LOS ANGELES — Sweetie. Pushy Broad. Sheela Na Gig. Queen. Sapphic Poon Hustler. These are just a few of the thousand or so terms used to describe women featured in Betty Tompkins’s sprawling painting installation, WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories, on view at Gavlak Gallery in Hollywood — her first solo show on the West Coast. Along three walls of the gallery’s back room, 1,000 canvases of various sizes from tiny to medium are arranged in a carefully arranged — if seemingly random — pattern. Onto each one, in a neutral, sans serif, all-caps font, Tompkins has painted a word or phrase that describes a woman, from the degrading to the reverential. These thousand terms come from a larger list of 3,500 submissions that she received in response to two requests sent to her entire email list — the first in 2002 and a second in 2013. The four most common words were the same each time: “bitch,” “slut,” “cunt,” and “mother.” And these are from people in the supposedly progressive art world, not your usual internet trolls. The project has been shown in Greece, Berlin, and recently at New York’s Flag Art Foundation, where participants were invited to read the words aloud, letting them contribute their own interpretations and adding a performative aspect.
The 70-year-old painter is currently enjoying something of a second act, after emerging from decades of semi-obscurity in 2002 with an exhibition of her Fuck painting series at the Mitchell Algus Gallery in New York. Between 1969 and 1974, Tompkins painted blown-up and cropped monochrome images sourced from pornography, coolly rendered with an airbrush. When I sat down with Tompkins last month, shortly before the opening of her Gavlak show — where more recent examples of these works are also on view — she explained to me that their origin was her extreme boredom with just about everything she was seeing in New York galleries.
“I couldn’t stand to look at them. I go, ‘Jesus Christ, you just went through this gallery building in under a half an hour, and these guys must have spent two years doing these paintings.’ I couldn’t make myself stay,” she says.
Her husband at the time, artist Don Tompkins, had a collection of pornography that he had ordered from Asia, skirting US obscenity laws by having the material mailed to a post office box in Canada, and then crossing the border to retrieve it. “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,” she told Susan Silas in a 2012 interview. “So that’s why I decided to do it.”
Tompkins had already switched to a mechanical method of paint application in graduate school, in an attempt to strip away from her work everything that she was comfortable with, was good at, or enjoyed. “I had really loved working with a brush. I loved the bounce off the canvas, such a physical pleasure to me,” she told me. “So I had to give up the brush, and I picked up spray guns.”
The Fuck paintings are striking and unapologetic, turning the male gaze on its head, as if asking the viewer, “Is this what you want to see?” Tompkins took lustful images that were then solely meant for men’s eyes and democratized them, rendering them dispassionately, and transforming them for her own ends. Begun at the end of the ’60s, they both reflect and prefigure much of the contemporary art movements of the time, from Pop to Seriality, from Feminist Art to the Pictures Generation. Writing for Flash Art last year, William J. Simmons opined, “ … Tompkins deserves to be positioned as both a pioneer of sexually progressive work, but also of formally replete engagements with appropriation, photorealism, and abstraction.”
The reaction to the work at the time was less than encouraging, however, met with either indifference or hostility. “All the dealers said, ‘Come back in 10 years when you’ve found you voice.’ About half would look at me and say, ‘Don’t come back then either; we don’t show women,’” she says. Tompkins had experienced similar sexism as a student when a professor remarked, “honey, the only way you’re going to make it in New York is on your back.” She pleaded with her husband to submit slides of her work to galleries as his own, with simply the name “B. Tompkins” written on them, but he refused, fearing for his university teaching job.
Despite being rejected and ignored, or perhaps because of it, Tompkins did not feel a sense of failure. “Nobody had any expectations for me. I had no expectations outside of what I do. So that, in fact, is very liberating.”
Commercial success was elusive, although she did make it into a 1975 show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston curated by a then fledgling curator named Paul Schimmel — now a partner in LA powerhouse art space Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel — who had been a student of Tompkins’s when he was in high school. “That was crazy because I had never shown anywhere, and then there I was in this museum exhibit,” she recalled.
The feminist component of these works is now widely appreciated, but at the time, other artists who considered themselves feminists did not look kindly on her appropriation of pornography. “They had never been welcoming to me,” she recalled. “It was before the internet and email. People were calling each other up, but I was never invited to a meeting.”
She sent her work to Paris in 1973 for a gallery show, but it was seized at French customs on obscenity grounds. (Ironic coming from the country that birthed Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.”) It took a year for her to get the paintings back. “They kept being rejected on both sides,” Tompkins said. “It gave me this image that my paintings would go back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean for eternity, while I was never going anywhere!”
Tompkins carefully unstretched and rolled up her Fuck paintings, storing them in her apartment for decades until showing them again in the early 2000s.
Language started creeping into her work after this episode, with “Censored” drawings, explicit images over which Tompkins laid a grid, stamping “censored” on the offending areas. “I censored my own pieces. I felt I could do it better than anyone,” Tompkins told me. “It was in reality a way to stay sane. Being censored is a really nasty business.”
In her next series, text took over the works completely. “I got really interested just in language from reading reviews of first wave conceptual work, which I in no way understood. The critical language frustrated me so much that I would regularly throw my Artforums against the wall,” she said. “Critics were saying, ‘I read this work as …, ’ so I took one of my cow photos and I drew a grid and wrote the word ‘cow’ in each square.”
WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories takes this very orderly approach to language and explodes it all over the walls with a vibrant energy. The backgrounds of these canvases are painted in a range of styles, often parodying prominent male painters. “One of the advantages with this series is that I can do anything I want with the paint. I felt really free,” Tompkins told me. “I started studying some of the old boys, de Kooning and the [Abstract Expressionist] group. We’re raised to think of these guys as tortured souls, but my feeling is they were having a lot of fun.”
On the surface, this new series may seem very different from her work of almost 50 years ago that roused so much scorn. But for Tompkins, they share a through line that has connected her work through periods of obscurity and recognition. “I like things that are out in the world already. One of the things that I was attracted to in using porn as a source was that it already existed,” she said. ”This language was already out in the world. It was kind enough that people sent it to me, so that I could put it back in the world in a different format, but none of these worlds are mine. They were gifts to me.”
Betty Tompkins: Sex Works / WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories continues at Gavlak Gallery (1034 N. Highland Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles) until September 3.