How Betty Tompkins confronts gender bias, armed with a spray gun and unshakable self-belief

Fiona Alison DuncanOverlooked for decades, the New Yorker is now an inspirational figure for a new generation of feminists. Author Fiona Alison Duncan caught up with the artist in her SoHo loft

Famed for painting pornographic close-ups in the misty monochrome of an overcast sky, Betty Tompkins is a 74-year-old artist with, she says, ‘a 17-year-old career.’ When, in 2002, a body of work Tompkins painted between 1969 and 1974 premiered at Mitchell Algus Gallery in New York City, it was her first major solo show. 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? It certainly wasn’t for Tompkins’ lack of trying. A self-described ‘ambitious, stubborn, and persevering person,’ she never stopped making work intended to be shown.


Much of that work was made in Tompkins’ SoHo studio loft – which doubles as a home – where I met the artist on an early-September afternoon. Tompkins was working on her contribution to a display honoring Carolee Schneemann’s painting legacy presented by P.P.O.W. at Art Basel Miami Beach.

The following conversation began after Tompkins showed me a Schneemann screen print she owns. A gift from her husband, the 1979 work, titled Museum Sarcophagus, features six nude self-portraits in coffin-like enclosures. In response, I showed Tompkins two photos on my phone of small works by her that my godmother gifted herself and her teenage daughter last year. One work says BAD MOTHER, while the other has LOVELY painted over black, white, and neon Pollock-like drips. They’re from Tompkins’ ‘WOMEN Words’ series (2013–), in which the artist paints phrases and terms – mostly nasty clichés – that, according to a call-and-response Tompkins initiated via email, ‘define women.’

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.

Fiona Alison Duncan: Most of your monumental paintings of pornographic imagery are painted using an airbrush gun. Is it fun to do?

BT: It’s magic. The idea that I never touch the canvas is real magic. The other thing that I really like about them is that when you go up close, there’s nothing.

Betty Tompkins
Left: Women Words (Raphael #3)
Right: Women Words (Warhol #1)

FAD: I read that you were inspired to make the first ‘Fuck Paintings’ after discovering your then-husband’s porn stash. How did you make this discovery and how did you feel about it?

BT: I had always known about them. They came with him, after all. We had only been in New York for a few months, but I was already upset and disappointed by most of the art I saw in the galleries. It was all very pleasant, but I was not interested in pleasant work – and I am the same today. One day, I took the photos out to take a look and started using my fingers to crop the images. That looked promising, so I put slips of paper on each photo and started to move them around. I was totally engaged in what I was doing. I concentrated on one image until I loved what I was looking at. From a formal abstract point of view, it was beautiful. From a content point of view, it had charge. I said to myself, ‘If that was a painting, I would want to look at it for a long time.’ I started Fuck Painting #1 the next day. How did it make me feel? Terrific!

FAD: Who took that famous photo of you between two massive ‘Fuck Paintings’?

BT: Me. You’re damned right. I had been visiting galleries and seen that the slides [artists would submit] were pulled partially out of the envelope, glanced at by the front-desk person, and then shoved back in the envelope. I got the idea for the photo so they could see the scale of the paintings. It was necessary to have something that was eye-catching. Do you know what slides are?

FAD: Yes, I’m a crossover analog-to-digital generation person. I had slides in my classrooms, as relics, but I adapted to smartphones young. It’s interesting, because the proportion of slides is almost like a post in an Instagram grid – there, you also have to have something eye-catching, and it can be career-making.

BT: My husband and I were just talking about how, in one more generation, a whole group of documents, from the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, will not be read in their original format, because they no longer teach script in schools. They only teach print, because computers are so prevalent.

FAD: William Burroughs would talk about how we’re going to see the end of written language as the West has known it, and a return to hieroglyphics. He prophesied this, which is interesting, because memes and emojis are hieroglyph-like. I read Gore Vidal’s [1968 novel] Myra Breckinridge this summer. Myra is this Hollywood femme fatale acting coach, who, as a narrator, predicts our current president when she notes that, given the violence and totalitarian-mindedness of her male students – who are of Trump’s generation – ‘any attractive television personality who wanted to become our dictator would have their full support.’ Have you read it?

BT: Of course! I read it when it first came out. I was in grad school.

Left: Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #4, 2013. Right: Sex Painting #2, 2010. Both images courtesy of the artist; P.P.O.W, New York City; and rodolphe janssen, Brussels.

Left: Betty Tompkins, Men are..., 2019. Right: Betty Tompkins, Censored Painting #2 (Paris 1973 - Instagram 2019), 2019. Both images courtesy of the artist; P.P.O.W, New York City; and rodolphe janssen, Brussels.

