Bio Summary

Joan Semmel, 2013

Photo: Elfie Semotan

Joan Semmel (b.1932) has centered her painting 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.

Biography

Joan Semmel (b.1932) has centered her painting 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. Returning to New York in the early 1970s, she turned toward figurative paintings, constructing compositions 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 Sex Paintings and Erotic Series, large scale images of sexual encounters. In these works, Semmel employs expressive color and loose, gestural brush strokes to depict couples entwined in various intimate positions. Produced in a cultural landscape shaped by Second-wave Feminism, the two series celebrate female sexuality, heralding a feminist approach to painting and representation. Building on these paintings, in 1974, Semmel embraced a more realistic style, and began to use her own body as her subject, shifting the perspective from that of an observer to a more personal point of view. Using a camera to frame her body, she created images notable for their formal complexity. In the 1980s, Semmel built on this complexity, painting dynamic scenes that featured her camera and body doubled and refracted via mirrors.

Since the late 1980s, Semmel has meditated on the aging female physique. Recent paintings continue the artist’s exploration of self-portraiture and female identity, representing 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. Semmel applies saturated abstract colors in a variety of styles, merging figure and ground. Approaching her own form as a site of self-expression, in these works she challenges the objectification and fetishization of women’s bodies by redefining the female nude through radical imagery that celebrates the aging process—refuting centuries of art historical idealization.

A traveling retrospective of Joan Semmel’s work is planned for 2020. Her paintings have been featured in exhibitions at the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Germany (2018); Jewish Museum, New York (2018); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2016); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2016); Dallas Contemporary, TX (2016); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC (2014); Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen, Germany (2013); Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York (2013); Jewish Museum, New York (2010); Museum of Modern Art Arnhem, The Netherlands (2009); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH (2008); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007); National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (2007); and Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX (2006); among others. Semmel’s paintings are part of the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; Museum of Modern Art, New York; 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 Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE; the Jewish Museum, New York; among others. 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.

Public Collections

Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts, New York, NY
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Greenville County Museum, Greenville, SC
The Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA
The Jewish Museum, New York, NY
The Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA
Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Museum of Plastic Arts, Montevideo, Uruguay
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC
New Jersey State Museum of Art, Trenton, NJ
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, Ohio
Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Germany
State University of New York, Albany, NY
Sweet Briar College Museum, Sweet Briar, VA
Tate Collection, United Kingdom
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY