interview by JULIANA BALESTIN ON SITUATIONS
portrait by ALEXIS DAHAN
JULIANA BALESTIN — I didn’t realize the New York curator — and Purple contributor — Bob Nickas was such an influence on your career, especially for making your works known in Europe?
BETTY TOMPKINS — I actually just ran into Bob the other day. I owe him so much. He had introduced me to my gallery, Rodolphe Janssen, in Brussels. He also got me into the 2003 Lyon Biennale, where he put me together with Steven Parrino. It was the first time my work had been shown in Europe on that scale. So many things have come from that show, and Bob really had to fight for me.
JULIANA BALESTIN — Bob Nickas was teaching a course at New York University recently about what happens when artists disappear, or remove themselves, from the conversation. Was there a point when you could have disappeared?
BETTY TOMPKINS — The art world has a very short memory. It’s generational. Maybe the generations have sped up a bit. But disappearance is such an interesting topic, and such an issue for an artist. First you wonder if you’re ever going to have what’s called a “career.” And then is it sustainable? Everyone’s career changes, like on a rollercoaster. The big problem is that in order to make things happen for your career, you may have to do things that are untrue to your work. This is one way to disappear.
JULIANA BALESTIN — As an artist, what do you expect from your art dealer or gallerist?
BETTY TOMPKINS — You have to trust them, and they have to be enthusiastic enough about your work to understand not only the work but how you got to where you are now. They need to ride with you as you develop. And they have to be ethical. It’s a difficult combination. Then on top of that, the artist wants them to be helpful to their so-called career. So it’s not just what the artist brings but what the dealers does. It’s a complicated business and the more I learn about it the more I respect it. I’ve been lucky. I get to concentrate on my work at home in my studio.
JULIANA BALESTIN — How do you work?
BETTY TOMPKINS — With grids and an airbrush. I also have a group of works I’ve made with stamps.
JULIANA BALESTIN — The stamp works are amazing. But it’s impossible to see all the layers unless you see them in person.
BETTY TOMPKINS — I had to give up doing the stamp works because doing them gave me tendinitis. I started having dreams about working with an airbrush again. I decided I could make better work using it. I use two: one for white paint and one for black. I mix my own blacks. It’s all very deliberate. That’s all there is. All the grays come from the layering. In the beginning, it looks terrible but after 20 or 30 layers the paint gets really subtle and transparent. I stand there until I get it.
JULIANA BALESTIN — How did you decide to use airbrush and put down your paint brush?
BETTY TOMPKINS — I made a list of all the things I loved about painting and all the things that I was really good at with paint. And with each painting I knocked something off the list and refused to do it. I thought at the end I would have annihilated painting or would have invented something new for myself. So one of the last things I had to give up, reluctantly, was working with a brush. I love the bounce of the brush against the canvas. And I’d given up oil painting because I loved it. When I gave up the brush I thought how do I get the paint from point A to point B? So I started using an airbrush. I started out working very large, with a spray gun, because I had no control over it. Even a detail had to be large. And I got good at that. The paintings were good. After I graduated, I thought I wanted to work with the airbrush but I needed to learn to control it.
JULIANA BALESTIN — At the group exhibition “Grisaille” at Luxembourg & Dayan in New York, curated by Alison Gingeras, one of your paintings was hung directly across from a large Robert Morris folded-felt piece. On a far wall was an Agnes Martin painting. What did you think about the visual clash between your work and the Abstract art in the exhibition?
BETTY TOMPKINS — Alison is a fearless curator. She has more guts than anyone. When she selected my painting it was a deliberate decision to place it opposite the Morris because of the play on curves and movement of his hanging felt and my painting. For me abstraction and the subject matter have to coexist equally. If one or the other takes over it won’t do. The ones I like the best are the ones where the two elements go head to head. The tension between the subject matter and the abstract element should be so tight that neither side wins the battle.
JULIANA BALESTIN — I was thinking about that aspect of your work and also thought of artists like Robert Longo. He made a series of drawings of breasts and cleavage with no heads. You couldn’t tell what you were looking at. It takes it out of a particular context when you give equal weight to subject matter and abstraction. Shape and the movement take center stage.
