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Rendered in softly airbrushed tones, Betty Tompkins’s photorealist paintings of intimate sexual encounters, including exposed genitalia, penetration, and masturbation, derive from pornography. Though her series of nine “Fuck Paintings” were flagged by French customs officials for pornographic content and withheld from display in 1973, they have since received belated acknowledgment and appreciation. Tompkins carefully crops out faces or body parts to excise narrative detail, enlarging the scale to fill large expanses of wall. By emptying her paintings of signifiers of race, class, time, and circumstance, Tompkins presents erotic encounters between two (or sometimes more) powerfully consonant bodies.

Betty Tompkins (born 1945) is an American artist and arts educator. Tompkins is a painter whose works revolve, almost exclusively, around photorealistic, close-up imagery of both heterosexual and homosexual intimate acts. She creates large-scale, monochromatic canvases and works on paper of singular or multiple figures engaged in sexual acts, executed with successive layers of spray painting over pre-drawings formed by text.

Alongside artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Valie Export, Joan Semmel, Lynda Benglis and Judy Chicago, Tompkins has been re-assessed as a pioneer of Feminist art. Tompkins is listed in The Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art's Feminist Art Base.

Tompkins was born in 1945 in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tompkins received her B.F.A. degree from Syracuse University. She took a teaching job at Central Washington State College in Ellensburg, Washington shortly after marrying her first husband, Don Tompkins. Don Tompkins had been one of her instructors at Syracuse University. She completed her graduate degree at Central Washington State College, traveling between Ellensburg and New York City.

When she married her spouse he had a collection of pornography that he had ordered from Asia in order to avoid US obscenity laws in the 1950s, these images had influenced her abstraction in to the first body of work, Fuck Paintings.

In 2002, Jerry Saltz shared an image of one of Tompkins Fuck Paintings with gallery owner Michell Algus, who offered her a solo exhibition in his New York City gallery. Tompkins had not had a solo exhibition in almost 15 years and this exhibition helped restart her art career. As a result of the 2002 solo exhibition she was invited to the 7th Biennale d'Art Contemporain de Lyon in 2003, and a year later the Centre Pompidou purchased one of her works for their permanent collection.

In 2019, Tompkins had her Instagram account deleted after she posted a photo of her Fuck Painting #1. A few months later in 2019, Instagram held a closed meeting to discuss censorship, art, and nudity on their software platform, a few artists joined the meeting including Micol Hebron, Marilyn Minter, Joanne Leah, and Siddhant Talwar. Betty Tompkins was unable to attend the meeting in-person but shared a written statement.

Tompkins first major body of work was a series of paintings depicting a male and female figure engaging in sexual intercourse. She elected to render the images in extreme close-up, using vintage pornography stills as her source material. Rather than idealize the act of fornication, by having one body or the other exude dominance or beauty above the other, Tompkins equalizes both figures by showing only their genitalia, in congress. Tompkins' first husband possessed a collection of pornographic magazines and images, amassed since the late 1950s (possession of these images was, at the time, illegal). The works were produced using hundreds of layers of spray paint, using a finely-calibrated airbrush to build from underdrawing to final image. These early works were made solely with black and white pigments, with extremely high contrasting tonality.

Since returning to the series in 2003, Tompkins uses a base color combination to produce a more illuminated monochrome. She originally entitled the series Joined Forms, as a more modest way of describing the imagery. She would later call the collective series Fuck Paintings. Within this first series, until 1976, Tompkins produced a sub-set of works entitled Cow Cunt Paintings.

In 1974, Tompkins was scheduled to show her work in Paris. Once her painting had arrived, French customs officials had seized it, declaring it obscene and unfit for public exhibition. It would take Tompkins nearly a year to arrange for its return (by then, draining her financially and emotionally from the logistic and legal difficulties). In response to this ordeal, Tompkins began to make paintings in the form of grids, where a set of white blocks with the word "censored" at the center, would block out all traces of genitalia or primary imagery in the composition. Tompkins has said she will continue to make these paintings, as there is seemingly no perceivable end to government/municipal censorship of visual art.

In 2002 and 2013, Tompkins circulated the following email: “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. Many, many thanks, Betty Tompkins.” Over 3,500 words and phrases were submitted in seven languages, equally split between men and women. In 2012, Tompkins was invited to create a performance in Vienna where 500 of the words and phrases were read aloud. Inspired by that performance, the artist then set out to create 1,000 individual word paintings, intending the series to be presented en masse once complete. On January 1, 2013, Tompkins created the first painting SLUT (#1). In an interview with Art in America, Tompkins says, "People sent stories, too. They made comments. It was very personal. But the same four words were the most popular. Actually nothing has changed."

CV

b. 1945 Washington, D.C.

