When I was coming of age, I did not have access to explicit images of female or male genitalia. Those images existed in medical journals, where presumably the examples were anomalies or diseased, and in what was referred to as “hard-core porn,” which was illegal. If you look back now at the images that appeared in Playboy magazine in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and if you haven’t looked at them in a long time, you will be amazed at how tame and innocent those images are. Most women never saw explicit imagery of other women, had no idea what the range of appearance could be, or for that matter, had even taken the time to look at their own genitals. This was the context in which Betty Tompkins — newly arrived in New York City in 1969 — began, with the help of a stash of illegal pornography that belonged to her then-husband, the enterprise of painting large-scale explicit images. The Vietnam war was raging, Woodstock gave way to the violence at Altamont, and women were beginning understand what was at stake for them in the term “free love” — often a lot of exploitation and misery.
Brain studies suggest that we are hard-wired as a species to gravitate to the familiar. That would help explain why derivative work is often so successful. Pornography was not just unfamiliar in the context of contemporary painting, it was unfamiliar to most people, because it wasn’t openly available and it was illegal to obtain. Tompkins had a few exhibitions of her Fuck Paintings early in her career, and then no one wanted to show them anymore. A long time went by. Tompkins’s work really only reemerged after the 20th century gave way to the 21st, over 30 years after she began. By then, pornography was readily available and would soon be rife on the internet; young people were learning about sexual acts from pornography and modeling their behaviors in bed based on what they had seen. The changed context allowed paintings that were too daring and brave and original to reenter the art world.
But the work was never and is not now just about pornography. Pornography is the armature on which Tompkins’s work rests. Tompkins is a painter, and she thinks like a painter — her project from the beginning was an exploration of painting. In her current exhibition at Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery (FUG for short), the processes of photography, printing, and painting are even more intertwined. In some cases we see a painting derived from a pornographic image that has been cropped, edited, and translated into a painting. In some we are actually looking at what Tompkins refers to as an ersatz painting: one that began as a pornographic image, became a painting, was photographed and printed by an inkjet printer onto canvas after being edited and cropped, and then was subtly airbrushed or “touched up” with paint, creating an image that is at once a print and a painting, digital representation and painterly process.
The point of pornography has always been its explicit nature. Over time, pubic hair disappeared, and so did the polite vaseline over the lens. The idea is to show penetration sharply and precisely, with as little distraction as possible. Porn is not a soft-focus art form. It does not intend to frustrate the scopophillic drive but to enable it. It is presumed to be primarily for a male audience because women purportedly do not respond to such imagery, and most theoretical works by feminists assume this to be true. I find the tenacity of this assumption somewhat puzzling. One thing about Tompkins’s paintings is that they are in relatively soft focus. They do not recast the image in the same tight, highly focused manner seen in pornography, and this might help us to see that they are in fact about something else: painting, for one, and beauty and abstraction.
I noticed that when I began to photograph the show with my iPhone, the phone was making a heroic effort to sharpen all of the images back into the kind of representation they were born of. Even the Ersatz paintings, which were directly transferred as prints onto canvas, have a softness due to the degree to which they have been enlarged. And that brings us back, rather neatly, to the fact that this work is about painting, about the human hand and the human eye.
Pornography is about low production values; representational painting is, by definition, not that. It is a slow and deliberate process. As such, it has lent its services to the Church, the aristocracy, and the upper classes. By virtue of the commitment of time required alone, it seems to elevate its subject matter. With the exception of Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” (Courbet also saw fit to raise the peasantry to heroic status), there is not much in the Western canon that we would deem pornographic. So Tompkins’s choice is deeply purposeful: to transform the illicit into an image of both beauty and importance, worthy of the act of painting.
The debate over pornography in the women’s movement has been one of the most fractious. In the ’60s and ’70s, it pitted a ferocious anti-pornography contingent against women who had altogether different notions of sexuality and politics. I don’t think it is possible now to imagine what it meant in 1969, or in the years that followed, to paint images like the ones Tompkins chose to. When I think about Betty Tompkins, I always circle back in complete amazement to this early image of her standing between two enormous paintings. It took incredible guts to paint them back then, and she looks so sublimely comfortable with her achievement.
Betty Tompkins: Real Ersatz continues at FUG (431 E 6th Street, basement, East Village, Manhattan) through October 18.