BETTY TOMPKINS — An Austrian curator, Karin Pernegger, whom I’m going to do something with this year, gave a talk at the Rodolphe Janssen Gallery about my work. She’d e-mailed me questions and wrote back to me saying that it looked to her like I’m really an abstract painter but using subject matter to get to abstraction. I said, no, that’s not at all true! I am no sort of realist, because I’m very concerned with the abstract element. I’m also no sort of abstractionist, because I’m really concerned with the subject matter. They are of equal importance. That part has been there from day one. I was raised on Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art as an undergraduate, which was the new big thing. But Abstract Expressionism was very strong. I loved it. It made a permanent impression on me. I gave it up in graduate school when I realized I’d gotten very facile at it. I could solve whatever problem had developed in a painting. But I wasn’t quite sure how you really make a change with your work.
JULIANA BALESTIN — Do you keep the large format now because it’s easier with airbrush?
BETTY TOMPKINS — No. I just like it. I can get details at any size. I’ve done 16 x 16 inch paintings with a lot of detail. I like big — 84 x 60 inches is my favorite. I settled on it originally because it was the biggest size I could fit in my van. Not a very aesthetic reason! Originally, I wanted it to be big because at that time important art was big. That was a no-brainer. It wasn’t until I went back to this subject matter, about 10 years ago, that I started to play with the scale. The scale is the first decision you make in a painting and it’s an important one. I started with all different sizes. Each time I radically change the scale I have to teach myself something about how to look at the space. For instance, if it’s a square, how do you make a square dynamic? A square is supposed to be a static shape.
JULIANA BALESTIN — When did sex become your sole subject matter?
BETTY TOMPKINS — My husband at the time had all these porn photos that he had gotten from Hong Kong and Singapore — very small, around 3 x 4 inches. I was looking at them one day and I thought if I take out all the identifiers and you just get down to the sex, you have a bunch of beautiful forms and they’re attention-grabbing. I don’t mean in a sensational sense.
JULIANA BALESTIN — The sources were from your husband’s porn collection but not from personal experience or fantasy?
BETTY TOMPKINS — On no, I don’t work with fantasy. But I often decide that I want to do a painting that has this or that, and then I find a way to do it. Whatever I start with is not what I’m painting from. I change it.
JULIANA BALESTIN — Has the Internet been a source for you for porn imagery recently?
BETTY TOMPKINS — Some. Ethnicity. Genders. Positions. I change everything though. I change it until I find something I want. Sources aren’t that important. I want people to focus on the painting. That’s important.
JULIANA BALESTIN — Does your work carry a message of sexual freedom or is it critical of the porn industry?
BETTY TOMPKINS — I try very hard not to direct viewers to what they should be looking for or at. I try to remove myself from any critical conversation. If I do that, then the paintings become a commentary on the porn industry or they become a feminist statement — all of which may be true, but that would limit how someone looks at them. As a writer or critic you have the right to say what you want about my paintings. You have the right to your opinion or reaction to my work. I just don’t want to be in the middle of that conversation. I want people to have their own reactions to them, which are bound to be personal. I don’t want to stand in the way. A lot of people are very insulted by what I do. They tell me that a lot. I’ve had people run out from my shows screaming.
JULIANA BALESTIN — How does the audience react to your work?
BETTY TOMPKINS — It depends where the works are shown. In New York I’ve had some weird responses. If people hate them they usually leave. One person in New York reacted to a seven-foot-tall double penetration painting by yelling at the top of his lungs and running out the door. Which I assume had nothing to do with my painting, of course… Another woman came while I was at the gallery, pushing a toddler in a stroller. She parked the kid right in front of this painting with a large breast. She put her hands over his eyes and said, don’t look. Five years ago I had a show with Andrea Caratsch in Zurich, and the gallery told me they had gotten lots of hate mail. Last summer I had a show in that same gallery and there were only three or four hate letters. I asked to keep the mail. I had no problem. In Brussels, Rodolphe’s gallery is at street level and the front is glass. A lot of people wouldn’t come in but looked in. No one showed hostility and I was delighted.
JULIANA BALESTIN — Is your collector base varied?
BETTY TOMPKINS — It’s more European.
JULIANA BALESTIN — You play by your own rules.
BETTY TOMPKINS — I’m 66 years old. It’s not that I’m a control freak. But I’ve always been an outsider. I’m happy to go along with things, but sometimes I get a proposal and it just doesn’t sit well with me. My father was on the left politically. When I was a kid the FBI used to follow me to school. One of my family’s jokes is that as a child my first full sentence was, “Do you have a search warrant?” This was the era of McCarthy. I’ve always been an outsider. Even as a child.
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