Sex is fundamental to our existence, but expressing it always involves some pussyfooting around — otherwise we’d have to come to grips with gonads and gestation, when fulfilling our biological purpose is the last thing on our mind. Even the word “sex” is often too straightforward, so we rely on euphemism and innuendo to obfuscate the obvious for the sake of modesty. There has always been one haven, however, for letting it all hang out: art, from antiquity on, has made disrobed humans look more like demigods than animals.
In 1969, a year of exploration and experimentation from the moon landing to Woodstock, a young female artist named Betty Tompkins had the gall to imagine explicit sex as art instead of perversion. Her photorealistic paintings of penetrative intercourse were put on display the year it first became legal to own pornographic images in the US; even the French were bashful enough to deny the work clearance through customs. The idea of sex without a hint of modesty or mediation was too much to handle in a day and age when the word “hell” (not uttered on television until 1967) raised eyebrows and Penthouse was the scourge of morality for showing pubic hair (1969). It’s no surprise, then, that Tompkins originally titled her series Joined Forms in an earnest — albeit tongue-in-cheek — appeal to fit within the period, especially the popular artistic modes of minimalism and conceptual art. Nowadays, a title like Joined Forms reads like an ironic ploy, while the modernized name of the series, Fuck Paintings, though blatantly honest, is still borderline tame, not even NC-17.
As a title, Fuck Paintings elegantly embodies the work’s success: saying everything and nothing, or just enough to invite self-discovery. The paintings show it — fucking — as it is, with little lost in separation between flesh and canvas, stripped of any pretense to be more than what it is. Fuck Paintings are raw “facts,” as Tompkins calls them. They exist indisputably on their own, like a word objectively realized. Tompkins’s paintings created with thousands of stamps that read “fuck,” “poke” and “sex” spell out this point explicitly.
Yet, unexpectedly, it is the sheer explicitness of Tompkins’s work that makes it hardly controversial by today’s standards. Like the f-word, the Fuck Paintings are reductively literal, not saying enough to be truly obscene in the 21st century. They depict sexual intercourse as an unembellished point of contact between body parts without romantic ramp up or immortalizing consequence. The work is so unambiguously free of sentiment, one can’t help but search for a narrative, like a commentary on gender or sexuality. Instead we’re left to our own devices, a most embarrassing prospect. It’s up to the beholder to negotiate the ambivalent divide between beauty and obscenity, to find some compromise between what we deem sacred and profane. The distinction is ultimately a reflection of temperament, a projection of our inner being, not unlike a mood ring.
Back in the 1960s, Tompkins’s paintings were likely seen as transgressive or irreverent of cultural sensitivities, but now they nearly sentimentalize a bygone era once ripe for transgression. We’ve come quite far in four decades, with the women’s rights movement, sexual liberation and, of course, the internet. I’m hesitant to say we live in a post–”2 Girls 1 Cup” world, but in a way, we do. And don’t be ashamed if that reference flies over your head; be grateful that your innocence is partially intact, in comparison with a wide range of web users. To some desensitized denizens of the internet, the Fuck Paintings may muster about the same reaction as a wardrobe malfunction. They are certainly titillating, but nowhere near vulgar.
A title like Fuck Paintings appears as Tompkins’s directive: a call to look at her work apart from the dialogue of the art world proper, or even culture at large, and see the paintings as they are, without an eye on motivation or deliberately projected meaning. What you see is what you get, in a way that no one else knows — blush, gape or get stuck in an unresolved battle between attraction and repulsion. You can’t help but see your own thoughts and desires laid bare in the frame. It’s truly uncomfortable to feel exposed like this in the context of a stark-white gallery space, let alone as I experienced it, with Tompkins herself.
I sat down with the 62-year-old artist in her studio (water poured in wine glasses), wondering if I had been set up for some kind of Freudian experiment. I felt a potent surge of unease in my own skin, because I couldn’t help thinking and feeling things I’d rather not consider. How could I not be conflicted while surrounded by massively scaled representations of explicit sex in the presence of a woman almost exactly my mother’s age? The only way to reconcile these feelings was to reduce the work to its bare essentials: paint and canvas. Usually paint behaves viscerally, shirking its physical properties by occupying our mind’s eye. The paint can become anything, as long as we forget it’s paint, but with the Fuck Paintings it’s hard to forget the paint for what it is; we can’t help but see it as the one thing that impedes the images from actuality. A success of the Fuck Paintings is how easily they are forgotten as works of art, which may be the real reason for the title — lest we forget that a creative process brought them into being. This is also the work’s undoing: people pay attention to the images, but not the artistry behind them.
