(NSFW) Betty Tompkins Interview: Photorealistic Paintings Made from Photos Your Dad Used to Hide

Betty Thompkins- portrait
Sex Grid #10, pencil on paper, 17×14″, 2009

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that possession of obscene material — porn, if you’re of the Xvideo generation — was protected as a right. Around that time, artist Betty Tompkins, recently graduated from art school, had her first two showings. Betty Tompkins called her work Joined Forms, then later Fuck Paintings. The latter title described exactly what was displayed. The art world had never seen anything like it — except, wait, that’s incorrect. The art world never noticed her then.

You see, after her first two showings, the Fuck Paintings weren’t seen by anybody, anywhere, for the next two decades. These large scale paintings of photorealistic intercourse, of sheer explicit sex — of anus, of cock, of vagina, equally — were taken off their stretchers, rolled up, then stored underneath a pool table in the living room of Betty Tompkins. They idled in the dark for nearly thirty years until they were given a second-life.

Betty Tompkins- Photorealistic
Ellensburg WA 1973, photograph, 18×24, 1973

But, yes, these are paintings.  And this is a photography blog. Why do they matter? Who cares if they were confiscated, banned, and, as recently as 2006, denied entry into Japan? Well, the short point is that these paintings were sourced from photography. Each Fuck Painting you’ll see has roots in a porn magazine. It’s photography that guides Tompkins’ subsequent crops and composites.

But the more important point is really a question. Why were these paintings ignored for so long? I’m sure you can see the story writing itself. A young woman artist painting sexuality as fucking, mastering techniques that have been called nearly virtuoso, makes work so transgressive that nobody notices until it’s realized as the first. That’s why you’re reading this. It’s the question that makes the larger point. Why were these paintings ignored for so long?

In this brief interview, Betty Tompkins talks about how she got her start in painting and explains how Betty Tompkins uses photography for her art.

Betty Tompkins Paintings Made from Photos
Fuck Painting #1, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1969

Although you’re a painter, you’ve been featured by American Suburb X, and you work with photographs as a starting point. Could you explain how photography is used in your work?

Actually, what was featured on American Suburb X was one of Richard Prince’s screen grab photos. He started with me and then moved on to the others. He showed the piece at BEPAD at the Lowell Hotel. I am honored to have been included and to have been the first. It’s a fascinating way to do a portrait. I love mine. I have used photos as source material since I was in grad school. The light never changes, the models never move or talk back to you, I can pick them up or put them down at any time. I don’t have to give the photo a break every 20 minutes. I can change them however I want. I have changed gender and ethnicity in pieces. And made composites by changing body parts. Lately I have also been drawing over my working photos with pen and ink. Some of them are so old the inks are not archival. They are already fading out and changing color. Eventually none of the photo will be left and it will just be my marks.

Betty Tompkins ethnicity
Fuck Painting #6, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1973

I’ve read that you receive many photo submissions from your website, and that you never photograph couples yourself. Which photographs do you usually find most interesting to work on? What do you look for?

People do send me things sometimes. They often try to send me what they think I am looking for which is a mistake. I prefer if they don’t make the decisions that I like to make for myself. That includes cropping. I crop, rotate, flip etc. It is a series of decisions that I make in the beginning of the piece and they are very important to me. If someone else does it, I would just be making a mechanical reproduction of someone else’s decision and I won’t do that. What I find interesting changes from piece to piece so, unfortunately, I don’t have much more of an answer for you. An image that doesn’t engage me at all for one painting will maybe for the next one be the only thing I can think about.

Betty Tompkins painting
Fuck Painting #8, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1974

How faithful are you to the photographs? Do you ever touch up a photograph with your paintings? Conceal anything?

Photorealism does not interest me. Being faithful to the image does not interest me. What I use as a guide is what my small (up to 7×5”) image looks like to me from about 12 feet away. This becomes more of a way to see light/dark shapes and the rhythm in the image. I am a whole lot more interested in that than the details of a photo which often get in the way of what I am trying to get the painting to do.

Betty Tompkins Conceal anything
Fuck Painting #2, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1970

What do you think fine art photographers could learn from your process? Any thoughts on photographic composition?

All I know is that the day I learned to actually see the edges of the viewfinder in my camera was the day, my own photographs improved a lot. I think I must be the last person holding a camera who didn’t know this instinctively. I don’t know how anyone else would go about this.

Betty Tompkins photographic composition
Fuck Painting #4, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1973

Why do you think your paintings weren’t more popular when they first came out? Did their reception dismay you? How did you keep faith in your artistic abilities?

It was a different time. I was the wrong age (there was a time when being young counted against you) and I was the wrong sex. (No one was interested in women artists). Also, I did not graduate school with the expectation that art was a profession where you earned money and got exposure right away. This was actually very liberating. I was expecting nothing and I was free to simply please myself. And I did. I also think that if you need validation through galleries and shows to have faith in your abilities, you are in big trouble.

Betty Tompkins women artists
Fuck Painting #7, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1973

I read that your parents raised you with an expectation that you would be significant to the world. That’s amazing encouragement. What would you say to an artist/photographer who may need that same encouragement? Any advice about making it?

Oh, have I “made it”? That’s so funny. Can I get back to you on this one?

Betty Tompkins amazing encouragement
Fuck Painting #5, acrylic on canvas, 84×60″, 1973

Be sure to check out all the work of Betty Tompkins on her website!

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