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In the studio with… Betty Tompkins

21 June 2021

In 2002, Betty Tompkins showed her ‘Fuck Paintings’ to acclaim in New York – but when she began to paint these large-scale, photorealist close-ups of pornographic imagery in the late 1960s, they were widely rejected, and by feminists and conservatives alike. Today Tompkins, who lives between New York and rural Pennsylvania, continues to explore sexual intimacy in her work – alongside paintings, drawings and collages that incorporate text to critique misogynistic language and cultural norms. The artist’s first international survey, an exhibition titled ‘Betty Tompkins: Raw Material’, opens at Montpellier Contemporain this week; a selection of her recent work is currently also on view at GAVLAK in Los Angeles.

Where is your studio?
I am currently in my studio in the country, where I’ve been during the pandemic.

What do you like most about the space?
It is quiet and peaceful. When I look out the windows, it is pretty. Both the long view and close view are satisfying to look at.

What frustrates you about it?
It needs more storage space. I didn’t plan this part very well and have had to improvise as I go along. I have a blank wall where I store stretched canvases that are large, and I created an area for finished paintings. But what I really need is a separate room to store both in.

Sex Painting #7 (2020), Betty Tompkins.

Sex Painting #7 (2020), Betty Tompkins. Courtesy the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles, Palm Beach

Do you work alone?
Yes. Always.

How messy is your studio?
I had the walls repainted a year or so ago. I threw out a ton of stuff. Now it is effortless to keep it mostly orderly. My desk and drawing table are the real continuing messes.

What’s the weirdest object in there?

Which artistic tool could you least do without?
My airbrushes and compressors.

What’s the most well-thumbed book in your studio?
I only keep books in my studio that I am currently using for my work – for the GAVLAK show, I tore pages from books on Weegee, Brassaï, Helmut Newton, and Avedon. The rest go on the shelves in the house.

Women words (Avedon #10) (2019), Betty Tompkins.

Women words (Avedon #10) (2019), Betty Tompkins.
Courtesy the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles, Palm Beach

Do you cook in the studio?
I don’t know how to cook.

What do you listen to while you’re working?
I have gone through many stages of music – opera, jazz, country, folk. Right now, I am listening to silence.

Do you ever sleep in your studio?

Is anything (or anyone) banned from your studio?
Ants are not welcome in the summer. I have had two or three infestations of them. In the cold weather, mice are not welcome either. This past fall, the exterminator confused a mouse toy that squeaks with the real thing. The cat and I were both amused.

‘Betty Tompkins: Some Sex, Lots Of Talking’ is at GAVLAK, Los Angeles, until 14 August. ‘Betty Tompkins: Raw Material’ is at Montpellier Contemporain from 26 June–5 September.