A conversation with Betty Tompkins

Portrait of Betty Tompkins in her Prince Street Studio in New York City, 22 August 2012 – © 2012 by Susan Silas

SUSAN:

Yesterday I was studying your website and the first thing I noticed was a fabulous photograph of you taken in 1973, wedged between two enormous paintings, and the caption read Ellensburg, Washington. Is that where you came from or where you studied?

BETTY:

No, I was born in Washington, D.C. and I grew up in Philadelphia. I went to Syracuse University for my undergraduate degree and then I became a cliché and I married one of my teachers and he got a job at Central Washington State College, so we moved out to Ellensburg. I did my graduate degree and then there were a couple of years where we were going back and forth between New York and Ellensburg.

I started the first Fuck Paintings in 1969 and it was in the days of slides and it did occur to me that if you took a sheet of slides of mine and just held them up, that it was just way too close to its source matter, so I set this shot up for scale and I had it printed out so that whenever I sent out my slides, I sent out this photograph. Eventually, in 2004, I was part of Larry Clark’s Untitled Portfolio, done for Printed Matter. I was really honored that he asked me to participate. When he was here he said, “Do you have any prints?” I thought he meant like etchings, lithographs, and then I thought no, to Larry Clark a print is a photograph and I took this one out and he said, “That’s the one.” And we had it editioned and it was part of the portfolio.

Ellensburg, Washington, 1973

SUSAN:

That’s a good trajectory for the photograph—to have wound up in that portfolio over thirty years later.

BETTY:

I was really interested and still am interested in the second life of anything, you know, because the first life can be really, really short. If you participate in an art fair your first life is over in three to five days for a painting or a group of works so you have to have a second life—you absolutely have to. It was really important to me at that time, to get that image in particular, established as part of my iconography so that people would know without a doubt that the paintings were large.

SUSAN:

It’s interesting that you talk about second lives because one of our motivations is to recuperate lost lineages and to recover things that aren’t totally in place the way they should be. I think for women this tends to be a bigger problem than it is for men.

BETTY:

You just defined my career, which began in 2002.

SUSAN:

The other thing I was thinking about last night looking through your site was that you talked about starting out as an abstract expressionist painter and I noticed that Philip Pearlstein says that about himself as well, and although his images were less explicit and in fact, much more conventional with respect to their representation of women, more in the vein of the images that John Berger describes, he had a much easier time getting his work out even though he too was described as swimming against the stream at the time by making “representational” painting. I wonder how conscious you were of him at that time?

BETTY:

Of course, he was a really big artist. But he was a realist and I wasn’t interested in realism.  I thought he presented the figure more or less the way you would paint a rock. And that didn’t really interest me at all, but he was a famous artist, so of course, I knew who he was even as an undergraduate. It was part of what you grew up on.

CHRYSANNE:

Were you in New York when you started the Fuck Paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. It was 1969 and I had just finished my Masters degree and my first husband, Don Tompkins, was getting an EdD at Teachers College so we moved from Ellensburg way uptown. I did one painting after graduate school that had to do with the ideas I had been working with of commercially derived imagery and then I did Fuck Painting #1.

Fuck Painting #1, 1969 (84″ x 60″)

CHRYSANNE:

Do you remember the inspiration or the genesis of that first Fuck Painting?

BETTY:

Of course I do. Don had this collection of porn, which he had gotten from Hong Kong. It was either Hong Kong or Singapore. It was illegal at the time. He was twelve years older than I was. He got these photos in the 1950s. It was totally illegal to send the stuff through the U.S. mail. At the time, he lived in Everett, Washington, so he went up to Vancouver and rented a postal box and sent off his money order and when he figured enough time had passed he drove across the border, picked up the envelope and then drove back, hoping that he looked like the all American boy and that nobody would search the car and nobody searched the car—so he had them. When I met him, the photographs came with him. It wasn’t that I had to seek them out, they were just there.

I was looking at them one day and thinking, you know, if you take off the head, and the hands, and the feet, all the identifiers, then what you have left is something really beautiful in an abstract way, plus it has this tremendous kick as subject matter. So that’s why I decided to do it. I was also new to New York City, going to galleries constantly. At that time you could actually get to see everything; you’d do 57th Street and the Upper East Side in one day or maybe a day and a half. So every month I could go and see everything and I was really disturbed by how little that I saw engaged me as a viewer. There was no essential engagement. So I was going to the shows, I was very dutiful, I went to see everything. I’d go in and I’d go out and I said to myself at some point: “This guy worked for two years, at least two years to do this work and I can’t even stand here for five minutes and look at it. There’s nothing here.”

CHRYSANNE:

Do you remember what period of work during that time struck you as so uninteresting?

BETTY:

It was a lot of different kinds of things. Anything that was realistic—boring. There was nothing abstract about the paint handling to get me so, OK, I get it, it’s a boy in a boat. Fine. I’m good with it. There is nothing else here, let’s move on. Or they were abstract paintings that were copies of essential … they were next generations down. The Pop Art I liked very much. That was really engaging to me but there was just so much that just did nothing for me so I thought: “Well, if I ever get a show, in ten years, like these people are saying I have to wait, I want people to stand there. I want them to stare at the paintings and see what I did as a painter.” When I started the Fuck Paintings, it seemed to me that I was just fulfilling my own ambition to do that.

Fuck Painting #4, 1972 (84″ x 60″)

CHRYSANNE:

And what was the first reaction? Who saw the first Fuck Painting?

