Pickle and I had the honor of interviewing Betty Tompkins for her show “WOMEN Words, Phrases, & Stories” up at Flag Art Foundation. She is a feminist powerhouse who is finally getting the recognition she deserves. The show is in its last week, and I highly recommend that you go.
On falling in love with art:
I backed into [being an artist]. Originally, I wanted to be an archeological artist who went out on digs. That seemed a really exciting life. I decided to start with the art part. I fell in love with painting my second year at college and that was it.
And sticking with your convictions:
I have been at this since I was 18 years old. I am now 70. I didn’t really get very much in the way of affirmation until my first show with Mitchell Algus in 2002 with the work I had done in the 1970’s. If I was the kind of person who was looking to the outside world for affirmation, I would have been in big trouble. I have never focused very much on doing things for other people’s approval and I have strong convictions about what I do do. I can often see that what I am doing is not going to lead to money or fame and it doesn’t bother me. Validation is wonderful but if I am working just to get it, I am going in the wrong direction.
On influence coming from within and from wherever:
I buy into the “work hard” ethic and I love what I do. At any given period, [influence] is different. Might be a quote I read, something that made me laugh something that was said to me. Whatever is making me think.
On working until it works:
I just do the pieces and flail around until I get something going. I long ago decided that I was the most engaged with making work that for one reason or another did not use paint in typical ways. So I almost never use palette knives or brushes with my primary work though I did withe the Women Word pieces. Stamps, yes. Fingers, Yes. Airbrush. Yes. Also airbrushes are an early and current love of mine.
On her aesthetic:
Cool and messy. Covers everything, I think.
On the internal struggles of being a successful woman in the art world:
I was one of the artists in this summer’s ARTNews issue that Maura Reilly edited. Her statistics show that virtually no progress has been made in the art world for decades. It is male-centric. This is depressing. Even though, anecdotally, things are going very well for me right now and for other artists that I know who are female, the big picture is discouraging to think about. How to reconcile this reality with the need to stay positive is the big problem.
On being liberated by being denied access:
When I first came to NYC in 1969, the art world was so small that you could see every gallery exhibit in a Saturday afternoon. All of the galleries were on 57th street between 6th Avenue and Park avenue and on and near Madison Avenue going up to Alan Stone Gallery in the 80’s. So I saw everything and was very bored with a lot of it. It was an early lesson in how selective history is with the 5-10 artists you might know of from a certain movement being just a small portion of the artists who were working at the time. I talked with a lot of dealers on my rounds and they were all clear that I should come back in 10 years when I would have found my voice. That was the expression they used. They were not interested in artists so close to their schooling. Many also told me to not come back at all because they didn’t show women. This was, in fact, very liberating.
On being free and having the balls to focus on SEX!
I was the wrong age and the wrong sex. I was free to do what I wanted. The early sex works were inspired by my first husband’s porn collection. He was 12 years older than I was and had got the photos years before from Hong Kong or Singapore. It is important to realize how different the times were. It was illegal to transport porn through the US Postal Service so to get these photos, he had opened up a mailbox in Vancouver BC. He drove up from Everett WA where he was living and picked them up and hid them in his car and drove back. Looking at them years later, I started to see that if I cropped them and got rid of all the boring parts – heads, hands, feet, etc., I was left with an image that was very beautiful abstractly and that also had a riveting charge. So I started the Fuck Paintings using these as source photos.
WOMEN Words, Phrases, & Stories is up through May 14th.
If you want to see Betty’s work in the future she will be showing at Gavlak LA in June and at Marlborough Chelsea in October. You can also check out her website.