Joan Semmel

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Joan Semmel
The Jewish Museum's Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon 20.jpg
Semmel at the Jewish Museum in front of her painting Sunlight 1978 in Scenes from the Collection
Born(1932-10-19)October 19, 1932
New York City, NY
EducationPratt Institute
Known forPainting
MovementFigurative art, Feminist Art

Joan Semmel (born October 19, 1932) is an American feminist painter, professor, and writer. She is best known for painting large scale, realistic nudes of her own body as seen from her perspective looking down.[1]

Education and political involvement[edit]

Semmel was born in New York City. She began her artistic training at Cooper Union, where she studied under Nicholas Marsicano.[2] She went on to study with Morris Kantor[2] at the Art Students League of New York before earning a BFA from the Pratt Institute in 1963.[3][4]

She spent seven and a half years in Spain (1963-1970), where her work "gradually developed from broad gestural and spatially referenced painting to compositions of a somewhat surreal figure/ground composition...(her) highly saturated brilliant color separated (her) paintings from the leading Spanish artists whose work was darker, grayer and Goyaesque."[5] Semmel returned to New York City in 1970 and earned an MFA from the Pratt Institute in 1972. Upon returning to New York in 1970, Semmel was shocked by the number of sexualized images of women she saw on American newsstands.[6] She began to paint in a figurative style, and incorporated the erotic themes for which she is known today.[3] Her MFA thesis show at Pratt consisted of paintings from the First Erotic Series.

In New York, Semmel became involved in the feminist movement and feminist art groups devoted to gender equality in the art world.[7] She has been a member of the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists,[2] the Fight Censorship (FC) group,[6] Women in the Arts (WIA), and the Art Workers Coalition (AWC). The Women's Caucus for Art honored Semmel as a 2013 recipient of the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award.[8] During a 2015 panel discussion titled "Painting and the Legacy of Feminism" at Maccarone Gallery, Semmel stated "I would like to get away from the basic declaration of why there are no great women artists.[9] There are great women artists. There are many great women artists. And we shouldn’t still be talking about why there are no great women artists. If there aren’t great celebrated women artists, that’s because we have not been celebrating them, but not because they are not there."[10]

Semmel has taught at the Brooklyn Museum of Art[citation needed] and the Maryland Institute College of Art[citation needed]. As of 2013, she is Professor Emeritus of Painting at Rutgers University.[11] In 2000 Semmel taught at International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria.[citation needed]


About major themes in her work, Semmel states, "While my work developed through series, the connecting thread across decades is a single perspective: being inside the experience of femaleness and taking possession of it culturally."[5] Though Semmel has created many different series throughout her career, the majority of her oeuvre features themes of sexuality, the body, intimacy and self exploration both physically and psychologically.

First Erotic Series (1970-71)[edit]

The First Erotic Series depicts heterosexual couples having sex. The subject matter is explicitly erotic, but the compositions give a nod to abstraction with expressive, unnatural colors and a strong emphasis on individual forms. These large scale depictions of sexual activities reclaimed gaze of the female nude, which heralded an unprecedented approach to painting and representation in the 1970s.

Second Erotic Series (1972-73)[edit]

Referred to by Semmel as "fuck paintings," the Second Erotic Series paintings are sharp and realistic but retain the intense, unnatural colors of the First Erotic Series. The paintings are based on photographs of a man and woman having sex, which Semmel took over several sessions with the couple's consent.[6] When no commercial gallery in New York would show the series, Semmel rented space in SoHo and exhibited the work herself, attracting attention from critics.[6] Semmel refused requests by Penthouse and Playboy to publish work from the series. Erotic Yellow (1973) was used without her permission in the “Hot Erotic Art” issue of Screw magazine (May 1974).[6]

Possible interpretations of the Erotic Series:[edit]

Joan Semmel, like said before, contained a fascination with the human body and including it within her art pieces in a sensual form. But, unlike her male chauvinist counterparts, she believed that women need to be represented how they should have always been presented within the art community; without categorizing females as a whole. Semmel takes us back to looking at the whole concept between an individual who is naked and one who is nude. The “Ways of Seeing” allows us to understand that “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise[12]Semmel realizes that women have been tainted not by them being nude within these paintings, but mainly from the male viewer who interprets them as nothing but naked, which immediately sexualizes them personally therefore making them associate that with any female they find attractive. It's insulting and degrading. Joan even has been quoted saying it herself; “I am always asked the question about my feelings of being publicly naked, and I always answer: It isn’t me, it’s the painting,”[13]

She forces the viewer to keep in mind the whole concept of nudity opposed to being naked by making most of the individuals in her paintings anonymous and keeping their faces hidden.[14] This element is beneficial because it therefore compels the viewer to focus on the sexual connection itself and the personal interaction instead of two specific individuals.