BETTY:

Let’s see. I can’t remember who the first dealer was who I managed to get up there. It was really different. You could actually go to a gallery and ask them to come to your studio.

CHRYSANNE:

I remember.

BETTY:

It was different times. And they would come. And I don’t remember anymore who it was but whoever it was… you have to realize that we lived in Teachers College student housing and they were two room apartments. So the bedroom, which had the bed and the dresser was also my studio and there was a space (gestures at a small area) maybe between that painting and this stool, where I could set up the painting but obviously if I wanted to back up I had to hop on the bed. And then the living room, the other room, was Don’s studio and study, the kitchen was tacked on to one end and if you didn’t want to look at anything you put pillows in the bathtub and sat there. So that was it. So the first person to come to my studio walked in to the bedroom and ran out and then backed in. And I thought: “I wonder what it is that I really have done.”

SUSAN:

And it was a man? A male dealer?

BETTY:

Yes. They were almost all male dealers. And the men dealers were more accessible. More approachable.

SUSAN:

Because you were a woman?

BETTY:

No they weren’t interested at all. Not at all. But it was also very clear to me when I first came here because I would go around and I would act friendly and try to figure out—what is this scene that I am aspiring to join? And everybody said the same thing: “We’re not interested in people who were recently students. Come back in ten years when you have found your own voice.” And that was clear.

CHRYSANNE:

I experienced the same thing in Canada.

BETTY:

Yes, I think it was really universal. It was not the cherry picking of graduate students from studios that we have now.

CHRYSANNE:

Rothko was 42 when he had his first major solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in New York. That was standard.

video ©2012 by MOMMY

BETTY:

There is this really wonderful video called Painters Painting, a documentary on painting.

SUSAN:

Oh, it’s wonderful, yes. It was directed by Emile de Antonio. (The full title of the film is Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970. It was filmed in 1972.)

BETTY:

I read about it, someone mentioned it to me. I’ve watched it about four times now. You have the 40s guys and none of them had shows before they were 40. DeKooning was 44. Newmann was 45 and Hoffman was 65. Then you have Rauschenberg and Johns and the age dropped considerably. And then you have Stella and there the divide is so totally complete, the focus, the expectation. I think expectation is the correct word. What he thought his life would be compared to what the older guys had expected. Just to get to that moment. I thought, “This is a historical moment.”

CHRYSANNE:

It is, it is.

Were their any women painters at the time that you thought highly of?

BETTY:

There were the wives : Elaine De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner. I adored their work. I was heavily enthusiastic about it. When I was an undergraduate my major painting teacher entertained us for a full three hour class on why there were no great women painters. This was long before the exhibition and research of the same name. And I kept saying: “Well what about, what about, what about,” and he was incredibly dismissive of them all, including Marisol, who was the new one.

CHRYSANNE:

She was very popular at that time.

BETTY:

Exactly. I kind of got the impression and I actually don’t know if it’s historically accurate or not but there was a period where you didn’t have to be a wife—Marisol was nobody’s wife and she was significant but they were really only going to tolerate one per movement. So you had Marisol for one kind of work and Lee Bontecou for another kind of work.

CHRYSANNE:

And Louise Nevelson for another kind of work.

BETTY:

Yes, exactly, but there wasn’t room for multiples of women and that was very disturbing.

SUSAN:

At the beginning of the eighties that was still operative.

BETTY:

I think it’s Susan Rothenberg who was instrumental in putting an end to this. At a certain point at the height of her popularity (if she’s the one I’m thinking of, it was either her or someone of her generation) — she refused to be the only woman in a show. She recognized it for tokenism and she insisted that they include others or they didn’t include her at all.

CHRYSANNE:

At the reopening of MOMA in 1984, with the new building, the International Survey of Contemporary Art included over 160 artists of which fourteen or fifteen were women. Susan Rothenberg was one of them—it was a devastating moment for a lot of people who went to that exhibition.

BETTY:

Yes, you get to see it right there in front of you: no ifs, ands, or buts. When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers said to me: “What are you going to do after you graduate?” And I said: “Well, I’ll get my graduate degree, my M.F.A. and then I’ll go to New York and be an artist.” And he said: “The only way you’re going to make it is on your back.”

Pussy Paintings 1-9, 2011 (16″ x 16″ each)

SUSAN:

I remember that expression even when I was in college. Male faculty said that to women who had serious academic ambitions.

BETTY:

The first time I had an appointment at a gallery to bring my slides in, I was so terrified at the sexual threat that this guy had set up for me years before, that I threw up.

SUSAN:

I did read somewhere, either on your website or in a blog interview you with you that at one point—and I thought this was kind of wonderful because it reminded me of something in my experience in the ‘80s—you had begged your husband to take your work in as his.

BETTY:

I did.

SUSAN:

In the ‘80s after I finished my M.F.A. at Cal Arts, I remember sitting in a living room with a group of women discussing whether we should hire young male actors and have them take our work into galleries as their own.

BETTY:

What a wonderful idea!! In my case, I thought, “We have the same last name.” All I would do was label the work Tompkins. He was the right age, he was twelve years older than me so that made him the right age, the right gender. No, he wouldn’t do it.

SUSAN:

What was his reasoning for not wanting to do it?

BETTY:

The subject matter.

SUSAN:

Was he disapproving?

BETTY:

Actually, he was concerned because he was an academic, he taught at the time at NYU and he was concerned that it would be successful.