Tompkins is used to going unnoticed. The one justification she shared for her work seems simple enough: “I was a young female artist in a world dominated by men,” she said bluntly. In a way, she followed the path of least resistance by focusing on depictions of sex. But even then, the art world’s attention didn’t last long. She showed me the pool table where she had been storing her paintings rolled up, off stretchers. “I put them under here thinking they’d never come out again,” she said. As far as Tompkins knew, no one cared about the Fuck Paintings, and only recently have they been getting a second glance. Her reaction is a bit conflicted, because she feels like this is actually her first go at real recognition. “Jerry Saltz approached me at an opening to congratulate me. He said, ‘You’re having a resurgence!’ and I’m thinking, how can I have a resurgence if I never got a first chance?”
In the presence of the paintings’ creator, in her studio, I found myself understanding the works as a technical process. As Tompkins described her painterly approach to each piece, looking closely the details began to feel less uncomfortable. While I examined an ample and virile vein on a male organ, Betty described it as a miracle, an almost accidental consummation of creativity and precision that she wouldn’t try again.“On something like this, where everyone’s attention is, each mark needs to be perfect or you’ve screwed it up,” she said. These paintings look easy to produce at first, but the longer you look, they begin to emanate a certain virtuosity that only develops from an artist’s intimacy and devotion.
Tompkins’s work is imbued with a deep, untraceable obsessiveness. The imperceptible process of the airbrushed black-and-white paintings, the originals of the series, provides a glimpse of sex rendered through a reductive threshold that flattens color, motion and perception into a monochromatic and static definition, leaving the viewer to extrapolate meaning. The paintings meld with our most private memories and for this reason can feel deeply violating to some, while others, like myself, find them wanting for a lack of perversion.
I’m not alone in this opinion, and it’s not one that can only be arrived at by a desensitized netizen. In 1975, Tompkins showed her work in an exhibition that ruffled a few feathers down in Texas, but local critic Mimi Crossley remained unfazed. She called the work “about as interesting as a medical textbook” and went on to comment on the exhibition, saying:
You might be disturbed or reassured to know instead of shocking most of the art is almost purposefully boring. It is far less sensual than the pornography books available down the street. Pity the artists: it’s hard to shock when pornography is everywhere.
Her point is well taken and in fact contradicts my prior remarks lauding the internet as the reason for our loss of innocence. However, I’m at odds with Crossley’s final and most incisive commentary: “There is little art here. It’s mainly straight-on graphics, like how-to brochures. No visions, no dreams, no psychological insight.” Perhaps, in the pre-digital era, these pictures didn’t seem all that different from the photocopied pamphlets in a doctor’s office, but today, in an era defined by mobile apps and megapixels, Tompkins’s paintings, even if they are only blush-worthy, provide an aesthetic experience so intense and subjectively enthralling that HD video rendered on an AMOLED screen feels far removed in comparison. Previously, the Fuck Paintings might have been lumped into some manifesto about sexuality or gender equality, but today, it’s not that outrageous to look at them only as art and find a latent affirmation of painting’s continuing importance in the 21st century.
Regardless of technological advancements or popular trends in the art world, great works will always provide a universal platform for highly subjective responses. Sex, while often discussed in art, is hardly ever regarded with the kind of restraint and sobriety that a subject requires to attain maximum personal relevancy with the viewer. Tompkins lays out the facts of life in a way that is so unassuming, she ultimately proves just how riveting art can be when it seeks to be nothing more than what the eye sees. In an art world riddled with press release propaganda, the Fuck Paintings undermine the current requirement for elaborate exposition. By continuing to depict nearly pornographic images, Tompkins has exhausted the possibility of offending anyone with paint on canvas, which is a triumph of sorts. You could accuse her of picking the low-hanging fruit, but you’d be forgetting that not too long ago she was going out on limb.