Raw material

Porn close-ups and defaced paintings: inside the provocative world of US artist Betty Tompkins
By Alex Reilly | Art | 5 July 2021

New York artist Betty Tompkins has never been shy about making a statement. Through large, monochrome paintings and text art, her photo-realistic works portray raw sexual acts through a feminist lens. A new exhibition at GAVLAK gallery in LA, titled Betty Tompkins: Some Sex, Lots of Talking, celebrates the artists’ uncompromising practice via three seminal works: Women Words, Betty Tompkins: Raw Material, and Fuck, Sex and Cunt Paintings.


At her provocative best, Tompkins interrogates Western art historical narratives to subvert the traditional representation of women. In her series, Women Words, Tompkins re-appropriates classic paintings by overlaying female figures with her signature graphic pink lettering. The series began in 2010 with a group email sent to everyone in Tompkins’ address book requesting words or phrases they associated with women. Using the crowd-sourced submissions, which exceeded 3,000, the artist grafitted the responses onto works by revered male artists, from Vermeer and Degas to Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton.

In Raphael’s iconic painting, The Madonna of the Pinks, Tompkins has defaced the image of the Virgin Mary with phrases like: “Every man would be faithful if God took an inch off his dick every time he cheated,” and, “Why did you cut your hair? It was so pretty.” Here, the artists’ stream of consciousness takes aim at the dominant male perspective of women’s bodies within the art historical canon while simultaneously displaying the negative social implications of these oft limited and one-dimensional representations. In more contemporary examples of the series, a lot of which draws from fashion photography, Tompkins illustrates how models are perceived as merely props. One photo of a model wearing only underwear in her dressing room is adorned with the words, “I think it’s really great professionally that you don’t want to have kids.” 

Betty Tompkins Women words (Weegee #6) , 2019

Alongside Women Works are pieces from Betty Tompkins: Raw Material, which were recently presented at MO.CO Montpellier Contemporain in France. These large-scale, monochrome paintings of body parts engaged in sexual acts offer extreme close-ups and at times almost indiscernible depictions that omit any notable signifiers of age, race or class. In doing so, Tompkins seeks to equalise the participants without allowing space for any suggestion that one is better, more beautiful, or more dominant than the other.

In the 1970s, Tompkins was subject to censorship numerous times and rejected from radical feminist groups due to her fascination with pornography. This largely stemmed from her series Fuck Paintings, which showcased penetrative acts and were deemed too obscene to pass French customs. Tompkins was excluded from feminist circles in New York City after using her husband’s collection of vintage pornography as reference for her art. At the time, pornography was seen as a means of exploitation and an embrace of the pleasure principle. Tompkins simply saw sensual enjoyment and chose to explore it through her work.

Now aged 76, Tompkins continues to break boundaries with her explicit art. She has become highly regarded for her feminist efforts, has influenced many new wave feminist artists, and battles Instagram restrictions on the daily.   

Betty Tompkins: Some Sex, Lots Of Talking runs at Gavlak in Los Angeles until 14th August.

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