Cunt Painting #9, 2008 (22″ x 36″)

SUSAN:

That’s a good twist.

(Laughter.)

BETTY:

Yes, and what would that mean to his academic career if this was going to be the work that was associated with his name?

SUSAN:

That’s actually very funny.

BETTY:

I was a little pissed off at the time.

CHRYSANNE:

Did he like the Fuck Paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. He did and he didn’t. I mean, after all, they were from his photographs. Let’s just say there was a basic interest in the subject matter. I think that he was surprised at what I did with it and how determined and dogged I was with the vision of it and how I wouldn’t let anything interfere with my doing it. At the same time, I think he was mortified and nervous for himself. And probably not without cause for the period.

SUSAN:

I’m thinking there was some justification for his fears given the climate then.

BETTY:

Yes, there was. I was not a happy camper but certainly he was supporting us and I was not and so you had to pull together as a couple to keep the rent paid.

CHRYSANNE:

And the original pornography, that came from Asia?

BETTY:

Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

And was it shot in black and white?

BETTY:

They were all black and white photos, all about (gestures with thumb and forefinger) this big.

CHRYSANNE:

Were the images of Asian people or Western people?

BETTY:

They were mostly Asian. Sometimes you couldn’t tell. And sometimes I cropped things so fast and altered it so quickly it wasn’t important.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think that the initial way that they took the images was very different from Western pornography?

Masturbation Painting #6, 2011 (54″ x 42″)

BETTY:

No. All the cropping is mine. These were scenes, orgies, two people, three people, four people, ten people. It was probably standard porn for the time. American porn in print I didn’t even know about. I’m sure it existed but I didn’t know about it.

SUSAN:

I can’t help but think about all of the theorization of male gaze that I studied in graduate school, I wonder, were you conscious of cropping them in a way that gave some kind of equal space to both sexes?

BETTY:

No. That’s really fascinating because of course it does. It was not a conscious thing. I just wanted to get a composition that sang to me. That I wanted to spend those hours painting. Of course, we are all a product of the time we live in whether deliberate or not, feminism and ideas about equality were in full force. I would have had to be unconscious to have not been influenced and I was not unconscious. Does that make sense?

SUSAN:

Yes. In any case, the more strident dialogue that developed around pornography from the feminist perspective came a bit later.

BETTY:

The general dialogue when I was first in New York—my general impression, which I think is accurate, was that the feminists were not pro pleasure.

Peep Show

SUSAN:

No. And they were certainly not pro porn.

BETTY:

They were against anything that I was doing. If you were going to theorize about it.

SUSAN:

I remember being very influenced by Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, published in 1975. I thought the way she delineated rape as a political tool was quite profound, and that’s how it functions in wars to this day, but …

BETTY:

In the stream of this current election it is a major theme. Akin is only saying what they all think. They want him to leave so that they can refocus on financial and fiscal matters but basically he has stated quite clearly their agenda.

SUSAN:

Where I wanted to go with that was that while Brownmiller’s analysis was an incredibly lucid description of power relations with respect to rape, some part of that thinking and energy became something else. The vilification of men with respect to rape was totally appropriate but it crept into the definition of sex, or somehow got laid on top of sexuality generally.

BETTY:

Yes, it did.

SUSAN:

Susan Brownmiller, I believe, was involved in the formation of Women Against Pornography, which was founded about four years after the book came out. Catherine MacKinnon was a strong supporter and while it was a crusade to prevent violence against women it seemed at the same time to be totally anti-pleasure. Their perspective made it difficult to separate victimhood from the act of sex.

BETTY:

Did you read Richard Meyer’s essay in the WAC catalogue? I’m not in the show but he wrote an essay, which I am in, and he starts the essay off by saying that almost everyone that he is going to discuss in his essay is not included in the show and that the common theme among them is as pleasure. And he goes into a terrific short history of the feminist movement, what their attitude was.

CHRYSANNE:

The well known photograph of Linda Benglis with the dildo—did you know about it at the time?

BETTY:

The dildo, I loved it! Sure I subscribed to Artforum and I opened it up and WOW! This is terrific! As a matter of fact I probably still have that issue of Artforum. I thought it was fantastic, really gutsy of her and she was beautiful, she was gorgeous.

SUSAN:

Were you attacked by women?

BETTY:

No I was ignored by everybody. You have to realize that my exhibition opportunities were so limited. I was in two group shows in 1973, one at Warren Benedict and LoGuiduce Gallery. The one at Warren Benedict was a bunch of emerging artists and the show didn’t get much attention to start with. The one at LoGuiduce Gallery got much more attention because there were heavy hitters in there. My painting hung next to an Artschwager. I have the announcement somewhere. As a friend of mine said: “I’ve heard of all of these people but who the hell is Betty Tompkins?” Don’t know. Were people upset. Well, the painting didn’t sell and as far as I know nobody ran screaming from the gallery.

SUSAN:

Was it one of the big paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. It was Fuck Painting #6 which is 84” x 60.”

SUSAN:

You must have had at least some exhibition history because in 1973 you had a painting that was going to France.

