By NOAH BECKER, JUN 2014
It was interesting speaking to Betty Tompkins in her Soho New York studio surrounded by her monumental works. Explicit porn film stills of male/female intercourse are a theme of an ongoing series. We don't talk about porn films when we have conversations surrounded by Betty's works and we don’t talk about sex. Discussions are about the art world, art criticism and the general situation for artists in New York. In fact the provocativeness could inspire a less than serene mood if it was not for the calming nature of these images. Tompkins’ personality is equally serene with bursts of spontaneous laughter. The genitals in her Fuck paintings have different presentations and cropping based on her handling of the the source photos and can emerge from a light colored gray fog or be right on the surface of the canvas. Some depict genital piercings and many are the animalistic act of fornication presented in large format. There is also a series of Tompkins’ work that uses brightly colored text and ideas that diverge from the depiction of carnal acts rendered in large scale. But in her more explicit works Tompkins uses a subdued color range, particularly in her Fuck paintings. This color set of grays whites and blacks varies in tone and warmth creating a much larger palette than noticeable when her works are viewed separately. A retrospective situation would bring into light the variations an inventiveness of Tompkins' color sense. Thankfully this kind of retrospective will happen at Art Basel with the great Galerie Rodolph Janssen. I spoke with Betty about her upcoming show in Switzerland.
Noah Becker: You have a show coming up at Art Basel in Switzerland?
Betty Tompkins: Yes I do it’s a solo booth with Rodolph Jansen in the Features section.
Becker: The Features section is less like a booth and more like a gallery situation?
Tompkins: It is a booth but there are only 15 to 25 of them and it’s in it’s own section of the fair which is on the first floor. They are devoted to solo shows and mine will be structured like a small retrospective – it’s wonderful - very exciting.
Becker: Is this your first retrospective?
Tompkins: Yes, this will be the very first attempt at it. It’s not huge -it’s an art fair. We have work from the 70s, 80s and then when I started in again after different series. Rodolphe has borrowed some work for it. The outside of the booth will be the photo of me that I did in Ellensburg, Washington in 1973. It’s the image of me standing between two of the early Fuck paintings. I did the photo to give the paintings a sense of scale, they are 7 ft by 5 ft. Larry Clark included it in the Untitled portfolio he did for Printed Matter. Rodolphe Janssen and I decided on the cropping of the image for the entire exterior of the booth in Basel. It’s going to be beautiful.
Becker: That sounds great .I’m hoping to be in Europe for it. You had a show with Nate Lowman recently right?
Tompkins: Oh no, no, I would love to have a show with Nate Lowman.
Becker: He curated you? Maybe I’m getting it confused with Home Alone 2 gallery or something?
Tompkins: We had this really great talk together and it’s going to be included in the catalog for Art Basel. I also was part of the first Home Alone 2 Gallery exhibit on Forsyth Street with Dadmiano which followed my doing the Home Alone 1 window space. So Nate along with Hanna Liden and Leo Fitzpatrick go back a bit.
Becker: Oh ok like a transcribed sort of talk with Nate?
Tompkins: Yes, exactly.
Becker: Like what we are doing right now.
Tompkins: Yes, (laughs) although we did talk about weightlifting, vegetarianism, gardening and a few other things – we did talk about art. too
Becker: Ana Finel Honigman interviewed you recently.
Tompkins: Yes she did, she’s great!
Becker: Yes she is! Is there any moment you can remember that is unique or a question from someone that stood out, not just Ana but anyone else?
Tompkins: Well Ana asked me if I posed for any of my paintings and I had not been asked that for a long long time. I had been asked this question when I did the show that had very heavily pierced Cunt paintings. So I said “Do you hear me clanking?” (laughs).
Becker: (Laughs), yes I think that’s the question I was remembering.
Tompkins: What I said was something like “I promised Jerry Saltz I would never tell."
Becker: So you’ve known Jerry Saltz for a long time. When did you meet Jerry?
Tompkins: I didn’t meet Jerry until my second show at Mitchell’s. But the first time we were actually introduced was at an opening of Trisha Donnelly. I had some sort of correspondence with him before that in a very vague way. Also I called him on the phone a few times. in the late 90’s, Jerry was on a panel and said he was going to curate a show about sex and somebody called me to tell me that. I sent Jerry a set of the original slides of the Fuck paintings after that. In my package I said I heard about his sex themed show and if he ever did it, i would love to be considered for it, sincerely Betty Tompkins. I never heard back from Jerry about the slides, so I figured he trashed them . Then years later, maybe 4 years later he walked into Mitchell Algus’ gallery and said: “Here, I hate to see a good set of slides go to waste, you should look at this stuff.” Jerry was pleased that it all worked out and that I was having shows there.
Becker: Then later on the whole critic on social media thing kind of started.
Tompkins: Yes, and Jerry is the most accessible critic, he’s really changed the way I think a whole lot of people think about critics. In the beginning if someone said something good about me I was afraid to thank them. I saw such a divide between the artist and the critic and their need to keep this kind of pure situation where they didn’t have contact with the artist. But when I started to show the Fuck Paintings, I was so thankful when people would mention my work I would write them notes to thank them. It was very spontaneous. I never expected a reply. Then when I started with Facebook there was Jerry Saltz – he’s changed the role of the critic entirely.
Becker: Thanks for this Betty, I hope to see you in Europe when your show opens at Art Basel.
Tompkins: Thank you Noah.
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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