words– that’s my idea to just give it back, give it straight back and let other people do it.” She described the result as “powerful” and “an opportunity to just let the piece loose on everyone else and see what they come up with.”
5. “I don’t think we’ve come very far, and we’re in the middle of a backlash.”
“More women are getting an opportunity, just because there are more venues,” Tompkins guessed, but she expressed doubt about how far feminism and women artists have come in actuality.
However, there has been a major turnaround in terms of acceptance of her work, which is now championed (for the most part) by sex-positive feminists. Tompkins said that up until recently, she simply didn’t know how reviled her work was within the feminist community. “I wasn’t aware how polarizing my work was in the first-wave feminism group— they were very anti-pleasure, which I kind of knew about. But I didn’t know the extent to the objection against what I was doing and my source materials. It explains a lot of my life, they never reached out to me.”
6. “I’m really good with goals.”
At just seven paintings in, Tompkins decided to set a goal of finishing 1,000 paintings. She’s so far surpassed that, and is continuing the project. “I though it would keep me on the right side of invention,” she explained.
When she first started the series, Tompkins channeled some artists whose work she admired like the German abstract painter Gerhard Richter (and the Word Paintings very much resemble his colorful, textural explosions), and also, surprisingly, Jackson Pollock.
“The next day I made a squeegee with a six-inch plastic ruler and I started to do Richter– and I thought, ‘Oh, this is really great.’ I had to stop myself at 100 because I was enjoying myself so much. There’s no question about it– Richter has fun,” she said. “Many of these guys– they’re the macho, tortured artist, they have soul, they’re troubled, and I’m approaching they’re work and thinking, ‘How much fun did they have?!'” She added that, “The Pollocks were tremendous fun. I couldn’t understand how, with all that physicality– I mean, your endorphins kind of kick in there– so he must have had a lot of alcohol in his system all the time to stay depressed, because actually what he does is joyous.”
7. “I‘m not here to pass judgement on anyone or anything.”
When Gingeras remarked that Tompkins’s paintings lack a sense of being “judgmental,” the artist responded by sincerely thanking her. In both her Fuck Paintings and in the Word Paintings, there’s an unusual sense of closeness to taboo, an outright tango with “private,” or “shameful” subjects, rather than scientific objectivity or distance. It almost feels like a loving embraces of all forms of pleasure. However, as Gingeras pointed out, “There seems to be a lot of male hetero-normative prerogative here on the walls.”
“There is, and a lot of it was sent to me by women,” Tompkins replied. “I’ve given a lot of thought to embedded misogyny, I know that I got more emails from women than I got from men. And I know that some of the worst things here were sent to me by women. The words that make me the most uncomfortable, did not come from men, they came from women.”
“WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories: 1,000 paintings by Betty Tompkins”is on view at FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea now through May 14.
Correction: a previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Alison Gingeras curated WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories. The exhibition was curated by Betty Tompkins.