BETTY:

I was in these two shows and someone saw the painting in LoGuiduce Gallery and he was putting together a show in Paris. The idea was that it would be an auction and an exhibition—so basically, you’d get some money from doing it. So they came and they picked two paintings out and the trucker came and the packer and they were shipped off. This was before email, before internet, and phone calls were prohibitively expensive, but I got a notice that the paintings had been held up in customs and declared pornographic and were not being allowed into the country and therefore I was not going to be in this exhibition. So then there was the problem of how the hell was I going to get the paintings back, which did take a year for me to do. I didn’t know enough to call up ArtNews or Art International or any of the magazines and say: “If you’d run a little something on it maybe it will pressure them to help me get the paintings back.” I didn’t go to The New York Times. I didn’t do any of the things that people would do without thinking today. All I did was write letter after letter after letter, make phone call after phone call after phone call.

CHRYSANNE:

They might not have done anything.

BETTY:

They might not have anyway. This was happening just when Andy Warhol had some penis paintings or drawings that got stuck coming back from a show in Canada. The United States wasn’t going to let them in. So they were flopping back and forth around Niagara Falls for a while. So I read about this in the paper and thought: “Oh great, now you’re going to get the paintings back and they won’t be allowed into the country and then they will be sent back to Paris and they are going to spend eternity crossing the ocean, from one continent to the other, where I’m never going anywhere.”

SUSAN:

A nice conceptual art work.

BETTY:

I did finally get them back. And it was interesting, because even though people didn’t know about it because I really didn’t have people to tell and I didn’t know how one would go about it, there was a sense about my work that it should NOT be shown. Because that was it. After 1973, nobody would show them.

CHRYSANNE:

No one would show them?

Censored Grid #12, 2008 (17″ x 14″)

BETTY:

Zero. Zilch.

CHRYSANNE:

When did you next show?

BETTY:

The next time I showed those pieces was 2002. What I did eventually was I took them off the stretchers and I rolled them up quite carefully, put a sheet between each one and I put them under the pool table that’s in the living room and they lived there for a couple of decades. I had a small retrospective at Monmouth College in 1997 and I put two of the paintings, one of the Cow Cunt Paintings and a Fuck Painting on stretchers. So they were included in that show.

CHRYSANNE:

What did you paint after these?

BETTY:

After the Cow Cunt Paintings, I did a series with language where I would use the defining noun of whatever it was, did a lot of animals: dog, cat, cow, pig, three or four letter animals. I did a huge series of those and I had my first solo show in New York with those paintings and the dealer was, it was a very bad experience and I got so disgusted with her that I lost the discipline to do the paintings, because they were difficult. They are all difficult. We all know that—they’re all hard. But I lost the discipline to keep that vision going because of the one particular dealer. So I stopped doing those and I did a series of Muzzlemen, which were animal–headed mythological creatures and I showed those quite a lot in the East Village, during the East Village scene.

Flora

I did a solo show with Steven Styles at Sensory Evolution and was in group shows at Gracie Mansion, Sensory Evolution, Civilian warfare, Now, Nico Smith, Zeus-Trabia, among others. It was a very exciting time. For a few years, I had a piece or two on exhibit somewhere almost all of the time. Eventually the animal–headed mythological creatures became statues from Roman and Greek times with animals, I just broke them in two, in landscape or ruin settings and they eventually led to my doing….

3 Graces

I wanted to do things with real people.I found these Taschen books and they were of softcore porn from the 1890s through the 1930s. So I started a series of drawings based on those and paintings, which I did on tools. And those led me right back to the harder core stuff. So it was like this one big gigantic circle.

Flight of Diana

SUSAN:

I did read somewhere, perhaps on a blog about you—that you photographed couples having sex? But I thought all of the imagery came from pornography.

BETTY:

I never photographed anybody. I have interesting things sent to me but I don’t photograph people. I have never wanted to be in that position vis-á-vis the model.

CHRYSANNE:

People have sent you photographs of themselves?

BETTY:

Oh sure.

SUSAN:

Just like they send them to Hustler magazine.

BETTY:

Sure. It’s very easy to find my email. And I have people who volunteer. And I go: “Don’t crop. High resolution please.”

SUSAN:

Just because he’s been so in the news lately, I’m curious if the show that Paul Schimmel curated with you in Houston in 1975 was of the Fuck Paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. The review in the Houston paper said they were about as interesting as a medical textbook. For a while, I wanted to put that on my card.

SUSAN:

So he supported that work so early on?

BETTY:

Yes, he did. I think he was still in graduate school studying with Jim Harithas at the time. Paul had been a student of mine. He was a student of mine when he was in high school. I taught in a private school—the Bentley School. I thought he was a little bored by school and I challenged him. We were very close. He was always welcome at my house and often stayed there when he was in college and beyond I am very proud of his accomplishments as chief curator at L.A. MOCA. I am particularly proud of the way he handled being fired there.

SUSAN:

I noticed on your website that in 1988 you got a grant from NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts).

BETTY:

It was not for this work.

Censored Grid #10, 2008 (17″ x 14″)

SUSAN:

That is exactly what I wanted to ask because that was the period when Ronald Reagan was President and two years later (at the federal rather than state level) we had John Frohnmayer vetoing the artists who were selected by their peer review panel as recipients of NEA grants. And this veto was famously supported by Jesse Helms in the Senate on the grounds of “decency issues”. And thus we had the NEA four —Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes denied the grants that they had just been awarded.

BETTY:

That was a time when I would sit here and think that if I hadn’t already done those paintings—I’d be doing those paintings. That would be the moment to do the paintings. But the NYFA grant that I got was for the language pieces in drawing.

SUSAN:

I was made curious because I was startled by the timing of it. Because it was such a deeply conservative period.

BETTY:

It was very frightening. Although I think what is going on now is more frightening.

