Let’s Talk About (Painting) Sex: A Q&A With Betty Tompkins

Betty Tompkins has been making unabashedly graphic and explicit paintings for over four decades, often working within an epic format (a typical painting can be 60 by 84 inches.) Her work will be spotlighted at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen‘s booth in April at the Art Brussels fair.   Modern Painters senior editor Scott Indrisek had the pleasure of visiting her live/work studio in Soho, where they discussed prudish customs officials, the art of airbrushing, and the meaning of the term “bean bagging.”

Scott Indrisek: It’s so nice to see these works here in the studio.

Betty Tompkins: Everyone who comes in here, or who I meet who has been to a show, they all say the same thing, which is that you really have to see them in person. After that, you can see them in reproduction, or JPEG, and it’s fine. But they all say it makes such a difference to see them in person, because you get the scale and the texture.

The scale, but also, they’ve got sort of a hypnotic look.

This one [here] is a slightly older painting. it’s made out of stamps. It’s all language. When I came back to this subject matter in 2003-2004, I came back using language. I had used language through all my other series in one way or another, so it seemed like a logical place for me to be. We had a lot of fun thinking of what the stamps would say. This one says, “fuck,” and “beanbag,” and “schtup.” A lot of “schtup.”

Is “beanbag” a term I don’t know, or is it just a nonsense word?

To beanbag somebody is to fuck them. All these words mean “fuck.” “Schtup” is fuck in Yiddish. “Beanbag” is probably from the ‘50s or the ‘60s.

So you grid everything? Do you project the source images?

I don’t project it. I grid it, and I work from my master file. They’re so big that without a grid system, it would be too time-consuming to keep it in proportion. I don’t want to spend my time on that; I want to spend my time painting. I grid everything. I love grids, I believe in grids. They’re a great tool, and they go back past the Renaissance. I’m totally fine with it. On my drawings, I let the grids show. This one is the first drawing I did when I decided to go back to this subject matter. The only stamp I had was a stamp that said “cow,” which was left over from the ‘70s. So I thought, I’ll use that, that’s fine. I thought it was funny, because of course when a guy says a girl is a cow, it’s a real pejorative term. And there I was, going, “cow cow cow cow.” This was the very first one, and the idea grew really quickly. By the fourth or fifth one, we had found somebody to make the stamps, so I had other words. One says “cunt,” “snaily.” Tom Morton, who’s now at the Hayworth in London, was a critic for Frieze, and he wrote a review of the Lyon Biennale in 2003 that I was in. He said my work was ‘snaily,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, well whatever it means, I’m going to get a stamp made out of it and use it!’

Did you ever figure out what it means?

Yeah, because I met him. He was here, and I asked him, you know, “What does ‘snaily’ mean?” And he said that vaginas always reminded him of a snail, because there’s a layer, and then an interior layer, then another interior layer – you kind of have to go through a lot to get to the center.

You live here, in your studio, too?

I do! I really like living and working in the same place, so that my work is pretty much the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night. It helps keep me focused, and it helps keep me engaged.

And you have a second studio in Pennsylvania…

It’s in a little town called Pleasant Mount, northeast Pennsylvania, Wayne County. A lot of camps around there.

How long have you been going back and forth between the two?

Like twenty years! It’s just unbelievable.

When did you stop working with the stamps?

I stopped in 2009 because of tendinitis. I can still do a small drawing – if I can do something in, say, two work sessions, I’m ok. If I go into that third day, I feel it in my arms. It was affecting both arms simultaneously.  I was in this incredibly painful physical therapy for it, and then I’d come home and I’d work. Finally, it occurred to me that this was never going to work, and I just had to stop. Also, I was working on a painting that was giving me great grief, and I was having a hard time getting it to resolve itself. I started having dreams about using an airbrush and wondering, if what I was grappling with the stamps, if I sprayed it what would happen.  I think, for me so far in my life, my best work has not been done using paint in a traditional manner, like with a brush, which of course is what I was raised on. So I don’t look to brushes for my solution. I look for other methods of application, like the stamps…and I did a couple that were fingerprints.

I’m assuming you don’t work with assistants?

