Joan Semmel

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Joan Semmel
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
Known forPainting
MovementFigurative art, Feminist Art, Second-wave feminism

Joan Semmel (born October 19, 1932) is an American feminist painter, professor, and writer[dubious ]. She is best known for her large scale realistic nude self portraits 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. Although Semmel's mother was comfortable talking about her own sexuality, seeing her daughter's paintings of sexual scenes was difficult for her because she still kept a kosher home and had a traditional notion of modesty.[7]

In New York, Semmel became involved in the feminist movement and feminist art groups devoted to gender equality in the art world.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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."[11]

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.[12] 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[13] 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. Semel 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,”[14]

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.[15] 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 Semmel'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 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."[16]

Semmel on Feminist Art[edit]

In 1976 Feminist Artists Ruth Iskin, Lucy Lippard, and Arlene Raven sent Joan Semmel an invitation to respond to the question, "What is Feminist Art". In her letter, she defines feminist art as, "art which in some way, however varied, validates the female experience. In this society that experience is still very different than males. The validation of female experience in this culture is a primary feminist goal and any art which does so is, for me, Feminist Art.". She also describes Feminist Art as being more relevant as more women seek to define themselves. She also describes a power struggle of being a feminist activist but not wanting that to define one's art; that art should neither be described as "male" or "female". Her letter is now housed in the Woman's Building records in Los Angeles.[17]

Return to the figure (1970–1978)[edit]

On her return to New York from Spain in 1970, she turned from abstraction towards figuration, producing works which responded to her involvement with the burgeoning women's movement. A staunch advocate for women's rights, Semmel attended meetings at the Ad Hoc Women Artist's Committee and joined artists including Judy Chicago (born 1939), Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015), Nancy Spero (1926–2009) and Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), who had all begun to use the female body in their work. Joan was quoted on the topic; "My return to the figure in 1970, from an Abstract Expressionist background, was prompted by a need to work from a more personal viewpoint, and was charged by my then-emerging consciousness as a feminist."[18]

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 a 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] Since 1971, Joan Semmel has spent her summers in East Hampton, NY. In 1987, she established a permanent studio in Springs, NY where she painted her Beach series (1985–87). Unlike many of her works, which isolate figures against expressive grounds of color, in these works, Semmel positions bodies in a landscape. This new way of working was characteristic of Semmel's painterly approach in the 1980s, which was a decade when she began to push her practice in new directions. Writing about this period, Semmel stated, “I combined realist and painterly methods insisting that a unified style was not preordained.” With this series, she aimed to communicate the psychological experience of feeling lost in a crowd—alone and isolated even on a crowded beach.[19]

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 a 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]

The Overlays series (1992–96), combines conceptual and formal concerns that echo many of Joan Semmel's previous investigations. For this body of work, she used pre-existing paintings from her Erotic Series (1972) as a background for gestural images of nude, middle-aged female bodies taken from her prior Locker-Room paintings (1988–91). These works represent a fertile moment of formal experimentation as Semmel began exploring color and transparencies—compositional elements that she continues to refine in her present day work. Writing about this series, she observes, “both non-naturalistic color and linear overlays of complementary or contrasting images, again recall abstract elements, but also provoke a suggestion of time, motion, or memory.”[20]

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]

In Shifting Images, Joan Semmel paints her body in motion. Layered and blurred compositions, these works suggest instability, movement, and the passage of time; in Semmel's words, “[they] seem to reference the anxious moments of personal lives, as well as … visualize the inevitability of aging.” Ultimately, reflecting on this and other recent series, Semmel expands, “In a culture so driven by youth, but due to suddenly be overtaken by the baby boomer generation in old age, it seems essential to address our expectations and priorities. If we are lucky we will be old some day. Age cannot be denied as part of the human spectrum. My work … has tried to acknowledge and address some of these feelings for myself and others.” [21]

Heads (2007–2013)[edit]

Joan Semmel's Heads (2007–13) feature self-portraits of the artist. Unlike Semmel's previous self-images, in these works she paints just her face. Intimate in scale and rendered in a variety of styles, these paintings adopt both the realism of her earlier With Camera works (2001–06), as well as the blurring of her Shifting Images compositions (2006–13). In a recent interview, Semmel elaborated on her decision to begin to paint the Heads. She outlined, “The way I started doing the heads was by taking those pictures in the mirror, and even though I didn’t usually use the heads I got it in the mirror because I’d hold the camera at waist level. Not always, but sometimes, so I got the face. Then I would take the heads off that picture—I didn’t shoot for the head, but I like the head that I got.”[22]