CHRYSANNE:

And I don’t think that NYFA was like the NEA. Jesse Helms was the problem with the NEA.

BETTY:

It was government money at the federal level. They weren’t going to give it out without conditions. It’s the public.

SUSAN:

But even NYFA is a state agency and answers to someone.

BETTY:

Yes, that is very true. There is a built-in conservatism to public money because it is public money. Makes no difference what level it is on—federal, state, local township. In my twenties, I did apply for NYFAs and NEAs. I didn’t realize it was a lost cause.

CHRYSANNE:

When you started showing again—you mentioned 2002—what happened in 2002?

BETTY :

What happened, actually happened in 1996 or 1997. I was talking to Chuck Close on the phone, and he said: “Betty, remember those paintings from the 1970s, it’s time to take them out.” I said, “What makes you think so?” He said: “I was at the Whitney Biennale and there are all these younger artists and they are trying to do what you did. And your paintings just blow them off the walls. So take those slides out.” My slides turned out to be G E3 and our mass version is G E6.  So I had a terrific photographer friend Ken Showell and I asked him if he could do anything with them and he did. He brought them up color corrected through three generations and gave me a master set.

I sent my slides around to about twenty places. I sent them around. One dealer, who is now out of business, sent me a nice note saying that he really liked them but nothing happened and everybody else just sent them back to me. And I sent them to very good galleries. My feeling was, that if they were going to go someplace, they could only go someplace with a gallery that was well established and nothing else would do. They were basically all rejected again. So I thought, “Ain’t their time yet.” And then what happened was that I heard that Jerry Saltz had said at a panel discussion that he was thinking about curating a show about sex. A friend said, “You should send him your slides.” And I’m thinking, “Oh God, not this again.” The third trip out and it’s not working and finally I decided, “What the fuck.” So, I sent him a set of slides and I put in a note that just said: “Dear Mr. Saltz, I understand that you are thinking about curating a show about sex and if you do, I hope you will consider my work. Sincerely, Betty Tompkins.” This was in 1998 or 1999.

SUSAN:

Did you know him personally at that point?

BETTY:

No. No, are you kidding. I didn’t know anybody. So I sent them off to him and nothing happened. I didn’t get them back so I figured he trashed them and he never did curate a show about sex that I knew about so I figured OK, he changed his mind. Then one day in 2002, I get a call from Mitchell Algus and he said: “ My name is Mitchell Algus, do you know who I am?” and I said: “Yes, of course, I know who you are and I’ve actually even met you.” I met him at Nicholas Krushenick’s funeral. And I said, “What do you want?” and he said: “Those paintings from the seventies; I’d like to see them.” And I was unsure actually if he meant the language pieces or sex pieces, so I said, “Sure, when do you want to come down?” and he said, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”So I thought, “Well this is new and different.”

Fuck Painting #11, 2004 (84″ x 60″)

I had the two paintings on the stretchers and I had tons of the word pieces, so I put them out and I dug up the sheet of slides and he comes over and he looks at the language pieces and he goes: “These are really interesting but that’s (points at the sex paintings) what I’m interested in.” So I said OK and I give him the sheet of slides and he says, “Yes, I saw this.” And I said, “Who gave them to you?” He said, “A critic gave them to me.” “But who?” How did this pop up years after I sent them off. I mean, it was at least three years. And finally he said to me: “Jerry Saltz came into the gallery today, put them on my desk and said: ‘I hate to see a good sheet of slides go to waste. You ought to go look at this stuff.’”

SUSAN:

That’s really wonderful.

CHRYSANNE:

So sweet.

BETTY:

I was stunned, totally stunned. And I did say to him: “You have to realize, I’ve never met Jerry Saltz, I’ve never spoken to Jerry Saltz, I don’t know Jerry Saltz. So if you’re thinking you’ll give me a show and Jerry will write about you (at the time Jerry worked at the Village Voice) in the Voice—I don’t think so.” And he said, “I appreciate your honesty.” So when he left he said: “I’m pulling together a group show that will open the season and I’m thinking about a couple of pieces for the group show. I’ll be in touch with you sometime late July or early August.”

So late July, early August comes and goes. So I think, “Get it over with.” So I call up and I leave a message on the gallery machine—because it’s August, nobody’s open. And I said, “I was just curious what was happening.” And he called me back within an hour and he said: “I’m having trouble pulling this show together, I’ll be in touch with you.” So I said, “OK, just let me know.” And in my mind everything is a no-go.

He called me about a month later and he said to me: “I didn’t like the way the show was coming together so I cancelled it. I won’t put up a show I don’t believe in and I didn’t believe in this show.” And I said, “OK. Thanks for telling me.” And he said: ”What I’d like to do instead is a solo show of those paintings and drawings.” And I said, “I’ll get back to you.” (Laughter) I didn’t know what to say. I said, “None of the paintings are on stretchers.” He said, “You’ll put them on stretchers.” I said, “None of the drawings are framed.” He said, “You’ll put them in frames, we’ll get them to the framer.” I said, “You don’t have a press release.” He said, “I’m a very good writer, Betty.” And I said, “I’ll get back to you.” He said, “When?” I said, “Tomorrow.”

So Bill comes home and I tell him this and he says, “Let me take you out to dinner.” So he takes me to our wonderful neighborhood Japanese restaurant and we’re eating Sushi and drinking wine and we come home and he goes, “Let’s look at them!” So we take the roll out from underneath the pool table and we bring it in here (into the studio) and we unroll them. I had not seen these paintings now in twenty-five years.

