The Naked State by Betty Tompkins

When researching background material for this post, I realised that Betty Tompkins’ Fuck Paintings are often presented as: painted hardcore porn that was locked up in a NY dungeon for over thirty years! Sequestrated by French customs officials in 1973! Locked up again by their Japanese homologues in 2005!

Even so, it is not for border protection to decide what becomes big in the art world. As upset as the bureaucrats might have felt, the main reason why Tomkins’ paintings were not shown on a broader scale is because no gallery was interested in showing her work, at least not more than once.

In an interview with Filthy Gorgeous Things, Tompkins explains:

“The response to them was essentially negative. One dealer walked into my studio, ran out and then backed in (…) Most [dealers] refused to come (…) at all. Whether it was because I was a young artist or whether it was because I was a young woman artist or whether it was the subject matter or the subject matter being done by a young woman artist, I never knew. It was a very different time. I would beg [Tompkins’ husband at that time] to take the slides in as his own as he was so much older than me and he was a man but he refused.”

Furthermore, her renaissance is to a large part due to the fact that thanks to the support of Mitchell Algus gallery, which exhibited the original fuck paintings in 2002 and helped Tompkins to take part in the 2003 Lyon biennale. Centre Pompidou bought Fuck Painting #1 for its permanent collection a year later, making it appropriate to show “large-scale photorealistic paintings of heterosexual intercourse”, as described in the words of the artist herself, to the general public (the French/European one, albeit). Collector interest ensued.

Anyway. Having attended the opening of her solo show at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen last Thursday, I do think that these over-sized genitalia are worthy of thought.

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #11, 2004 Acrylic on Canvas 213.4 x 152.4 cm, courtesy of Galerie Rodolphe Janssen

First of all, Tompkins’ work provides an interesting example of the painter’s dilemma of abstract vs. figurative representation. Tompkins explains in the Galerie Rodolphe Janssen catalogue:

“As an undergraduate, I had fallen in love with Abstract Expressionism. By the time I was in graduate school, I had a lot of facility with it and got bored. In my youthful arrogance, I made up a list of all the things I loved about the act of painting and was also really good at doing. With each subsequent painting, I did not do another thing on the list. I thought by the time I was through, I would have either obliterated painting or invented something new for myself.”

In her quest for a way to embrace imagery, Tompkins took to her husband’s collection of pornographic photos and figured that by disposing of the subjects’ identifiers, such as heads, hands, and feet, she would be left with “beautiful abstract images out of the part of the photograph that was most compelling”.

Abstraction was reinforced by her choice of technique: she used only white and black paint applied in hundreds of layers. This, in combination with the paintings’ scale, meant that the images went out of focus when the beholder approached. Actually, of the paintings exposed at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, my favourite was the most abstract one, made by the marks of thousands rubber stamps.

As for the subject matter, I found it interesting to consider the fuck paintings through the prism of John Berger’s analysis on the nude, as put forward in the BAFTA award-winning BBC series “Ways of Seeing” and the subsequently published eponymous book. They further benefit from having been made at the same time as the original fuck paintings (early 1970s), thereby sharing the mood of the moment.

"Why are these pictures so vacuous and so perfunctory?" --- John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Berger argues that the nude is a highly conventionalised genre in European oil painting, typically depicting a female subject who is aware of being observed by a male beholder (as opposed to the naked state which is simply being without clothes). This corresponds to the different presence that women and men have assumed throughout the times.

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping (…) Men watch and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relationship between men and women but also the relationship of women to themselves. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision – a sight.”  (p. 46p)

Nude, naked, natural? --- Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Courtesy of Louvre.

Furthermore, besides being reduced to a sight whose only purpose is to beguile, tradition demands that the woman is to be blamed and punished for her vanity, Berger contends.

This archaic and unequal foundation may well be the reason why the nude has become less important as a form of contemporary art. Few are able to imagine a nude that does not objectify and diminish – according to Berger, art history has witnessed, at most, a couple of hundred paintings showing naked women (their reason to undress:  because true lovers need to overcome the unnecessary distance of layers of garment), capturing the traits of a loved and desired and irreplaceable woman.

(Meanwhile, the tradition of female objectification holds sway in contemporary marketing.)

Anna de Rijk by Sofia Sanchez Mauro Mongiello for Tar magazine

In this regard, Tompkins offers an interesting way of overcoming the limits of the nude. Far away from fulfilling the role of flattering the male spectator, her paintings put men and women on equal footing as both sights and spectators. They furthermore serve as a means of exploring one’s own sexuality and offer a personal way of interpreting. In Tompkins’ own words, cool as cucumbers:

“Everybody has sex one way or another, but we don’t see ourselves doing it. So we have a real curiosity about what it looks like. I think that for many people curiosity is a plus and a minus, they look and are attracted and repulsed at the same time. That is okay with me.”

Betty Tompkins in her studio. Courtesy of Ari Marcoupolos.

> Fuck Paintings are on at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen until 17 March.

> See our text on the work of Wouter van de Koot for a comparative endeavour of a painter striving to move from figurative to abstract painting.

— Aleksandra Eriksson Pogorzelska —

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