Betty Tompkins

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Betty Tompkins
Born1945 (age 73–74)
EducationSyracuse University
Central Washington State College
Known forPainting
MovementPhotorealism, Feminist art, Contemporary art

Betty Tompkins (born 1945) is an American artist. Tompkins is a painter whose works revolve, almost exclusively, around photorealistic, close-up imagery of both heterosexual and homosexual intimate acts.[1][2] She creates large-scale, monochromatic canvases and works on paper of singular or multiple figures engaged in sexual acts, executed with successive layers of spray painting over pre-drawings formed by text.[3] Alongside artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Valie Export, Joan Semmel, Lynda Benglis and Judy Chicago, Tompkins has been re-assessed as a pioneer of Feminist art. Tompkins is listed in The Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art's Feminist Art Base.[4] Her first painting, completed in 1969, is held in the permanent collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France.


Tompkins was born in 1945 in Washington, D.C.. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and received her BFA from Syracuse University. She took a teaching job at Central Washington State College in Ellensburg, Washington shortly after marrying her first husband, who was one of her instructors.[5] She completed her graduate degree there, traveling between Washington state and New York City. She is currently represented by P.P.O.W Gallery in New York, Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels, and Gavlak Gallery in Los Angeles and Palm Beach, Florida.[6]


WOMEN Words (2002 and 2013)

In 2002 and 2013, Tompkins circulated the following email: “I am considering doing another series of pieces using images of women comprised of words. I would appreciate your help in developing the vocabulary. Please send me a list of words that describe women. They can be affectionate (honey), pejorative (bitch), slang, descriptive, etc. The words don’t have to be in English but I need as accurate a translation as possible. Many, many thanks, Betty Tompkins.” Over 3,500 words and phrases were submitted in seven languages, equally split between men and women.[7][8] In 2012, Tompkins was invited to create a performance in Vienna where 500 of the words and phrases were read aloud. Inspired by that performance, the artist then set out to create 1,000 individual word paintings, intending the series to be presented en masse once complete. On January 1, 2013, Tompkins created the first painting SLUT (#1). In an interview with Art in America, Tompkins says, "People sent stories, too. They made comments. It was very personal. But the same four words were the most popular. Actually nothing has changed."[9]

Fuck Paintings (1969–1974, 2003–present)

Tompkins first major body of work was a series of paintings depicting a male and female figure engaging in sexual intercourse. She elected to render the images in extreme close-up, using vintage pornography stills as her source material. Rather than idealize the act of fornication, by having one body or the other exude dominance or beauty above the other, Tompkins equalizes both figures by showing only their genitalia, in congress.[10] Tompkins' first husband possessed a collection of pornographic magazines and images, amassed since the late 1950s (possession of these images was, at the time, illegal).[11] The works were produced using hundreds of layers of spray paint, using a finely-calibrated airbrush to build from underdrawing to final image. These early works were made solely with black and white pigments, with extremely high contrasting tonality. Since returning to the series in 2003, Tompkins uses a base color combination to produce a more illuminated monochrome. She originally entitled the series Joined Forms, as a more modest way of describing the imagery. She would later call the collective series Fuck Paintings. Within this first series, until 1976, Tompkins produced a sub-set of works entitled Cow Cunt Paintings.[12]

Censored Grids (1974–present)

In 1974, Tompkins was scheduled to show her work in Paris. Once her painting had arrived, French customs officials had seized it, declaring it obscene and unfit for public exhibition. It would take Tompkins nearly a year to arrange for its return (by then, draining her financially and emotionally from the logistic and legal difficulties).[13][14] In response to this ordeal, Tompkins began to make paintings in the form of grids, where a set of white blocks with the word "censored" at the center, would block out all traces of genitalia or primary imagery in the composition. Tompkins has said she will continue to make these paintings, as there is seemingly no perceivable end to government/municipal censorship of visual art.

Public collections[edit]

Selected exhibitions[edit]


  1. ^ Cicetti, Robert (July 30, 2012). "Fuck Paintings #NSFW …As If You Needed to Know That". Hyperallergic.
  2. ^ Becker, Noah (June 2014). "Betty Tompkins: The Whitehot Interview". Whitehot Magazine.
  3. ^ Mason, Shana Beth (June 13, 2014). "Hippie with experience". (Oslo).
  4. ^ "Betty Tompkins". Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Feminist Art Base. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
  5. ^ Silas, Susan; Stathacos, Chrysanne (September 8, 2012). "A conversation with Betty Tompkins". MOMMY.
  6. ^ "NSFW Feminist Artist Betty Tompkins' Time is Now". Observer. 2016-03-22. Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  7. ^ "WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories - The FLAG Art Foundation". Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  8. ^ Mizota, Sharon (August 5, 2016). "How would you describe women? Betty Tompkins asked, then painted 1,000 answers". Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  9. ^ Vogel, Wendy. "Beyond the F Word: An Interview with Betty Tompkins - Interviews - Art in America". Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  10. ^ Cicetti, ibid.
  11. ^ Silas and Stathacos, ibid.
  12. ^ Simmons, William J. (2015-10-28). "Betty Tompkins". Flash Art. Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  13. ^ Mason, ibid.
  14. ^ Lark, Jasmine. "Betty Tompkins". WideWalls. Retrieved 2016-10-08.

External links[edit]