The artist Betty Tompkins moved to SoHo, New York in 1969. Betty began a series of black and white air brush paintings called Joined Forms, which were cropped paintings of heterosexual intercourse. The artist states that in these paintings, created during this beginning era of feminism, she was deliberately appropriating the male gaze. She showed these works in various galleries in SoHo, including LoGuidice Gallery and Warren Benedek. In 1973, Betty was invited to exhibit in Guy Loudmer’s in Paris. This led to a ludicrous censorship by French Customs officials and a year of legal wrangling on the artist’s part to repatriate the art works.
Today Betty can smile on the 1973 event because her work has at last received the respect it deserves. Betty is represented by the Mitchell Algus Gallery in New York (she describes the owner of this gallery as the nicest most supportive of human beings), and has exhibited her work at the Lyon Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Galerie Rodolphe Jansen in Brussels, Galerie Sho in Tokyo, and Galerie Caratsch in Zurich who represents her work there, to name a few.
In this friendly interview, Betty, one of my all time favorite New York artists, discusses with me some of the most important issues facing the art world today, such as museum ethics in antiquities, censorship, and freedom of expression in an ever increasing ultra-conservative atmosphere.
CS- I believe you have a painting in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Is the Met very supportive of contemporary artists?
BT- I don’t have a painting in the permanent collection of the Met. No public institution so far in the USA owns a piece of mine. Centre Pompidou in Paris owns “Fuck Painting #1” which they showed last year in a recent acquisition show. As for the Met, as far as I know, they have an on-going program of purchasing and accepting donations of contemporary art so the support of contemporary art is built into the purchase program. Just not mine. So far. It is an interesting question Charlie. I really don’t see institutions going for my work. It may very possibly have to do with its directness…I don’t dance around the issues. I go straight into them and I don’t give them much “art” to hide behind. I really do demand a lot from my audience. Also so far, no one has shown my work without a parental advisory sign on the door. Maybe Zurich. I will have to check.
CS- As you know, a lot of public awareness has been raised regarding American museums and their questionable buying policies of antiquities. The Met has agreed to repatriate the Morgantina Silver and the Euphronious Krater, among other items. I know that New York artists love the Met and are proud of it. We all frequent the many amazing art exhibitions and no one in the art world can deny that access to the museum’s collections is a great asset to an artist’s work. That being said, artists are usually the most idealistic about art and are very conscientious about social injustices. In the months following the commencement of the Marion True trial and the negotiations between the Italian government and the Met, we have heard plenty about this issue from lawyers, law enforcement officials, curators, dealers, and art experts. In my opinion, what really counts is what the artists are saying. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share?
BT- This is a complicated question Charlie, because it equates the making of art with moral high standards. The two don’t actually follow as the night and day. It would be nice if they did, but ethics is not a required course in art school. Cynically speaking Is there a museum in the world with an antiquity collection that does not have pieces that were stolen or illegally removed from the native country? I mean over hundreds of years, not just recently. The Elgin Marbles for example. For myself, I think it is an abhorrent practice of course and it is great that Italy is finally stepping up to the plate- just that it is awfully late to be doing it and as a visitor to the Met, and a lot of other museums, if all illegally gotten gains were repatriated, learning about them by seeing them in the flesh, so to speak, is going to get very difficult.
CS- Speaking of repatriation, you know first hand what it is like to fight to get your artworks repatriated. In 1973, French customs officials confiscated two of your paintings. Give us a description of the French event and the confiscation of your art works.
BT- In 1973, I was invited to be in a show at Guy Loudmer’s in Paris. This was to be a show and an auction at the end of the show. The show was called “Realism, New Realism and Photo Realism”. The curator was Maurice-Frederick Calatchi. He came to my studio which was on spring street in SoHo and picked “Fuck Paintings #1 and #5” for the show. I don’t remember who recommended me to him. Some of the other artists in the show were Bob Stanley, Richard Smith, Malcolm Morley, Yvonne Jacqauette, Allan D’Arcangelo, Alex Katz and John Clem Clarke. So very good company for me for the time. Out of the 46 artists, there were four women- me, Audrey Flack, Yvonne Jacquette, and Sylvia Mangold. Sort of typical for the day.
