New York artist Betty Tompkins makes large scale, softly airbrushed, monochromatic canvases, drawings, and collages of figures sometimes 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.
Between 1978 – 1984 Tompkins painted works in which fragments of text from the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights were rendered in grids made from the word ‘law’.
In 2002, Tompkins combined language with portrayals of 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 presented them in a performance piece in Vienna in 2012. 500 of them were read aloud. From this performance Tompkins created two series of paintings: “Women Words” and “Apologia.”
In both series, Tompkins used artwork reproductions taken from art history textbooks and then added painted text to them. In “Women Words” the art works, that she chose, were painted by male artists, such as Titian and Watteau. The text, that she applied, consisted of crude and insulting phrases about women, taken from the response cards mentioned above. The text was painted in pink lettering, and its tight, meandering rows totally covered the female figure.
In “Apologia” the paintings chosen by her were done by female artists, such as Valadon, Kasebier, and Gentileschi, and the figures painted over were generally male. The text consisted of apologies or denials of wrongdoing made by public men, who were accused of sexual harassment.
Her work is in the public collections of Oberlin College, Museum of the City of New York, and Centre Pompidou Paris.