During the summer of 1973, while teaching at the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore, Semmel began painting what she calls “the idea of myself as I experience myself, my own view of myself.”[6] The self-portraits such as Me Without Mirrors (1974) include the artist's body from about the collar bone to the feet and do not include her face. Source photographs for the large-scale paintings were taken by the artist, or in some cases by a friend “as close as possible to the artist’s viewpoint.”[6] Several self-portraits such as Intimacy and Autonomy (1974) include a male partner. In these paintings, “the nude no longer appears as an idealized fantasy, allegorical figure, or landscape of desire but rather as the self-apprehended body of a specific woman.”[6]

Relating Joan's Self-Portraits to Society (Interpretation):[edit]

Lastly with her imagery, Semmel likes to exhibit the importance of the reality of the human body, tearing apart the everlasting evolving image of what an “attractive female” is within a society. She uses herself and other females to express the reality of how age, weight, and the overall transitioning body are common with every single female. This does not take away from their beauty and Semmel is able to prove that there is and never really be a standard when it comes to what's considered beautiful and appealing. Semmel constantly references identity and has stated "The artist's constant search for self merges with the woman's need for self definition."[15]

Echoing Images (1979-81)[edit]

Semmel describes this series, which was exhibited at Lerner Heller Gallery: "the main compositional figure is repeated twice: once in realist style and a second much larger highly expressionistic version. They are almost like internal and external views of the self that combine a perceptual image with the ambition and striving of the emotive ego."[5]

Beach series (1985-1986)[edit]

Series of paintings made in Semmel's East Hampton studio. In 1987 she bought a house in Springs, East Hampton, where she continues to work every summer.[5]

Locker Room series (late 1980s)[edit]

Beginning with Mirror Mirror (1988), Semmel depicts camera as a "device to frame and question issues of perception and representation." Semmel took photographs in women's locker rooms, using the mirror and the camera "as strategies to destabilize the point of view (who is looking at whom) and to engage the viewer as paintings revealed a body at a more advanced age, and showed me aggressively pointing the camera at the viewer."[5]

Overlays series (1992-1996)[edit]

Mannequins (1996-2001)[edit]

Inspired by old mannequins she found on the street, Semmel worked with these "idealized versions of the female alter egos to explore the isolation and anomie of objectification and fetishization. The haunting beautiful faces, broken parts and empty armholes were eloquent witnesses to the way women were valued for their youth and beauty and discarded in later years as powerless and no longer viable."[5]

With Camera (2001-2006)[edit]

The first time Semmel purposefully poses in front of a mirror with the camera.[5]

Shifting Images (2006-2013)[edit]

Heads (2007-2013)[edit]

Transparencies (2014-ongoing)[edit]


Semmel has continued to paint nude self-portraits in the 2000s and 2010s. These self-portraits employ a different perspective, one seen in a mirror and including the camera and the reflection of its flash.[6] Her most recent work explores the physical and psychological experiences associated with aging, while continuing to be self-referential and engaging in her paintings. These meditations on the aging female physique are experimental in representation, expanding beyond conventional realism. Her self portraits are doubled, in motion and fragmented, perhaps explorations of a metaphysical state of being and a close tie between the body and the mind. Challenging the patriarchal gaze of an objectified nude female body, Semmel's work dissolves the typically clearly demarcated lines between artist and model, viewer and subject[16]


