Betty Tompkins and Martha Wilson are two figures who blazed the trail feminist art—they played the field with the likes of Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneeman and Hannah Wilke, all of whom rattled the international art world with conversations that continue to this today. For a special project at Los Angeles’s Felix Art Fair, curator William J. Simmons has organized a multi-generational group exhibition—“Cruel Optimism”—in which Tompkins and Wilson feature prominently. The two spoke to Cultured about their paths through the art world and what it’s like to show alongside a younger generation of artists who are carrying the torch today.
Cultured: What are you showing at the fair?
Betty Tompkins: The pieces of mine showing at Felix are from “Women Words on Pages of Art History Books.” I ripped out images of paintings by Delacroix, Courbet, Degas, etc., from art history books and I wrote on top of the women in the images. I wrote sayings, stories and phrases that people had sent to me in both 2002 and 2013, in response to an email request. I also had a lot of source material from when I showed “Women Words” on canvas, which was the first iteration of the idea. When I showed them, we had a small table with index cards, push pins and markers so people could keep it going. I had not actually looked at these responses until summer of 2018. One said, “I'm gonna Jackson Pollock all over her face,” and “I came in her face but it was okay because she was a slut.” I mean, really incredible stuff. So then I got excited about continuing the series. I did a few on old photographs from Taschen books, and then somewhere along the line, the phrase “art history” popped into my brain. And that opened up hundreds of years of men doing art. So that's what I have in there.
Martha Wilson: I’m showing Mona/Marcel/Marge, which is a lenticular photograph. It's based on a piece, Mona/Martha/Marge, which was a photograph with my face, Mona Lisa's body and Marge Simpson's hair. It’s a portrait of postmodernism, with Mona Lisa representing the highest of high art, Marge Simpson representing the lowest of popular art and Martha is in the middle. Another piece of mine in the fair is called Makeover Melania—it’s a video that I did in collaboration with Nancy Berson, where my face turns into Melania Trump's face and then back into my own every 30 seconds.
Cultured: I think of you and your cohort as pioneers of much of the discussion happening in the show you’re in at Felix. You laid a lot of the groundwork. What’s it like to show alongside a new generation of artists carrying this on?
BT: It was such a different art world for us. If you were in your twenties or thirties, dealers looked at you like you were a child. They always said, “come back in 10 years.” Martha, were you in New York in your twenties?
MW: No, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
BT: I think that was a better place to be.
MW: I was an English literature major. I was taking grad courses at the university across the street from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which at the time was the coolest art school in North America. I told my mentor at the art college that I wanted to be an artist and he said that women don't make it in the art world.
BT: When I was a senior at Syracuse, my teacher asked me what I was going to do after I graduated. I said, “Well, I'm going to go to graduate school and then I'm going to go to New York and be an artist.” He said, and I quote, "The only way you'll make it in New York is on your back."
MW: That was the attitude of the times.
BT: I started working on the “Fuck Paintings” within one or two months of moving to New York. I started them because I was so bored with what I saw when I’d go around to the galleries. I’d be in and out of the galleries in a second, and it disturbed me because I had a sense of how long it took to make the art, yet I couldn’t spend five minutes with it. And I thought, well, you can't make work like this, you have to least engage yourself.
I had this first husband who came with a huge porn photo collection, which he had bought from Singapore or Hong Kong, one of those places. He went to Vancouver and took out a P.O. Box and waited what he hoped was the right amount of time. And then he would drive across the border and get the porn, hide it in the cushions of his car and drive back hoping he looked like the all American boy. When he did it, it was illegal to send that stuff through the US mail.
I was looking at them one day and I started ripping up little pieces of paper and using my fingers to crop out what might be an image on one of these photos. The first one, Fuck Painting #1, is in the collection of Centre Pompidou now, thank god.
MW: You never used your own body but I almost only used my own body.
BT: I just wanted to leave me out of it; it was a very conscious decision. I thought if I used myself, I would have my image with my then husband to deal with forever, and I didn't think the marriage was going to last, so that was one big motivation. I also liked the idea of the anonymity that I could get by taking out the heads and the hands and the feet. Just getting it down to the money shot. When my first husband and I broke up, he wanted to take all of the porn with him, but I insisted on keeping the ones that I had used because they were now no longer just photographs, they were source material. They had ink all over them. I used to hold the photos between my teeth while I was painting, so they had my DNA on them. I decided he couldn't have those.
Cultured: Do you still have them?
BT: I don't have all of them because some sold. Instead of “Betty's fuck material,” we now call them collages.
MW: So you wanted to talk about our relationship to the younger artists? My current work has to do with being an old lady—I'm having fun being an old lady. Artists work with what they have; if you're in your 20s, your focus is on issues that matter to you in your 20s.
BT: Artists are doing what they should, which is knowing what the generations before them did. And in terms of my subject matter, sex, every generation thinks they can reinvent it. Artists don't usually stay with it, but in their 20s or early 30s, they think it’s part of what they should be doing
Cultured: Why did you stay with it?
BT: I did move on, but I went back. In1973, two of my paintings got censored in Paris, and that was a little discouraging for me. Then I eventually did a bunch of censored drawings, and that worked. My attitude was, you think you can censor me, I can censor me better.
Cultured: Martha, what’s it like to make work about aging?
MW: I started working with the material that I had, which was my own artist's body, in the early '70s. Lucy Lippard came to Halifax while I was studying there, and she told me that there are other women around North America and Europe who are making feminist art. So she gave me the term, feminism, which nobody was talking about it.
So now, the long and short of it is, I'm old, so I'm doing work about that. I did a piece called New Wrinkles on the Subject, where I hired a makeup artist to inscribe all the wrinkles on my face.
Cultured: You're both still developing as artists. What’s it like to explore and to have room still to play in your practices?
BT: I love it. Of course that's what we're doing. Otherwise, I'm 74. I could find other things to do during the day and the thing I'm never going to do is bore myself in my studio. I spend all my waking hours in it just so I can be fascinated and excited.
When it comes to aging, every morning you’re either a day older or you're dead, and if you're not excited, you're deader than you think you are, even if you're breathing. Maybe that’s the third alternative: you're bored.