SUSAN:

You’d never opened that roll in all that time?

BETTY:

Once I rolled them up, that was it. History.

CHRYSANNE:

How many were there?

BETTY:

There were nine Fuck Paintings and three Cow Cunt Paintings and whatever the drawings were in my drawer. But it was the paintings of course, that were at issue—what kind of shape were they in after all this time. The light in here is not that great and it was night and we had a lot to drink and Bill is saying, “They’re in pretty good shape.” And I’m saying, “These aren’t bad, these aren’t bad.” So I called up that evening, I just called the gallery machine and I said: “I’ll call my stretcher guy in the morning and see if this is humanly possible but OK.” And he called me back the next day, started to make the arrangements, the stretcher guy came and he took everything that needed to be stretched—eight paintings. We used the Ellensburg photograph as the announcement, which I knew, if I ever did get a show with him, would be the image. Carrie Moyer was over here one day and I was showing her the catalogue from Monmouth College and that photograph is in it and she’s looking and she said: “You are going to use this for an announcement when you get to show these, right?” And I said, “Yes, yes of course.”

So there was no question what the announcement would be and after the paintings all arrived at the gallery, I had to go there because there was still a lot of cleaning up to be done on them. So I am in the big room in the back and Mitchell’s in the front room and there was a constant stream of people in and out and he knew who all of the people were. There were press people and collectors. This was my first show in Chelsea. You really have no idea what a total failure I was as an artist before all of this. I said to him one day: “Does this happen all the time, is this what happens if you have a show in Chelsea? Is there so much excitement because at shows in Chelsea everyone just shows up before the opening?” He said: “No. I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.”

I came in one day from lunch and he’s talking to some gentleman and he introduces me to the gentleman and I recognize the gentleman’s name as a very prominent collector who had been on my mailing list for fifteen years or so and had never attended anything or recognized my existence and he introduces me to him and I say hello and I go in the back and I’m listening to their conversation, which I can’t help but hear anyway, and so they go through: how’s your family, your gall bladder, your kidney stone, whatever it was. Finally, Mitchell says: “Why are you here, the show doesn’t open for two more days?” And the guy pulls out the announcement and he says: “I got this in the mail this morning and I thought I’d come right down.” The whole thing was amazing. An incredible experience.

SUSAN:

One of the things that is interesting to me is that we tend to think if there is no big first time around, that it’s very difficult to have a resurrection but in your case there was barely a first act. From there, was Mitchell instrumental in making things happen for you in Europe?

BETTY:

Everything that has happened to me has happened because of that first show. It is truly like a fairy tale. I am very grateful to Mitchell for showing my work and standing up for it as I am for all the dealers who show it. One of them, Rodolfe Janssen, who I am showing with in Brussels, and who is also giving my work exposure in the international art fairs, when asked in an interview for Daily Canvas, Dubai Edition: “One of the art world’s greatest unsung heroes is?” replied, “Betty Tompkins.” I was so impressed by that. I still am.

Betty Tompkins, installation view, courtesy of Galerie Rodolphe Janssen

There was almost nothing before. I do sometimes wonder if I had had the big first time around or even the equivalent to what is happening to me now, whether I would still, at this point have a career or if it would have been all over with?

SUSAN:

It’s so hard to know. As a man, presumably it would have just continued.

BETTY:

It’s impossible to know because things have to evolve and things have to change. I have absolutely no idea. And it’s true that second acts are hard to come by but I think that for women it’s going to be their only act—the second act; for women of a certain age and I think it’s wonderful whenever I see it happening to anybody. It’s happening for Judith Bernstein, for instance, and it’s wonderful.

CHRYSANNE:

And in a way, for Marilyn Minter.

BETTY:

And Marilyn Minter as well. I ran into her in the street recently and she said, “The artworld loves us old broads.” (Laughter.)

Cunt Grid #2, 2003 (14″ x 11″)

CHRYSANNE:

And Joyce Pensato.

BETTY:

How old is Joyce?

SUSAN:

Early sixties?

BETTY:

I’ve never met her.

SUSAN:

She’s a fabulous spirit and this should have happened to her long ago but it just took forever.

BETTY:

And a critic like Jerry has been really instrumental in keeping that issue alive. When you hit menopause you do not lose all your juices and your creativity. If you read his essays and his books consecutively you see how consistent he is—on theme, on target—he’s incredibly supportive.

CHRYSANNE:

When did you first meet Jerry?

BETTY:

I first met Jerry at a Trisha Donnelly opening in 2004 or 2005 and I saw him there. I had spoken to him once or twice on the phone, because when the 2002 Mitchell Algus show opened, I called him up to thank him and we had a wonderful conversation about synergy and all sorts of things but I had not, in all that time, met him. I had been in the meantime, in 2003, in the Lyon Biennale. That was one of things that happened as a result of the show with Mitchell, and that was because of Bob Nickas, and I was also by then in the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou, which came out of the Lyon Biennale and I saw him there and I went up to him and I said, “Are you Jerry Saltz?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said: “I’m Betty Tompkins. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.” And we had a lovely conversation and later Trisha said to me, “Oh, you have to meet Jerry,” and she took me over to him and said,”Jerry, this is Betty Tompkins.”

SUSAN:

This is interesting in that, I believe the late emergence of Joyce Pensato’s career was also due to help from a man who supported her work, I’m not sure but I think it was the painter Chris Wool.