Lives and works in New York, NY and Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania

SELECTED SOLO SHOWS

2019     Fuck Paintings, Etc., J Hammond Projects, London, UK

2017     VI Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark
            Virgin, PPOW, New York, NY

            Small, Marlborough Gallery, New York, NY
            Sex Works / WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories, GAVLAK, Palm Beach, FL

2016     Sex Works / WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories, GAVLAK, Los Angeles, CA

             Viewing Room, Marlborough Chelsea, New York, NY

             WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories: 1000 Paintings by Betty Tompkins, FLAG Art

             Foundation, New York, NY

2015     REAL ERSATZ, Foundation University Gallery, New York, NY
2014     Art Basel Feature, Galerie Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels), Basel, Switzerland
2013     Paintings and Works on Paper 1972 - 2013, GAVLAK, Palm Beach, FL
            Home Alone 2, New York, NY (with Dadamanio)
            Woman Words, Dinter Fine Art Online, New York, NY
2012     Fuck Paintings, Galerie Rodolph Janssen, Brussels
2011     Sex Works, Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich, Switzerland
2009     New Work, Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, NY
2008     Fuck Paintings and Drawings 1973 - 2007, Lawrimore Project, Seattle, WA
2007     Sex Works, Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, NY
2006     Fuck Paintings and Drawings, Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich, Switzerland
2005     New Paintings and Drawings, Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, NY
2002     Fuck Paintings 1969 - 1974, Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, NY

SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2017     Kunstraum Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria (fourthcoming)
             Für Barbara, curated by Leo Koenig, Hall Art Foundation, Dernberg, Germany
             Flaming June VII: Flaming Creatures, GAVLAK, Los Angeles, CA
2016     Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34, NYC 1983-84, 205 Hudson Gallery, New York, NY
            The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men, Cheim & Read, New York, NY
            Smile!, Shin Gallery, New York, NY
            Black Sheep Feminism, Dallas Contemporary, Dallas, TX

2015     Sight For Sore Eyes, with Lucas Jardin, Artsy at Art Brussels, Brussels, Belgium
            Word by Word, curated by Francesco Bonami, Luxembourg & Dayan, London, UK
            Viewer Discretion…Children of Bataille, curated by Kathleen Cullen, Stux Haller Gallery, New York, NY
            Verganza (I don’t want to be friends), organized by Gea Polity, Milan, Italy
            Lust, HVCCA, Peeksil, New York, NY
            Fertility, presented by Jane Kim, 33 Orchard, New York, NY
            The Shell (Landscapes, Portaits & Shapes) a show by Eric Troncy, Almine Rech Gallery, Paris, France
            Eureka! curated by Kendell Geers, Galerist, New York, NY
            Ten Year Anniversary, GAVLAK, Los Angeles, CA and Palm Beach, FL

2014     Rear Window Treatment, Louis B. James, New York, NY
            A Drawing Show, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, NY
            CORPUS, Zacheta National Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
            A Chromatic Loss, curated by Jeffrey Uslip, Bortolami Gallery, New York, NY
            Selections from the Sara M. & Michelle Vance Waddell Collection, Art Academy of Cincinatti, OH

2013      Independents, V1 Gallery, Copenhagen
             A Few of My Favorite Things, CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
            Skin Trade, PPOW, New York, NY
            Page 179, Artforum, September 2013, Brennan & Griffin, New York , NY
            She, Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, New York, NY
            The origin of the world/the force of the source/the cause of the vigor,
            Samson Projects, Boston, MA
            Sunsets and Pussy, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, NY
            DSM-V, The Future Moynihan Station, New York, NY
            Jew York, Untitled, New York, NY
            Sex Money and Power, Maison Particuliere, Brussels, Belgium

2012     In The Pink, Joe Sheftel Gallery, New York, NY
            Dark Garnaal, Galerie Rodolphe Janssen; Villa - Knokke, Knokke - Heist, Belgium
            ff Temporary Autonomous Zone, Lisa Ruter Gallery, Vienna, Austria
            Screw You, Susan Inglett Gallery, New York , NY

2011      No government No cry, a project by Kendell Geers, CIAP Actuele Kunst, Hasselt, Belgium
             Invitation to the Voyage, Algus Greenspon, New York, NY
            Grisaille, Luxembourg and Dayan, New York, NY

2010      Lust and Vice: The Seven Deadly Sins From Dürer to Naumann,
            Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland
            Visible Vagina, Francis Naumann Gallery, New York, NY
            Consider the Oyster, James Graham and Sons, New York , NY

2009     elles@centrepompidou, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
             Naked! Size Matters, Paul Kasmin Gallery,  New York, NY
            Revolver, COCO, Vienna, Austria
            The Line Is A Lonely Hunter - Drawings in New Jerseyy, New Jersey,

2008     How To Cook A Wolf: Part 1, Dinter Fine Art, New York, NY

2007     La Plaissir au Dessin, Musee de Beaux Arts, Lyon, France
            Handsome Young Doctor, Cubitt Gallery, London, England
            Into Position, Baurnmarkt, Vienna, Austria

2006     Exquisite Corpse - Cadavre Exquis, Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, NY
            Uncertain States of America, Serpentine Gallery, London, England and traveling

2005     La Beauté de L'Enfer, Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels, Belgium

2004     [Untitled/Nudes], Printed Matter, New York, NY
            Nouvelles Acquisitions, Ouevres Contemporaines, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

2003     It Happened Tomorrow, Bienniale de Lyon, Lyon, France

 

PUBLIC INSTALLATIONS
Weir Farm National Historic Site / National Park Service, Wilton, CT
CowParade, New York City/Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY
Islip Art Museum, East Islip, New York, NY

SELECTED PERMANENT COLLECTIONS
Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

 

SELECTED PRESS

2018    Adams, Amanda Dalla Villa. "A New Contemporary Art Museum in Virginia Leads With Politics," Hyperallergic, April 24.

2017    Pagel, David. “No wallflowers here: Sparks fly when art mingles on the walls of 'Flaming  

            June VII',” Los Angeles Times, June 27.

 

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