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Joan Semmel

Installation view: Skin in the Game, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 2022

Joan Semmel's retrospective, Joan Semmel: Skin In The Game, travels to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, following its premiere at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

The institution's press release follows:

For sixty years, Joan Semmel (American, born 1932) has steadfastly pursued her “self” through painting. She is finally, with this exhibition, having her first retrospective.

Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game traces her career from early abstract expressionist paintings through her movement-defining feminist art and activism to the vital work that she is making of her own mature body today. The exhibition includes nearly thirty of her groundbreaking paintings and drawings, which together show the remarkable continuity and assiduity of her practice—evidencing Semmel’s key role in the history of art in the United States from the late 1960s to today. This includes a robust grouping of her current work, which foregrounds her still very active studio practice in the exhibition.

Semmel began her career in the 1960s as an abstract expressionist painter in Spain. Dismayed by the prevalence of sexual images of women in mass media that she encountered upon her return to New York in the early 1970s, Semmel transitioned into a more representational style of painting, creating exuberant images of sexual encounters from her decidedly female point of view.

Semmel is best known for exploring a female perspective in art through nude paintings of herself, beginning in the 1970s and continuing today. According to the artist, “I was interested in how my position as a woman affected my choices as an artist. I couldn’t possibly relate the same way as a man would, for instance, to the genre of the nude. By using myself as the model those differences immediately became self-evident.” Despite feeling marginalized by the art establishment, Semmel insisted that figurative, expressionist painting was relevant in the late twentieth century. Her work reflects the ongoing struggle for women’s equal representation and power to make decisions about their own bodies and sexuality while centering female empowerment through the self. 

In recognition of her still very active studio practice, the exhibition begins and ends with the artist’s most recent work, revealing one of the unique aspects of Semmel’s work—that each painting is an aggregate of those that came before it. This has never been more apparent than in her recent work where one notes the presence of her abstract paintings in the 1960s; the transfer from photographs of her body into paint; and the use of expressionist, non-naturalistic color that she began in the early 1970s.

Semmel’s career is defined by new beginnings—a continual shifting that celebrates change and difference, but always returns to the self.

Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game was curated by Jodi Throckmorton and organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, America’s First Museum and Art School located in Center City Philadelphia.

The exhibition is made possible by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Generous support provided by the Green Family Art Foundation. Additional support provided by Linda Lee Alter, Jane and Casey Brandt, Howard Sacks and Vesna Todorović Sacks, Isabel S. Wilcox, and other generous donors.

This abridged presentation of Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game at the Johnson was curated by Andrea Inselmann, curator of modern and contemporary art.