I was very young. Only 28 years old. I had never had a solo show in New York and had only been in a few group shows. This was a very big deal. International. So a shipper came and took the works and the next thing I knew, I had a phone call from Maurice saying the works were stuck in customs. This was before email, before fax, before anything. International calls were expensive. I had no idea what to do.
CS- What explanation did the French customs officials give you?
BT- Maurice told me it was because of the subject matter. I never got an “official” explanation from the French government. Now that I think of it, this is pretty funny because the paintings were titled “Joined Forms #1” and “Joined Forms #5”; these were the original titles of the Fuck Paintings. The titles “Joined Forms” were written on the backs, but I always called them the Fuck Paintings. Well, that’s what they were. You have to put them in context of the times: both conceptual art and minimal art were in their heyday. Very heady (read intellectual) times. So a public fancy title but a privately accurate one which fortunately has prevailed. I think it was a crapshoot about being censored. France is a Catholic country. Who gets to inspect which crate is probably arbitrary. I got someone who got offended and who used his power. I was never told the word ‘pornographic’. Everyone was polite, but it was obvious. I was so young and naďve, I didn’t know enough to go to the New York Times or the art magazines. I took it very personally and privately.
CS- Tell us about your wrangling with the French government to get your art back to New York.
BT- I wrote and called Maurice a gazillion times. The gallery owners too and whoever I could think of. It took a year to get them back. About the time I was told they were being repatriated to the U.S., Andy Warhol was having problems with some sexually oriented pieces- I think penis drawings- that had been sent to Canada. Canada did not let them in and then on the other end of the bridge (my visualization anyway) the U.S. Customs people rejected them also. I read in the papers that they were just going back and forth. So I, of course, envisioned my paintings finally being let out of jail in France and being put on a boat to the USA and then not getting into the country and being sent back to France, where once again, a customs official would be offended and hold them in limbo, etc. etc. I pictured my paintings having this international life crossing the Atlantic while I was never actually leaving my loft on Spring St.
CS- Now let me get into your feelings. How did it all affect you?
BT- When the show opened, Maurice sent me the catalogue with this letter:
It does not take much imagination to sense how bad all this made me feel. I do my work honestly, from my gut convictions. I had no construct or structure to put this in.
CS- Over thirty years later your work was accepted to the Lyon Biennale. How did it feel after a triumphant return to France?
BT- When my New York dealer, Mitchell Algus, called me to tell me about being accepted to the Lyon Biennale, I was very cool to the idea. Mitchell said to me, “you don’t sound very excited”. I responded “what makes you think the paintings will get into the country?” He replied “they will, they worry about other things now.” So I said okay and they got in. When my husband Bill Mutter and I arrived in Lyon by plane then train, we were met at the station by Laurent Le Sergent who was working for the biennial. He was so great to us the whole time we were there. He made sure I never got lost and always showed up on time for the events. Laurent is a really great person. Before we went to the hotel, I asked him to take me to the exhibition site so I could see that the paintings were, in fact, there and hung on the wall. After that, I relaxed and had a good time. Seeing them convinced me that this was actually happening; it became real to me when I saw them on the wall. It was a beautiful room. My paintings and Steve Parrino’s paintings were exhibited together. This was Bob Nicka’s idea- how our work went at a similar idea from two different points of view, and so amazing that he convinced the other curators of it. The synergy between our works was electric. Bob is this amazingly perceptive visual person/curator. When he talks about anyone’s work, it just takes my breath away. I was an unknown in this show. Steven was very famous in Europe. They came into the room because of him. He was amazingly generous to me: “Betty, we are the best fucking room in the show”. I thought that was so generous of him. I liked him a lot.
How did it feel? It felt very, very good. I didn’t feel triumphant. I am not sure what that would feel like. I just don’t relate. I felt very good and very validated. I thought it was about time.
CS- I love the stories about Chuck Close, Jerry Saltz and Mitchell Algus. Would you be so kind as to share them with our readers?