I can’t stand having people around here. It’s a real problem. I don’t know what they could do.

They could stamp!

Well, there’s an idea. I’ll have to think about it. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I gave it up.

[Referring to other works in the studio] Where are these kiss images from?

They’re all from porn.

That looks pretty romantic for a porn kiss!

It’s actually pretty old porn. There are always trends in pornography, and at one point, the photographs would be story-based. So it would kind of run through a scenario, whatever the scenario was, a little bit for everybody. Then they seemed to have embraced the concept where the woman just stares out at the alleged audience – in magazines, films, everything – and it’s very confrontational.  It doesn’t do a thing for me. All the action is going on, but she’s looking right at you. I’m not in love with it. I think it’s meant to convey to the viewer that “this could be you here”…but to me it just looks hostile.  

Are the images you’re painting cropped from the originals?

Oh, of course. There are many other things going on – often many. I really have to alter the images often. I change everything–gender, ethnicity–and I add and subtract body parts at will. Like in this one, the man was originally very predatory towards the woman. I didn’t like that; I didn’t like his aggression. So I worked on the image, and I changed the access, the angles of everything. The higher up she got and the lower down he went, the funnier it got.

How long have you used an airbrush?

I used the airbrush through from 1969 to 1978, and then I picked it up again in 2006.

So the earliest “Fuck” paintings are airbrushed, too?


Where are you finding most of the imagery from these days? Does it tend to be current, or is there a particular era?

The sources come from everywhere, and some of them hang around here for decades. I used to have access to really old porn. When I did the first series, my first husband had sent away for some, I think from Singapore or Hong Kong. It was before he met me. It was in the ‘50s, and it was illegal to use the US Mail.

For any type of porn?

Any. He lived in Everett, Washington, and he rented a P.O. box in Vancouver, British Columbia. He waited what he hoped to be the right amount of time, and he drove over the border and picked them up. Then he drove back, hoping he looked like the All-American boy – which he did!

Now it’s almost no fun, it’s so easy to get.

You know, we’re inundated. We’re absolutely inundated either with porn or with the allusion to sexuality, for everything.

How has it changed, using that type of imagery, from when you first worked – 1969? – until now, based on that change?

The biggest change is lack of pubic hair.

No, no! I mean, as far as the reception. Because people are so used to seeing that imagery on the Internet, do you feel like it’s changed how you think about it?

Do I think it makes the acceptance of my work easier?

Or just that you think about those images differently in general.

Yes and no. It’s true, my work has a better reception now. Although when I’ve shown in Zurich, we always get hate mail.

Really? Like what?

People don’t like what they’re getting in the mail, the invite card, and they get upset and write letters.I often get requests for people to be unsubscribed from the mailing list, and I honor it every time and thank them for letting me know. It’s not my job to shove any of this down anybody’s throat. I did a show here in New York where a guy took one look at this double penetration “Fuck” painting and ran screaming from the gallery. I try to not make the kind of judgment calls for the viewer. I try and remove myself quite a lot from that discussion so that they’re just left with the subject matter, or my depiction of it, which I hope is beautiful…and their reaction to it. I realized I felt really uncomfortable at a certain point being asked: Why do I do these, and what do they mean? You know, your standard question. As an artist, I’m supposed to have a handy dandy sound bite for it. But I was uncomfortable, and I really had to think it through. I could say that I mean them to be feminist, I could say they’re a commentary on the industry and the sexualization of our culture, I could say they’re to push me beyond my comfort level, I could say I just do them because I wanted to see what they look like…I could say a million different things, but every time I would say something, I think I would limit how the viewer looks at my work. So I hope people are free to just interact with the paintings themselves. When I first started these paintings – and I haven’t really changed my mind about this part at all, I think, in all of these years – one of the things I had noticed as a young artist in New York was that, in “dem dere days,” nobody was interested in young artists, and they certainly weren’t interested in young artists with breasts. I couldn’t have been more in the wrong place in the wrong time if I had figured it out, which of course I hadn’t. I just was doing these paintings. I was fresh out of grad school, and I came to New York, and I’m going around to these galleries. Sometimes I’d be in and out in 2 minutes, 5 minutes, and I’d think, “Oh my god, this artist, he spent a year or two years making these paintings, and I can’t even stand here for five minutes.” I went to galleries. That’s why I moved to New York: I wanted to see other people’s work. And of course all the dealers at that time, they would just say if you clearly were a young artist, they would say, “Come back in 10 years.” Like, young artists can’t have found their voice.

