Art with Benefits: 5 Questions for Betty Tompkins

It’s easy to have impure thoughts when looking at Betty Tompkins’ large-scale photorealistic renditions of pierced clitorises, double penetrating phalluses, macro coital embraces and all manner of twisting and sinuous tongues taking turns on the human anatomy. Indeed, this is art with benefits. Starting with her first Fuck Painting in 1969, Tompkins has been exploring and confronting a black-bar culture that censors any reminder that our most basic instincts are to inseminate and to be inseminated. Right now you can catch Betty Tompkins’Kiss Paintings at 55 Gansevoort until December 15th. In this short interview, Betty talks about smuggling porn, the inception of her Fuck Paintings, and some of the strange reactions people have had to her work.

Autre: Can you describe the moment when you discovered the inspiration for your Fuck Paintings?

Betty Tompkins: Yes, I can. My first husband came with a set of porn photos that he had imported from Hong Kong. He was 12 years older than I was. At that time, it was totally illegal to use the US mail to transport porn. He rented a postal box in Vancouver BC, drove there from Everett WA where he lived, hid them in his car and crossed the border back into the US hoping he looked like an all-American boy. It was a different time. In 1969, about a month or so after we moved to New York, I was looking at them and realized that if i removed the hands, the feet, the heads, everything but the money shot, that what was left was abstractly beautiful and had the great punch of an aggressive subject matter. I did Fuck Painting #1 in 1969.

Autre:Do you think the internet and the proliferation of pornography has made your art more "available.”

Tompkins: Certainly more people can see my work and the internet has helped make it more accessible. There was always a lot of porn. It is just easier to get now. And getting it is more private.

Autre: Has anyone had any bizarre or strange reactions to one of your works?

Tompkins: At my 2007 show with Mitchell Algus, the main exhibition room had a double penetration painting in the prime spot. A man walked into the gallery, had no problem with the front room, walked into the back room, looked at that painting, yelled at the top of his lungs and ran out. When I show in Zurich, the gallery gets serious hate mail. They sent me some of it. During my 2009 show at Mitchell Algus,Jerry Saltz made it the Show Of The Week feature in New York Magazine. The gallery told me a LOT of people were showing up so i thought I should see for myself. It was true. While I was there, a woman came in with a toddler in a stroller. she parked him near the desk and a painting that featured a breast. she put her hands over his eyes and said, “Don’t look.”"

Autre: Where do you recommend hanging one of your works in the house?

Tompkins:Anywhere the collector wants to hang my work is fine with me.

Autre: What can we expect at your new show at 55 Gansevoort?

Tompkins:Kisses. Smooch. 

Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper for Autre. Photograph by Nancy Oliveri. Betty Tompkins Smooch will be on view until December 15 at 55 Gansevoort Gallery, 55 Gansevoort St, New York