BT- In 1994, Chuck Close told me that he had been to the opening of that year's Whitney Biennial and there were some younger artists doing sexual imagery and all he could think of was that my paintings blew them away and I should dust off my slides and send them around. I did, sent them to about 15 - 20 galleries. Good ones too. The slides beat me home from the post office. Total rejection again. In 2000, I sent a set of the slides to the critic Jerry Saltz , who I had never met, I had heard that he was planning to do a sex show. I never heard from him but in late spring 2002, he took them over to Mitchell Algus and gave them to him. So Mitch came to my studio and in mid-September offered me a solo show of the paintings and drawings. We had 2 weeks to pull everything together, none of the drawings were framed and only one of the paintings was on a stretcher. The rest were rolled up under my pool table where they had been since 1975 when I had done a show with Paul Schimmel at the Houston Museum of Modern Art which was an artist-run space. I kept thinking that it was a good thing we were doing this so fast. I was sure that if the gallery had any time to actually think about this, they would back off. It was very good timing. There were two big feminist shows up - Guild Hall I think in the Hamptons and at White Columns here in New York. I wasn't included in either of them. I didn't even know about the show in the Hamptons, but had tried very hard to get into the one at White Columns. I went to my opening early, I was dressed, I was nervous, why stay at home, and Holland Cotter from the New York Times was there. Mitch introduced me and Mr. Cotter congratulated me on the show; he was beaming, he liked it so much, a very sweet moment for me and I said that I thought Mitch was very brave to show them. His big article the next day was about the two feminist shows and in the middle of the article, he wrote about my show calling my paintings "formidable"! Unbelievable! The Village Voice was very supportive of the show also. And of course, Bob Nickas loved the show and put me up for the Lyon biennale with this work. So I feel very, very good about all this. Better late than never and a lot of coincidental events.
CS- Back to censorship and the unimaginative masses! Please explain the absurd deja vu in Japan – the confiscation of your art works there and wrangling with the officials to get the works back.
BT- In 2005, I was asked to be in a show at Galerie Sho in Tokyo. No problem getting the work into the country. A painting and a drawing. So earlier this year, 2006, the dealer, Shoichiro Satake, asked me to be in another show. I said yes, of course. All the arrangements were made. He purchased three pieces for the show. Mitchell duly shipped them via FedEx. This time, they were held in customs and declared pornographic. I was totally blindsided by that. I was so upset when I got the email about it from the gallery. Most artists never get censored. Who gets censored twice? I immediately wrote to a few critics and curators I knew. I didn't know what else to do. So okay, reach out. They were all so supportive. I ran into Bob Nickas on the street that morning and he told me a lot about censorship in Japan and a lot of stuff about the culture there and Tom Morton in London said “where's the petition to sign?- It's art and I should know!” -and Elisabeth Lebovici in Paris wrote a piece for her blog http://le-beau-vice.blogspot.com/2006/04/betty-tompkins-fuck-paintings-fuck.html. All of this was an incredible and very welcome show of support. I was so grateful for it. The email I had gotten from the gallery had asked for anything I might have to prove that my work was "art". Personally I don't even know what that means. But I spent a day scanning in all the reviews, press notices and museum writings about this body of work and sent them off. Shoichiro was absolutely terrific. In about 2 weeks he had the pieces released from customs. One day I hope he will tell me how he did that. I would really like to know. I had been told by another gallerist in Tokyo that once your work is declared pornographic, it is impossible to get customs to change their tune. I was expecting to have to repatriate the pieces and then either resend or better yet, get someone to act as a courier and bring them into the country by hand. I wasn't looking forward to either scenario. However Shoichiro Satake did it, the works were released in time to be in the scheduled show. You can see them at http://www.g-sho.com/bettytompkins
How does an artist prove art is art? Better yet, how does an artist prove they are a real artist? The answers can be found by examining the exemplary life and work of Betty Tompkins, who has dedicated her life to her work, creating art honestly from her heart. Examples of Betty’s work can be viewed at: www.mitchellalgus.com/pr/bthompkins05.html.