“Not Me:’ Joan Semmel’s Body of Painting”               

Richard Meyer

reprinted with permission of the author 

In preparing to write this essay, I visited Joan Semmel’s studio for the first time in the fall of 2006.  Among the paintings she showed me were a recent series of nude self-portraits in which the artist peers through a camera to capture herself in the reflection of a mirror. In several of the paintings, the mirror’s presence is made explicit:  two knees are redoubled into four or a left hand and forearm are twinned by their laterally reversed reflections. 

I proceeded to examine each painting closely and, with the artist’s permission, to take digital photographs of them, thus training my camera on paintings of Semmel training her camera on herself. Seen as a series, the self-portraits convey the weight and force of a particular woman’s body--its sags and strengths, its folds and wrinkles and distinctive fleshliness. In each case, the woman outstrips the upper and lower limits of the visual field as though to insist on the frame’s inability to contain her.

In the face of a culture that all but disavows the desirability of women over sixty, Semmel focuses upon a female body--her own--that has not been surgically tucked, tightened or suctioned, Her paintings neither airbrush physical imperfection nor apologize for it.  Instead, they simply push every other body (whether male or female) out of the way so that this one physique emerges as its own pictorial world.   Marked by the effects of time and gravity, that physique assumes a seemingly endless variety of poses and placements (seated upright or leaning over, legs together or apart, belly visible or occluded, elbow cocked to one side or cropped out).  Defying the anti-aging ethos and “Dermasmooth” demands of our contemporary moment, Semmel’s recent paintings are at once casually descriptive and utterly courageous.

While the artist and I chatted about these pictures, I continued to click away with my digital camera, sometimes zooming in on a densely painted detail of belly or breast or background.  I asked Semmel some appropriately technical questions about artistic process, palette, scale, and compositional choices. But what I was in fact thinking was “is this really the same woman as in the paintings?”  My unspoken question followed in part from the differences I perceived between the artist and her painted surrogates. In person, Semmel’s hair seemed darker, her face less round and she was now, of course, fully dressed.  Although it had been two years since the paintings were completed, Semmel appeared both younger and smaller than her counterparts on canvas. Yet it was not simply these local discrepancies that sparked my question.  It was also the sense that the self-portraits conjured a material form—a body in and of paint-- that was fundamentally irreducible to the woman with whom I was speaking.

Toward the end of that first visit, I asked the artist if she ever felt uncomfortable about the idea of strangers (or even invited studio guests like me) seeing pictures of her in the altogether.  “I am not standing around naked in public,” she said quite rightly. “These are paintings on canvas, compositions worked up over time. They’re not me.” With this remark, Semmel asserted the non-identity of her art and herself.  Insofar as we all know that a painting is not a person, such a statement might seem merely a truism. It acquires a special charge, however, in the case of a woman artist whose self-portraits have widely been seen as truthful transcriptions of (her own) female embodiment. 

This essay takes Semmel’s “not me” to heart by highlighting the distinction between the artist’s work and self, particularly at those moments where they might seem to blur or dissolve into each other. It considers the mediation of photography within both Semmel’s self-portraits and her sexually explicit paintings of couples.   It traces a dialogue between the artist’s solitary work in the studio and the collective endeavors—teaching, curating, editing, and activism—that unfolded beyond it. And it considers the relation between abstraction and figuration that has shaped her painterly output from the 1960s until today.

Above all, however, this essay aims to engage with Semmel’s feminism as an open question rather than a settled historical matter or passé political commitment.  According to the artist,  “My work since the early seventies has addressed issues of women’s sexuality and self-image. . .The connecting thread is one of point of view, of being inside the position of femaleness and taking possession of it culturally.” The liberationist emphasis on women’s self-examination and sexual autonomy in the 1970s fueled Semmel’s pictorial accounts of “being inside the position of femaleness.” The most incisive (and, at times, the only) writing on Semmel’s work has been that of feminist critics, from Maryse Holder’s unforgettably titled “Another Cuntree: At Last, A Female Art Movement” in the 1973 Off Our Backs to Arlene Raven’s bracing “Wake up Call” in the Village Voice twenty years later, from Semmel’s own account (co-authored with April Kingsley) of “Sexual Imagery in Women’s Art” in Woman Artist’s News (1980) to recent exhibition catalogs such as Personal and Political: The Women’s Art Movement, 1969-1975 (2002). 

Feminist writing on Semmel’s art has also, however, involved its own forms of interpretive constraint and selective vision, its own biases and blind spots.  Critics have sometimes described the artist’s pictures as though they were self-help manuals for  “empowering women” to “regain control of their lives” rather than carefully contrived compositions in paint. While deeply rooted in the women’s art movement of the 1970s, Semmel’s self-portraits cannot be reduced to an affirmative (“I am woman, here me roar”) politics of identity. Nor, as exhibitions such as Personal and Political serve to remind us, can the women’s art movement.