They wouldn’t even look at your work?

Actually, when I first came to New York, I didn’t show them anything because all I had was my stuff from graduate school. Unlike today, where we kind of groom them for the art market in graduate school, that was not what my generation had been taught. You left school, and then you started the process of what are you going to do, find your voice, whatever. You started all over.  I kind of liked it because it forced you into the “great rejection” of everything that you had been schooled in, and that was really good. So in the beginning, I didn’t show my work to anybody. When I started with the “Fuck” paintings, part of my idea was that when I was finally going to have a show–in ten years’ time, according to all these guys– they were going to want to stand in front of my paintings long enough to see what it was that I was doing as a painter.  I had been raised as an Abstract Expressionist, and I came to subject matter of pop culture in graduate school. But my grounding was so formalist and abstract that I didn’t have the kind of attitude people who were raised on realism had, which was that the subject was first, the reality was first, and the painting itself was second. To me, the painting was always the primary, primary thing.

So you were making abstract work all through graduate school?

No, I embraced subject matter in graduate school for the first time after basically not having used subject matter. I think that abstract part of it has always stuck with me. One of the ways that I like to think about it now is that in my best paintings, the subject matter and the abstract elements are so tight against each other that neither side can actually win. It’s basically war up there every day. That part’s been really consistent. Once in awhile, subject matter will take over, and once in a while, it’s too abstract. When I’ve really hit it, they are dead-on tight against each other.

How do you know when you’ve accomplished that?

I just stand there and keep at it until it visually will click for me. That butt fuck “Fuck” painting? I didn’t actually find the rhythm of the painting until the last day, and I just worked on it and worked on it and worked on it and worked on it. I do have faith that I will fall across it or invent it, or I’ll find something and build on it. I did one painting, it’s a double penetration, small, very intense painting. And I thought, “Oh, this painting is really about these three dark shapes going down.” So I’m painting it, thinking that I know. Then right near the end of it, there was a slightly lighter area to the side of one of the dark spots on the top, and when I sprayed, too much white came out at once. First you go, Oh shit. But then I looked and I thought, “Oh, what a terrific surprise! That’s it!” So I toned it down a little and refined the shape, but it became about that spot and how it energized all the other lights in the painting. When that happens, it’s incredibly exciting to me. I think that’s why I never get bored in here, because there’s always another problem.

The titles of your works don’t really sugarcoat anything.

The original title of the “Fuck” paintings was “Joined Forms.” It was like the heyday of Conceptual Art, you have to understand. You couldn’t read Artforum without a dictionary. And the “Cow/Cunt” paintings were originally called “Condensed/Dispersed,” which I now think is hysterically funny. I was too literal-minded and serious. It’s hard to have a sense of humor when nothing is going your way. I think it’s a hilarious title, but I do call them the “Cow/Cunts.” And the “Fuck Paintings” I never refer to as anything but the “Fuck Paintings.”

So what about these really early paintings you did, of vaginas with cows on them? Is that just something you did as a total lark?

No. I couldn’t get the “Fuck” paintings shown. I was in two group shows in New York in 1973. Then I was supposed to be in a group show in Paris with “Fuck Painting #1” and “Fuck Painting #5,” and they got stopped in customs. It took me about a year to get them back. It was before the Internet, before Skype. A long-distance international phone call cost a lot of money, and I didn’t have it. I was really afraid that I wouldn’t get them back, but finally they were repatriated to me. After that, even with the few people who had a little enthusiasm for my work, I was like the plague.  So the cow/cunt paintings were actually about scale: something normally very, very large acting in a very delicate, small function, and something normally small and delicate acting as a mass. Also, it was my idea of doing work that was more socially acceptable! You can see I don’t have a clue. They got a worse reception!