CHRYSANNE:

It was a painter, yes. And she worked at David Davis for many years.

BETTY:

Really. Oh, then I know her! I’m sure.

SUSAN:

But it is interesting to me that these second acts were in large part facilitated by men.

BETTY:

Nancy Spero is another one that comes to mind. She was here in my studio when I was in my thirties or forties and she had just had a big three gallery show. Willard Gallery was the main gallery and I don’t remember what the other two were but she put up three solidly good shows. It was a major moment for her and she was almost sixty at the time and I said to Nancy, “Am I going to have to wait that long?” and she said, “You might.” And I did.

SUSAN:

There’s an expression about which I have ambivalent feelings, “Women win the only race that counts.” Because of course, women tend to outlive men by twenty years but it does seem that in the art world that’s almost mandatory for women if they want have a big career. Think of Louise Bourgeois. What would her career have been if she had died at sixty instead of ninety?

BETTY:

Well, she wouldn’t have one.

SUSAN:

And she was out there the whole time.

BETTY:

Of course this is not true for the younger generation.

SUSAN:

No, that has changed.

BETTY:

There are here a couple of generations that basically fell through the cracks. We all came to New York. Everybody told all of us that we had to wait at least ten years, which was a daunting prospect to start with and then all of a sudden it was only young painters, young artists that people were interested in and so now it’s a little bit more balanced across generations, which I prefer.

SUSAN:

That was an important and interesting aspect of the show I reviewed this summer for Hyperallergic curated by Sarvia Jasso at Joe Sheftel—that your work was included in and where we first met each other—that the artists ranged in age from 28 to 86.

BETTY:

That was one of the things that I had liked about being in the show.

SUSAN:

Yes, me too. But even now, even though artists are starting out younger, men and women both are starting out younger, when I walk around to galleries it seems to me that there is still a huge discrepancy between the number of women and the number of men represented by most of the galleries. There still seem to be way less women.

BETTY:

I have no doubt that that is true. The thing that’s interesting, of course—Bill and I have discussed this many times, is that art schools have more women students than they do men.

SUSAN:

Chrysanne and I talk about this all the time.

CHRYSANNE:

They always do.

BETTY:

And they always did. And still do.

CHRYSANNE:

I think the difference is that when you have an equal number of male to female professors….

BETTY:

My alma matter, Syracuse University—I went there a few years ago as a visiting artist. I gave a lecture and I visited any of the graduate students that wanted to meet with me. I went to their studios and I spent a day there. I wish I had done the studio visits before my lecture, it would have been different. It turned out that there was not one full-time female Fine Art faculty. Not one.

SUSAN:

I’m not even remotely surprised by that.

BETTY:

One of the students, actually, one of the most talented young women that I talked with—her work was just wonderful and she was telling me, this is how I found out, she was telling me which of her pieces her teachers had liked and which ones she liked and I said, “What gender are your teachers?” And she said they were all male. She was under so much stress she almost burst into tears. She was so relieved to be able to talk to a professional woman artist. And she had a lot of questions. I enjoyed very much spending the time with her but the stress she was under was unbelievable.

SUSAN:

I can understand that. Even at Cal Arts in the early ‘80s the females were all short-term visiting artists and there were no full-time female faculty.

BETTY:

When I was an undergraduate we only had one visiting artist at all, the whole four years and that was James Rosenquist. So it was never going to be a woman.

CHRYSANNE:

I went to two art schools. I started off at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The design and painting instructor said, “Oh, you women are here to get married?” It was the year of Kent State and then I went to Canada, which was a different experience.

BETTY:

Well, I had a teacher who just said to me: “I don’t know why I spend any time with you, you’re just going to have babies anyway.”

CHRYSANNE:

I do think that prejudice is lessening.

BETTY:

Well, there are more role models. Any time there is role model, the bar moves, the expectation changes. And it takes time. Someone recently posted on Facebook all the recent openings for painting professors. The tenure track positions had all gone to men except for one. A few untenured positions had been filled by women. So I think we would have to say that the bar is moving very slowly.

Masturbation Painting #5, 2011 (60″ x 84″)

SUSAN:

I think part of the difficulty is that subjects like art history and studying art were once considered a form of finishing school for women. It was a way for you to become interesting and educated but non-threatening marriage material. You would be more than a housewife, somehow companionable or maybe be a professional with a marginal salary that assumed support from elsewhere.

BETTY:

You could be taken to places.

SUSAN:

And you would have good taste and be a good home decorator. It wasn’t considered a professional endeavor just because you were in art school.

BETTY:

I was raised with the expectation that I would be significant to the world by my parents. Both of my parents always worked. My father was in left wing politics. We were followed by the FBI to school when I was a kid, in the days of J. Edgar Hoover. I wasn’t raised to be a housewife. And if I wanted to get married, that was fine but I was still expected to do something professionally.

SUSAN:

But many, if not most women in those days were not raised that way. Advertising back then portrayed women gleefully vacuuming their homes in cocktail dresses.

CHRYSANNE:

That’s a wonderful gift your parents bestowed on you.

SUSAN:

What bothered me was that women in art school ended up effectively subsidizing the careers of the men. There were more women studying and those women were there because they were seriously pursuing art careers, while in fact, they were making it possible for the school to continue educating students because they were paying the tuition and the men were the ones that ended up going out and getting the careers, for the most part.

