Joan Semmel

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Joan Semmel
Born (1932-10-19)October 19, 1932
New York City, NY
Nationality American
Known for Painting
Movement Figurative art, Feminist Art

Joan Semmel (born October 19, 1932, New York City) 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 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 years in Spain (1963-1970) painting in the abstract expressionist style. 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.[5] 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.[6] She has been a member of the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists,[2] the Fight Censorship (FC) group,[5] 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.[7]

Semmel has taught at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Maryland Institute College of Art. As of 2013, she is Professor Emeritus of Painting at Rutgers University.[8]


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.

Second Erotic Series (1972-73)[edit]

Referred to by Semmel as the "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.[5] 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.[5] 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).[5]

Self Portraits[edit]

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.”[5] 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.”[5] 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.”[5]

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.[5]

Recent exhibitions[edit]

  • “WACK! Art and the Feminist Movement,” touring exhibition which began at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2007
  • “Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel”, Wexner Center for the Arts, 2008
  • “Shifting the Gaze”, Jewish Museum, 2010
  • “Nudes”, Alexander Gray Associates, 2011 .[9]
  • “Joan Semmel: A Lucid Eye,” Bronx Museum, 2013.[1]

Museum Collections[edit]

Semmel's works are found in museum collections including: the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; Orange County Museum of Art, CA; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE; the Jewish Museum (Manhattan), New York; and the Brooklyn Museum, New York.[10]


Semmel's awards include the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award (2013)[11] the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2007),[12] the Richard Florsheim Art Fund Grant (1996),[13] Distinguished Alumnus Award, Cooper Union (1985),[13] Yaddo Residency (1980),[13] Macdowell Colony Residency (1977),[13] and National Endowment for the Arts grants (1980, 1985)." [14][15]


  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 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).
  6. ^ Mark, Lisa Gabrielle, ed. (2007). WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. 
  7. ^ "Women's Caucus for Art". Women's Caucus for Art. Retrieved March 12, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Joan Semmel". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 
  9. ^ Johnson, Ken (May 5, 2011). "Art in Review - Joan Semmel". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  10. ^ Joan Semmel Alexander Gray Associates, New York.
  11. ^ WCA Honors Five Women in 2013 Women's Caucus for Art
  12. ^ [1] Past Winners, Anonymous Was a Woman
  13. ^ a b c d Joan Semmel Bio Feminist Art Base, Brooklyn Museum
  14. ^ National Endowment for the Arts Annual Report 1980, page 296
  15. ^ National Endowment for the Arts 1985 Annual Report, page 171

External links[edit]