Installation view of Betty Tompkins's exhibition Virgins at P.P.O.W, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W, New York City.

Left: Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #4, 2013. Right: Sex Painting #2, 2010. Both images courtesy of the artist; P.P.O.W, New York City; and rodolphe janssen, Brussels.

Left: Betty Tompkins, Men are..., 2019. Right: Betty Tompkins, Censored Painting #2 (Paris 1973 - Instagram 2019), 2019. Both images courtesy of the artist; P.P.O.W, New York City; and rodolphe janssen, Brussels.

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FAD: It was rereleased this year and [the publishers] are trying to promote it, as it has, I think, new resonance in our post-Me Too and greater-trans-awareness times.

BT: That’s really interesting, but of course there’s a whole group of literature that can be rethought. I suspect the way we think about Lolita [1955] today has nothing to do with what [Vladimir] Nabokov had in mind, or with how it fitted into his times.Lolita was the exposition of an idea he had – older man, younger woman – which was very common and not criticized. When I went to college, the professor husband’s young second wife was always a student. And I was one of them. I married a teaching doctoral fellow who was 12 years older than I was. We met when I was 19. When we got married, three days after I turned 21, I told him, ‘The odds of this lasting are close to zero.’ We separated right as I turned 30. I think the Me Too movement has increased awareness of this issue. The atmosphere on college campuses has changed sufficiently so that it is now seen as abusive and an attempt to keep the man as the controlling partner in the relationship.

FAD: Who were some of the artists who most excited you when you were in school?

BT: I was really interested in the art of my time. When I was in undergrad and grad school, it was the beginning of Pop Art. And I loved them all. I particularly liked Marisol. I loved the first school of Abstract Expressionism – de Kooning was my favorite, and number two was Hans Hofmann. What I liked about Hofmann is that all of his pieces are either failures or close to it. It’s a really good mindset to have – that you can fail at what you’re doing and it’s fine, you get something out of it. My work is, to this day, always on the edge of going over, and I love it.

FAD: Do you know Florynce Kennedy?

BT: No, who’s she?

FAD: She was a feminist and civil rights activist and attorney. She had all these great one-liners, one of which was, ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up space.’

BT: I never articulated it like that, but it’s exactly what I think.

FAD: Do you think of your early ‘Fuck Paintings’ as within a genealogy of Pop Art?

BT: In a way, they were. What I really like to do is take something that exists in the world, do something to it, and send it back out. This is actually the only common thread I could find, looking back in my mind, between different bodies of work starting somewhere as an undergrad. Sometimes objects, sometimes images, sometimes words, sometimes shapes or types of composition.

Installation view of Betty Tompkins's exhibition ‘WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories’ at The FLAG Art Foundation, New York City, 2016. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, ArtEcho LLC

FAD: How did you know it was the FBI?

BT: Oh God, they all had the same cars, shoes, suits. And they were always there, two white guys waiting for us, every day. We lived in Strawberry Mansion, which was a lower-middle-class mixed neighborhood. The idea was to intimidate the parents, to make them fearful for their kids. I remember there was this big boy in my first-grade class who bullied boys and girls equally. One day, he came up to me in the schoolyard and said, ‘After school, I’m going to beat the crap out of you.’ I had the rest of the day to think about it. When he came up to me after school, I said, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea. I’m a very important person and the FBI has specially assigned a team to me to keep me safe.’ He said, ‘Bullshit.’ And I said, ‘Wait here.’ I walked out of the schoolyard and started down the block and up to the corner and back, while this car followed, two paces behind me, the whole time. The boy fled. I was the only one who was not beat up in that class.

FAD: Have you read The Blazing World [2014] by Siri Hustvedt? It’s a novel about a trickster female artist who gets her dues late in life. Why is this such a trope, the female artist being celebrated and paid, often for work she did in her youth, only post-menopause?

BT: I read that book when it first came out and I enjoyed it. This now exists because it is an area that dealers can use to bring in new blood, even if it is old blood. The same goes with artists of color. Since we were all rejected by the art business when young and kept working anyway, we deserve it! Better late than never.

FAD: On a similar note, do you have a sense of what zeitgeist shifts could account for your ‘Fuck Paintings’ becoming so revered in the 21st Century? Was it the commonness of pornography, post-internet, or sex-positive feminism? Was it you, some new energy you were emitting, your wise age? Was it chance?

BT: My intuition tells me it was chance and good luck. But I was prepared for it. I never stopped working. I continued to put myself out there. I never stopped believing in myself. 

Fiona Alison Duncan is a Canadian-American writer, artist, and organizer. She is the founding host of Hard to Read, a literary social practice, and its intimate spinoff Pillow Talk. Duncan’s debut novel Exquisite Mariposa is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press.


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