  • Solo exhibition of "Erotic Series," organized by Semmel at 141 Prince St. Gallery, New York, 1973[5]
  • Solo show at Lerner-Heller Gallery, New York, 1979[5]
  • Feministische Kunst International (International Feminist Art), Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1979[5]
  • Solo exhibition, 112 Greene Street, New York, 1984[5]
  • Solo show from Gymnasium series, Gruenebaum Gallery, New York, 1987[5]
  • Joan Semmel: Recent Work, East Hampton Center for Contemporary Art, New York, 1989[5]
  • Through the Object's Eye: Paintings by Joan Semmel at University Art Gallery, State University of New York, Albany. Mid-career survey. Traveled throughout New York State 1992-1993.[5]
  • An Other View, Bypass Gallery, New York, 1993 (organized by Semmel)
  • Anni Albers, Robert Beck, Cady Noland, Joan Semmel, Nancy Shaver, curated by Robert Gober, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 1999[5]
  • The Mannequin Series: Recent Work by Joan Semmel, Jersey City Museum, NJ, 2000[5]
  • Personal and Political: The Women's Art Movement, 1969-1975, curated by Simon Taylor and Natalie Ng, opens at Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, 2002[5]
  • Transgressive Women: Yayoi Kusama, Lee Lozano, Ana Mendieta, and Joan Semmel, curated by Annette Dimeo Carlozzi, started at Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, 2003[5]
  • “WACK! Art and the Feminist Movement,” touring exhibition, curated by Cornelia Butler, that began at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2007[5]
  • “Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel,” curated by Helen Molesworth, Wexner Center for the Arts, 2008
  • “Shifting the Gaze”, The Jewish Museum, New York, 2010[17]
  • “Nudes,” Alexander Gray Associates, 2011 [18]
  • “Joan Semmel: A Lucid Eye,” curated by Sergio Bessa, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2013.[1]
  • Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades, April 2-May 16, 2015[5]
  • "Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics," Dallas Contemporary, Dallas, TX, 2016
  • "Scenes from the Collection," The Jewish Museum, New York, 2018[19]

Museum collections[edit]

Semmel's works are found in museum collections including: the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston;[citation needed] the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX;[citation needed] Orange County Museum of Art, CA;[citation needed]Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA;[citation needed] National Museum of Women in the Arts[citation needed], Washington, DC; The Parrish Art Museum,[citation needed] Southampton, NY; the Joslyn Art Museum,[citation needed] Omaha, NE; the Jewish Museum (Manhattan), New York;[20] and the Brooklyn Museum, New York.[21]


Semmel's awards include the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award (2013),[22] the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2007),[23] National Academician of the National Academy Museum, New York (2014)][5] the Richard Florsheim Art Fund Grant (1996),[24] Distinguished Alumnus Award, Cooper Union (1985),[24] Yaddo Residency (1980),[24] Macdowell Colony Residency (1977),[24] and National Endowment for the Arts grants (1980, 1985).[25][26]


  1. ^ a b Schwendener, Martha (Feb 1, 2013). "From Abstract Expressionism to Nude Self-Portraits". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-09.
  2. ^ a b c McCarthy, David (1998). The Nude In American Painting, 1950-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 165.
  3. ^ a b "Joan Semmel". Alexander Gray Associates. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  4. ^ "Biography". Joan Semmel, Official Site. Retrieved 2015-12-21.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Semmel, Joan (2015). Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades. Alexander Gray Assoc., LLC. ISBN 978-0986179419.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Richard Meyer, “’Not Me:’ Joan Semmel’s Body of Painting,” in ‘’Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel’’, edited by Helen Molesworth. (Wexner Center for the Arts, 2008).
  7. ^ Mark, Lisa Gabrielle, ed. (2007). WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  8. ^ "Women's Caucus for Art". Women's Caucus for Art. Retrieved March 12, 2014.
  9. ^ "Top Ten ARTnews Stories: Exposing the Hidden 'He'". ARTnews. Retrieved March 11, 2018.
  10. ^ "'There Needs to Be a Revolution Every Day': Brown, Keyser, Semmel, Gingeras Talk Feminism and Painting at Maccarone". ARTnews. Retrieved March 11, 2018.
  11. ^ "Joan Semmel". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  12. ^ [ "Ways of Seeing John Berger"] Check |url= value (help) (PDF).
  13. ^ "Joan Semmel: In the Flesh". ELEPHANT. 2019-01-07. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
  14. ^ [ "Erotic"] Check |url= value (help).
  15. ^ "Joan Semmel Self-Portraits Offer Vibrant Affirmation of Aging". Hamptons Art Hub. 2016-09-29. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
  16. ^ "Joan Semmel - Artists - Alexander Gray Associates".
  17. ^ "Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism". The Jewish Museum. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  18. ^ Johnson, Ken (May 5, 2011). "Art in Review - Joan Semmel". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  19. ^ "Scenes from the Collection". The Jewish Museum. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  20. ^ "The Jewish Museum". Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  21. ^ Joan Semmel Alexander Gray Associates, New York.
  22. ^ WCA Honors Five Women in 2013 Women's Caucus for Art
  23. ^ "Past Winners, Anonymous Was a Woman". Archived from the original on 2011-11-03. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
  24. ^ a b c d Joan Semmel Bio Feminist Art Base, Brooklyn Museum
  25. ^ National Endowment for the Arts Annual Report 1980, page 296
  26. ^ "National Endowment for the Arts 1985 Annual Report, page 171" (PDF).

External links[edit]