Transparencies (2014–ongoing)[edit]

Joan Semmel continues to meditate on the aging female physique. Recalling Semmel's 1990s Overlays series, many of these works feature silhouettes of her body superimposed over realistic renderings of her form. Interacting with one another, these dual images create what the artist describes as “dialogues … [which] entice the viewer to engage.” At the same time, through their layered compositions that invite narratives around movement and the passage of time, these paintings advance Semmel's decades-long engagement with chronicling her aging body.[23]


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[24] In 2021 the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts held a retrospective entitled Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game.[25] Semmel's work was included in the 2022 exhibition Women Painting Women at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.[26]

Museum collections[edit]

Semmel's works are found in museum collections including: the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston;[27] the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX;[28] Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA;[29] the Jewish Museum (Manhattan), New York;[30] and the Brooklyn Museum, New York.[31]


Semmel's awards include the Women's Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award (2013),[32] the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2007),[33] National Academician of the National Academy Museum, New York (2014)[5] the Richard Florsheim Art Fund Grant (1996),[34] Distinguished Alumnus Award, Cooper Union (1985),[34] Yaddo Residency (1980),[34] Macdowell Colony Residency (1977),[34] and National Endowment for the Arts grants (1980, 1985).[35][36]


  1. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 2018-07-04. Retrieved 2015-12-21.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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. ^ Levin, Gail (2007). "Censorship, Politics and Sexual Imagery in the Work of Jewish-American Feminist Artists". Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues (14): 63–96. doi:10.2979/nas.2007.-.14.63. S2CID 146313277 – via JSTOR.
  8. ^ Mark, Lisa Gabrielle, ed. (2007). WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.
  9. ^ "Women's Caucus for Art". Archived from the original on November 17, 2013. Retrieved March 12, 2014.
  10. ^ "Top Ten ARTnews Stories: Exposing the Hidden 'He'". ARTnews. November 2007. Retrieved March 11, 2018.
  11. ^ "' There Needs to Be a Revolution Every Day': Brown, Keyser, Semmel, Gingeras Talk Feminism and Painting at Maccarone". ARTnews. 12 June 2015. Retrieved March 11, 2018.
  12. ^ "Joan Semmel". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  13. ^ "Ways of Seeing John Berger" (PDF).
  14. ^ "Joan Semmel: In the Flesh". ELEPHANT. 2019-01-07. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
  15. ^ "Erotic 1971-1973". Retrieved 2020-04-17.
  16. ^ "Joan Semmel Self-Portraits Offer Vibrant Affirmation of Aging". Hamptons Art Hub. 2016-09-29. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
  17. ^ Joan Semmel. Joan Semmel response to "What is Feminist Art?", 1976 or 1977. Woman's Building records, 1970-1992. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  18. ^ Tate. "'Secret Spaces', Joan Semmel, 1976". Tate. Archived from the original on 2021-03-05. Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  19. ^ "Beach Series - Joan Semmel - Series / Projects - Alexander Gray Associates". Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  20. ^ "Overlays - Joan Semmel - Series / Projects - Alexander Gray Associates". Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  21. ^ "Shifting Images - Joan Semmel - Series / Projects - Alexander Gray Associates". Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  22. ^ "Heads - Joan Semmel - Series / Projects - Alexander Gray Associates". Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  23. ^ "Recent Work - Joan Semmel - Series / Projects - Alexander Gray Associates". Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  24. ^ "Joan Semmel - Artists - Alexander Gray Associates".
  25. ^ ""Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game" is First-ever Career Retrospective of Iconic Painter". PAFA. 27 October 2021. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  26. ^ "Women Painting Women". Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  27. ^ "Joan Semmel". Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  28. ^ "Joan Semmel". Blanton Museum of Art. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  29. ^ "Corner Elbow". Chrysler Museum of Art. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  30. ^ "The Jewish Museum". Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  31. ^ Joan Semmel Alexander Gray Associates, New York.
  32. ^ WCA Honors Five Women in 2013 Archived 2016-04-22 at the Wayback Machine Women's Caucus for Art
  33. ^ "Past Winners, Anonymous Was a Woman". Archived from the original on 2011-11-03. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
  34. ^ a b c d Joan Semmel Bio Feminist Art Base, Brooklyn Museum
  35. ^ National Endowment for the Arts Annual Report 1980, page 296
  36. ^ "National Endowment for the Arts 1985 Annual Report, page 171" (PDF).

External links[edit]