Betty Tompkins and Marilyn Minter
MO.CO Montpellier, France.
Through September 5, 2021
By COCO DOLLE, September 2021
In the tradition of Gustave Courbet’s scandalous pussy painting “L’origine du Monde” (1866), MO.CO., the contemporary center in Montpellier, presented a raw and unfiltered exhibition featuring works of two important American feminist artists, the now iconic Marilyn Minter and Betty Tompkins. The exhibitions titled respectively Marylin Minter: ALL WET and Betty Tompkins: RAW MATERIAL, are unique and groundbreaking, offering both artists their first solo exhibition within a French institution.
Curated by head of exhibitions Vincent Honoré and curator Anya Harrison in the concept section of MO.CO, la Panacée, the exhibitions are paired alongside a historical timeline highlighting linchpin moments in contemporary feminist history. The exhibition begins in 1969, with the creation of Betty’s first “Fuck Paintings”, displaying a collage of numerous posters over a long and massive wall space in the style of wheatpasting. This wall encircles the main exhibition, and serves as an introduction to the works of the artists. The posters refer to contemporary socio-cultural events, with each poster acting as a highlight in women’s studies. They illuminate and underscore pivotal moments in the deconstruction of the “male gaze” and its patriarchal stranglehold over the female body.
From Yayoi Kusama’s public nude happenings to the French Manifesto of the 343, The Vagina Monologues and the #MeToo movement, this juicy intellectual and political itinerary encompasses many leaders and civil rights activists in the feminist movement, serving as a comprehensive reading of the exhibitions. Overall, the retrospective serves as an educative tool for people who are not aware of the struggles of the feminist movement within our male-dominated societies.
Reclaiming the female body in art has been at the crux of many conversations of women in the contemporary arts. The exhibition’s intent seems on point with the use of sexual imagery in the works by both artists. The first room within the walls opens with a dozen of Marilyn Minter’s photorealistic large-scale enamel paintings on metal.
Inspired by the theme of the “bather”, a motif that goes back to Greco-Roman art, her series draws inspiration from the image of a woman in a bath or bathhouse. Her work challenges the voyeuristic tradition of showing this activity through the lens of the male gaze. The most iconic depiction of this imagery being “Les Baigneuses”, a 1853 work by Courbet. The work caused a major scandal in the Paris Salon, over the generous display of realistic, nude women’s bodies. Courbet’s painting has been in the collection of Musée Fabre in Montpellier ever since, just a couple of blocks away from Marilyn’s exhibition.
Blurring the lines of the representation of the female nude between abstraction and photorealism, Marilyn’s sensual painting breaks the stereotypes of women as subjects of male artists' works by owning the genre. Seducing the viewer, she is creating dreamlike atmospheres with warm tones against steamy wet foregrounds. Her paintings illuminate the scene with transparency and soft glamour. Cropped to close-ups and intimate body parts, her models take on natural poses and often depict women from her close circles. I personally recognized some of her muses, including Bronx museum curator and activist Jasmine Wahi.
Alongside the paintings, two of Marilyn’s video works are displayed in separate rooms. “MY VOTE” in the vain of the “My body, My choice” slogan, is one of her well known activist works advocating for abortion rights and the pro-choice movement. The video was created in 2020 as a provocative ad during the US presidential elections and features actress Amber Heard. The second video is a close-up of a luscious mouth licking gooey and fluorescent foodstuffs titled “Green Pink Caviar”.
Equally present in this space is Betty Tompkins’ exhibition RAW MATERIAL, displayed over fifty of her signature “Fuck Paintings” that she created within the past ten years. Starting in the early 70s, Betty has mastered the art of re-appropriating pornographic imagery from men’s magazines that she used to sneak from her husband’s stash. Small black and white photographs imported illegally from Singapore and Hong Kong formed the original group of Betty’s “Fuck Paintings”. Overwhelmed by the abstract expressionist scenes in New York, Betty firmly engaged with her practice as an act of defiance against the all too white-male centric art world. At the time, no one would give her a show based on her gender, her age and her subject.
Tompkins was attacked on multiple fronts for her art. She was shunned from participating in women’s group art shows. The second wave of American feminists also rejected her work for its association with sex work. One of her “Fuck Paintings” was even siezed by French customs in the ‘70s for obscenity. The question that lingers now around her work is simple: Would her work have been censored had it been done by a male artist?
It is ironic that a French institution is the first to give Tompkins her first ever museum exhibition. As a French native, I was touched by the excitement in her voice when we spoke about this and applaud Nicolas Bourriaud's last contribution to the program as a Museum Director at MO.CO.
Tompkins’ large pussy paintings canvases in the large main room are painted with an air brush in black and grey tones blending in a soft pastel background. In her process, she unapologetically isolates the act of penetration and enlarges the close-ups on both male and female genitals. Adjacent to the main exhibition, Tompkins’ sketches and text-based conceptual art are displayed. These showcase her intimate and manual process with masking tape and pencil marks on paper. Decades after her first fuck paintings, Betty’s work still remains a visionary, standing alone against the norms. Her work has inspired new generations of female artists in the world of erotic imagery, and is acclaimed at an international level by academics, art collectors, and galleries across the globe.
Overall, both exhibitions give a comprehensive study on how feminist artists tackle the eternally taboo subject of feminine nudity while defying the perception of obscenity. While many adults might still perceive erotic art as vulgar or outrageous, I felt very much at ease with it all. Being familiar with both artists’ work, as well as having encountered them within the New York art scenes made it a personal and intimate experience for me. WM
Coco Dolle is a French-American multidisciplinary artist and writer based in New York. Former dancer and fashion muse for acclaimed artists in the early 2000s including Alex Katz, her performances appeared in Vogue and The New York Times. While attending Louise Bourgeois' Sunday Salons, Coco developed her personal practice. Her works have since been featured in solo exhibitions at the Oregon Contemporary Art Center and Mary Ryan Gallery. Over the past decade, she has curated multiple concept feminist exhibitions and was featured in Forbes. Her column for WhiteHot Magazine “Cultural Rebels: The Art of Defiance” pays homage to outstanding artists and their idiosyncrasy. Follow her on instagram.view all articles from this author