New York artist Betty Tompkins makes large scale, softly airbrushed, monochromatic canvases, drawings, and collages of figures engaging in sexual acts. She has also made images of women comprised of words which are used to describe them. She was one of the forgotten women in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who examined sex and gender in their art. Suddenly she and a few other artists like her are more relevant today than they ever have been before. She says, “I became an overnight success at 72.”
In 1969, she started making photorealistic paintings that depicted graphic sexuality. Feminists at that time criticized her for cutting and cropping images from her husband’s pornographic magazines. “I was not active in the feminist art movement. I couldn’t find it,” she says with humor. In 1973, two of her paintings were seized by French customs, and this signaled a career death sentence for her. “I was a living nightmare for galleries after that: young, female and censored.” Interestingly, one of these seized paintings is now in the permanent collection of Centre Pompidou, Paris.
In 2002, Tompkins had the idea to combine language with women in text-based works. She sent out a request for words and phrases used to describe women. She received more than 1500 responses in seven languages sent by both men and women. Years later she came upon these words and phrases and presented them in a performance piece in Vienna in 2012. 500 of these words and phrases were read aloud. From this Tompkins created 1,000 individual word paintings: “Women Words.”
Her work is in the public collections of Oberlin College, Museum of the City of New York, and Centre Pompidou Paris.