Joan Semmel (b.1932) is a painter who has centered her practice around issues of the body, from desire to aging, as well as those of identity and cultural imprinting. She studied at the Cooper Union, Pratt Institute and the Art Student’s League of New York. In the 1960s, Semmel began her painting career in Spain and South America, where she experimented with abstraction. She returned to New York in the early 1970s, where her practice turned towards figurative paintings, many with erotic themes in response to pornography, popular culture, and concerns around representation. Her practice traces the transformation that women’s sexuality has seen in the last century, and emphasizes the possibility for female autonomy through the body.
In the 1970s, Semmel began her exploration of female sexuality with the Erotic Series, large scale depictions of highly sexual positions. Her reclaimed gaze of the female nude heralded a feminist approach to painting and representation in the 1970s. Produced at a pivotal moment in her practice and in the cultural landscape of First-wave Feminism, her Erotic Series depicts couples entwined in various coital positions rendered with expressive gesture, exemplifying her keen understanding of color and composition. In 1973, she makes a definitive formal shift from abstraction by fully embracing figuration. Using her own body as subject, she began depicting her nudeness on canvas, shifting the perspective from that of an observer to a personal point of view. During the mid-to-late-1970s, Semmel turned to photography to capture reflections of her own body onto mirrors as documented by the camera.
In recent times, Semmel has meditated on the aging female physique; recent paintings continue the artist’s exploration of self-portraiture and female identity. These works represent the artist’s body, doubled, fragmented, and in-motion. Dissolving the space between artist and model, viewer and subject, the paintings are notable for their celebration of color and flesh. Soft and milky colors provide background for the luminous skin tones Semmel captures, as figure and ground merge. In many of the works, the artist confronts the viewer with a direct gaze, a departure from iconic earlier works in which the point of view that remained within the canvas itself.
Joan Semmel’s museum exhibitions include: Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC (2014); Me. Myself. Naked at the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen, Germany (2013); Joan Semmel: A Lucid Eye at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (2013); Shifting the Gaze at the Jewish Museum (2010); Rebelle at the Museum of Modern Art Arnhem, The Netherlands (2009); Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH (2008); and the touring exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, MoCA, Los Angeles (2007). Semmel’s paintings are part of the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; Orange County Museum of Art, CA; Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; the Jocelyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE; the Jewish Museum, New York; and the Brooklyn Museum, New York. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award 2013, Anonymous Was a Woman (2008), and National Endowment for the Arts awards (1985 and 1980). She is Professor Emeritus of Painting at Rutgers University.