Interview: In DIALOGUE // Betty Tompkins


In keeping with our curiosity and desire to build connection and shift perspectives, we're expanding our content to feature some of our favorite curious minds, in dialogue with Founder, Rimma Boshernitsan.

In our first interview with artist Betty Tompkins, Rimma & art curator A. Will Brown ask Betty about what's it's like to be re-recognized for her activism as a feminist in the art world.


betty tompkins: the second time around


Betty Tompkins is a painter who has lived and worked in New York City since the late 60s. Her work has been shown internationally in group and solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Lyon Biennale, Kunstmuseum Bern, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. Tompkins has international gallery representation and shows with Galerie Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels and Gavlak Gallery in Los Angeles & Palm Beach.  

"do you have a search warrant?", Ari Marcopoulos, 2012.

"do you have a search warrant?", Ari Marcopoulos, 2012.

Tompkins utilizes a series of found images from popular and porn fiction as her source material, yet the copying of the image does is not the final effect. Tompkins challenges the audience to remember the paintings are just as we are -- unfiltered, with one of the best parts being the seamless integration of commentary on current attitudes towards image consumption and gender identity.


RB: Betty, we wanted to begin by talking about your life before you went to art school.


BT: I was born in Washington D.C., as was my sister, and by the time I was 3 or 4 years old we had moved to Philadelphia. My father was the head of the Progressive Party in Philadelphia, so I essentially grew up with the FBI following me to school. My first complete sentence was: “do you have a search warrant,” because the government, at that time, was very anti-liberal, anti-socialist and anti-communist. In retrospect it was a really fascinating way to have been raised, and it prepared me for what my adulthood would become, in that I wasn’t so interested in belonging to systems and groups and that I was fine without approval. I knew that I could just be myself and carry on that way.


AWB: Do you think there is a way in which that potential threat of suppression influenced your work later?


BT: I always felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do as an artist. The time was so different when I first came to New York. The art world was so small. In two Saturdays you had seen it all, wait a month and do it again. At that time I thought my work was as engaging as anything that I was seeing, but the reality was that galleries were not interested in people my age. They were not interested in artists of my gender and they were not interested in what I was doing. The line I heard the most from galleries was “come back in ten years, we’re not interested in artists who are as close to their schooling as you are, find your own voice.” In a way, this was a very liberating thing for me because I was actually allowed to develop without consideration of a market place because I expected never to be in one.


AWB: There is something incredibly romantic, yet completely impossible, in our current climate, about an artist walking into a gallery and saying here is my work, and expecting some kind of reciprocal dialogue.  


BT: They were so much more accessible. Even if they were going to reject you at least you could try. For a long time, dealers accepted slides and you would get a form letter back. I would send a cover letter and a photograph of myself between two paintings of mine, two of the airbrush 'Fuck Paintings' for scale.


AWB: Now galleries are poaching right out of art schools.


BT: I have taught in art schools, and now they are in the studios of seniors, not even graduate students.


AWB: You noted in another interview that you were subsidizing the education of most of the men who will become successful professionally.


BT: This is true now and it was also true then; about 80% of the students in art school are women, and they are effectively subsidizing the men, because we (they) are paying the tuition that allows them access to the entire facility. And, once you leave art school it changes and flips immediately.


RB: When was the last time you were teaching?


BT: I taught adjunct for a long time. At one time I was teaching simultaneously at the School of Visual Arts, NYU, The New School, and LaGuardia Community College. It’s really a hideous life, because you don't get the money to do the one thing you want to do: buy time to do your own work. I considered adjunct teaching like a grant that was given to me; but I realized that if I didn't need the money, it should be going to somebody who needed it to pay the bills.


RB: What about teaching appeals to you?


BT: I enjoy the social interaction. I liked classes that forced me to be creative in my responses to the students, which happened in higher-level classes with higher-level students. I love teaching advanced level and critiquing, and I’m very good at it. I can empathize  to understand what they are trying to do and also to refer them to artists to enlarge their knowledge base. Students must recognize the history that they are coming out of. At a certain point it became rote for me, and I don’t think that is a good way to teach. The things you ask your students to do the first or second time you ask them to do it, when brand new, come out the best.


RB: Did you know you wanted to be an artist and a teacher when you were growing up, how did you decide to go to art school?


BT: I got very bad grades in art classes for a very long time. In junior high school, I was close to flunking art. We were told to do things like paint our feelings, which I had so many of; they weren’t telling us anything concrete. One day, we had a substitute teacher and she showed us the proportions of a head and she drew it on the black board. Then she had us draw each other. I was the best in the room.

In the beginning of junior year and I had a friend who wanted me to model for her at art school. So I went, and while waiting for her I picked up a piece of poster board, and they had tempera paints. I did a little still life of cooking pots that were in the corner. The teacher came over and picked up my painting and said, “Who are you?” I said “I’m Betty Beitscher,” and she responded “well, you are coming here every Wednesday after school.” I showed up in her art club every week, and the next year I majored in art. I went to art school, and in the second year I fell in love with painting, and that was it. Once I fell in love with painting I never fell out of love with it.

'Ellensburg, WA 1973'   "I took this photo to show the scale of the paintings. We were in the days of slides and reduced to 2x2” they did not look like paintings. So that was the point of this photo. Even today, however, people seeing this image think I am standing between 2 blown up photos. Still drives me nuts."

'Ellensburg, WA 1973'

"I took this photo to show the scale of the paintings. We were in the days of slides and reduced to 2x2” they did not look like paintings. So that was the point of this photo. Even today, however, people seeing this image think I am standing between 2 blown up photos. Still drives me nuts."


AWB: Do people still send you their own photographs?


BT: Once in a while they still come to me over email. They were never physical photographs, it all started with the Internet. I have had one or two people who I know send me images that I could use; although, I have to work on and put them through my processes before painting them. I always say to them, “you are forbidden from going to the opening and standing by the painting I have made and saying ‘Me.’”


RB: But you had a box of photographs that you showed me a few of, correct?


BT: Yes, they were from the original collection that my first husband had. The photographs were originally taken in the 1950’s. My first husband was twelve years older than I was, and he got the photos from Hong Kong or Singapore through the mail. This was at a time when it was illegal to transport these things through the U.S. mail, so he had them sent to a P.O. box in Vancouver, and he lived in Everett, Washington. He would drive across the border, pick them up, and stash them under the seat somewhere, hoping that when he went across the border he looked enough like the ‘All American Boy’ to not get stopped.


RB: Do you experiment with other forms, outside of painting, that push your work?


BT: Yes, of course, I am always pushing. Lately I have been taking my old printouts—stacks of paper with images on them—and drawing right on top of them. They have so much good information that it seemed natural to draw right on top of them with ballpoint pen; I am calling them altered photographs. I’m also working with a group of photographs that are printed with non-archival ink on photographic paper. I think the photographs will fade away entirely and that all that will be left are my marks.


RB: Do you look at what you do as work, or is it just part of your lifestyle?


BT: It is totally integrated into my life. I love to do what I do, and if I have to go three or four days without being in my studio for significant portions of the day, I become unhappy and very frustrated. But I love to work every single day, and have been known to work 120 days in a row without taking a day off. I have come to think that there are no stupid ideas and no stupid materials. It is just what you do with it; it is your effort that makes it positive or creates something that wasn’t there before.