BETTY:

I never thought about it that way. You may well be right about this but I was on a scholarship all the way through. It was the only way I could have gone.

SUSAN:

It’s less true. But if the proportion of women succeeding in the art world was equivalent to the proportion in schools there would be more women than men. So there’s still something wrong with this picture.

Let’s go back a moment—you had these paintings, and they were rolled up under the pool table, you were working on other subject matter—was it with a sense of relief or happiness that you were able to come back to the pornographic subject matter and find it being embraced? How did that feel?

BETTY:

It was wonderful. When I first took them out and I put the first one up on the wall to start cleaning it up for the show, I was looking at it I thought, “What the fuck was I thinking?” And I started to work on it and I thought, “Oh yeah, right, that was what I was thinking.” And it just felt wonderful to see them again. It felt really good that they were not rejected that time around and that slowly one thing led to another. It’s incredibly validating. Actually, I can’t express enough how satisfying it has been.

When I first started to use the subject matter again after that show, I didn’t want to work with the air brush, because that’s what I had done. I thought, “I did that already.” I said to Bill: “I want to make a present for Bob (Nickas) to thank him for getting me into this show (the Lyon Bienniale),” and Bill said, “What will you do?” and I said: “Why don’t we get a stamp made that says Lyon and I’ll do something with that.” He got the stamp for me and I did three drawings with it and then the Lyon part fell off. So that was the end of the Lyon drawings. The guy who made the Lyon stamp refused to make the next group of words. While I was waiting for Bill to find me someone who would make them, I did some cunt stamp drawings. I had a stamp from the ‘70s that said “COW” and I used that. Perfect pejorative. Eventually, I did have a nice group of words so I did these stamp paintings and they’re all language like this is one here (points). I had started first using language with the censored drawings of the ‘70s, after my paintings were censored, in order to hold onto my sanity. I had a censored stamp. So when I started in with the sex images again, I started with language. I did it for a couple of years and then I had terrible tendonitis in both my arms from stamping, from the impact. It was pretty clear that I would never get over the tendonitis if I didn’t stop using them and I was simultaneously working on a painting—it was a stamp painting and I was having a lot of trouble with it and I kept thinking: “If I was spraying this, if I was using an airbrush, I wonder if I could solve this problem.” I had my original airbrush but it was in terrible shape. I gave myself a treat and I bought a new airbrush. I put it in my hand and my hand said, “Where have you been?” Like it knew and it turns out that I use it a little incorrectly according to the instruction booklet that came with the airbrush, but I do it the way I do it and my hand felt really comfortable.

I’m very happy with the stamp paintings but at the point I realized that I couldn’t do them anymore, I thought that the ones that remained should be really good. And they should be the best example of it. There was this one painting that used to be in the hallway and every day I’d walk past it for three years and I’d think, “It’s not very good.” So I took it with me to Pennsylvania and slightly sanded down the surface and I sprayed over it. I thought, “Oh, I like that. Who’s next?” So I converted some of the stamp paintings to airbrush paintings. I really like working with the airbrush. And the subject matter, I now approach in a broader fashion than I had originally.

SUSAN:

When you say that, what do you mean?

BETTY:

When I first started I only did penetrative heterosexual sex and now I’ve done girl on girl paintings, I’ve done kiss paintings, I’ve done masturbation paintings, I’ve done sexual imagery with no penetration visible. I think it’s a huge subject matter and I probably have only scratched the surface after this period of time.

SUSAN:

I thought those masturbation images were unbelievably beautiful.

Masturbation Painting #2, 2009 (84″ x 60″)

BETTY:

Thank you. Thank you.

CHRYSANNE:

If you were going to give advice to a young woman artist coming to New York today, same age you were when you came here….

BETTY:

Oh, they would have it so much easier but the advice that I would give a young women artist is the same advice I would give a young man artist, which is simply, find your voice, believe in your own vision, stick to it, and don’t do it to make other people happy. Do it to make yourself happy. Because as soon as you do it to make someone else happy, there’s something false in the work and it will all fall down, whether you’re raking the money in for a minute or not. You have to do work that you believe in.

 

Portrait of Betty Tompkins in her Prince Street Studio in New York City, 22 August 2012 – © 2012 by Chrysanne Stathacos

 

3 thoughts on “A conversation with Betty Tompkins

  1. Pingback: This Is What Adam Lindemann Has Chosen to Present at Art Basel Miami

  2. It occurred to me that the issue of your work’s wretchedly slow reception might not have been just due to its sexually explicit depictions. Your work also needed to be introduced with, and reinforced by, a generation of like-minded artistic production such as the Pictures Generation enjoyed. Your work looks like the Pictures artists’ work, even though it predated it by 8 to 10 years. Then again, the way you describe your approach to the work’s presentation–the cropping that decontextualizes its pornographic source and recontexualizes the signification in formal rather than sexual terms–reminds me of the kind of postructuralist take on art made around 1970-72 by women who had a throrough understanding of semiotic theory. Women such as Yvonne Rainer, Babette Mangold, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson (whose theories I, as an 18-year-old in 1974 became enthralled with). Your work also visually reminds me of the work of artists I grew up with or met later who gleaned much from them–Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, and Troy Brauntuch, though I never met Brauntuch to be certain. In all honesty, the reason I was slow to come around to your work was because I didn’t know the early dates of many of the pieces, and thus saw the work as derivative of the Pictures Generation–which is the kind of thing that makes a critic resist a body of work no matter what other features it has going for it.

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