Describing her career to date, the artist writes that “I have tried to find a contemporary language in which I could retain my delight in the sensuality and pleasure of painting and still confront the particulars of my own personal experience as a woman. My intention has been to subvert the tradition of the passive female nude.” Semmel’s subversion of the traditional female nude has been widely noted by critics, scholars, and curators since the 1970s.  Her “delight in the sensuality and pleasure of painting” has not. In what follows, I try to keep in view both the artist’s pleasure in the act of painting and her reimagining of painting’s most erotically charged genre. 

Semmel mentions above that she has sought to find “a contemporary language” of artistic expression.  While that language is primarily visual, Semmel’s voice as a writer and speaker has also inflected her practice of painting. The artist’s words, as well as her works, deserve close attention.  This is not because they necessarily reveal the truth of Semmel’s “personal experience as a woman.”  Rather, both the artist’s words and works testify to the creative achievement of the woman who crafted them.

Abstraction Abroad

From 1963-1970, Semmel lived and worked in Spain, during which time she painted abstract expressionist pictures with what she called “an overlay of surrealism.”  Given the figurative commitments of the artist’s mature style, the formal resolution of these early paintings comes as something of a surprise.  Far from appearing tentative or student-like (Semmel received her BFA from Pratt in 1963), the paintings confidently take up the visual language and legacy of modernist abstraction. An untitled work from 1965, for example, has been divided into unequal quadrants of contrasting color-- slate blue, pale violet, bright red, off-white.   The blocks of color house an array of biomorphic forms and fragments that suggest here a web or worm, there an eye or egg.  The painting shifts between pictographic flatness and materialized density, between a kind of hieroglyphic writing and a rough-hewn physicality of pigment thickened into impasto or partially scratched away by the palette knife.

Figure 2: Untitled, 1965, oil on canvas

Semmel’s early paintings were extremely well received abroad, garnering her seven one-person exhibitions—and many more group shows--between 1965-1970. She exhibited alongside a wide range of other painters, both figurative and abstract, and was typically discussed in the Spanish press not as a female artist but as an American one.   Reviewers nominated any number of abstract painters—Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning,  Joan Miro, and Jackson Pollock among them-- as Semmel’s artistic forbearers.  That the list included no women would not have seemed remarkable, either to Semmel or her critics, at the time. “The last thing I wanted,” she recalls, “was to be identified as a ‘woman painter.’” In rejecting that designation, Semmel did not wish to deny her status either as a woman or as a painter.   Rather, she resisted the meshing of the two into a category (“woman painter”) through which her art would be seen, a priori, as different from or lesser than that of men.

By the late 1960s, Semmel had, as she saw it, “established a definite look that was particularly my own.”  The look was large-scale, densely textured, and decidedly abstract. It juxtaposed wide-swinging brushwork with discrete, vaguely surrealist marks and shapes.  Though Semmel would not retain the look after 1970, neither would she entirely abandon it.  Instead, the artist rerouted certain abstract tools and techniques (e.g. gestural brushstrokes, blocks of saturated color, the refusal of deep-focus illusionism) into an unconventional mode of figure painting.

Erotics of Liberation

Returning to the United States in 1970 after seven years in Franco’s Spain, Semmel encountered two phenomena that decisively changed her artistic practice: the widespread visibility of pornography and the women’s liberation movement.   After moving from Madrid to New York City, she began to attend meetings of Women in the Arts (WIA), an activist network of female artists, the Art Workers Coalition (AWC), an anti-war organization, and the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists, a protest group started by women in the Art Worker’s Coalition who “were fed up with being told to make coffee for the men.” During this period, Semmel also enrolled in the MFA program at Pratt and dramatically reconceived her approach to painting. She turned to figurative and, for the first time, frankly sexual imagery.  Years later, Semmel would explain the motivation for this shift in an interview with Womanart magazine: 

“The reason I wanted to use an erotic element had to do with I was seeing on the newsstands.  When I came back to New York the girlie magazines, the sexploitation all over was a shocker.  Living in Spain for seven or eight years I hadn’t seen any of it.  When you’ve been away from it, it hits you very strongly.  I was seeing all this stuff that for me wasn’t even sexual. It was just hard sell.  And hard sell in a way I found demeaning of women. In the past, women’s sexuality had always been used against them. I felt very strongly that the sexual issue was crucial in terms of real liberation.  So I started to work in the erotic theme, but I was very conscious of it being erotic from a woman’s point of view, rather than from what is normally a man’s point of view.”

In the First Erotic Series (1970-71), Semmel employed loose brushwork, expressionist colors, and unstable contours to depict couples in the midst of heterosexual activity. In what would become a characteristic strategy, she excluded the heads of each figure thus disallowing any traditional sense of romantic sentiment or emotional intimacy.  In one canvas, a female figure seen from the neck down sits atop and is penetrated by a naked man (we see only his green and blue penis and green legs) who himself sits upon a white toilet.

The artist exhibited this and other canvases from the First Erotic Series as her MFA thesis show at Pratt.  In contrast to virtually every other MFA exhibition at the time, this one was reviewed in Arts magazine.  Already familiar with Semmel’s previous career abroad, the critic noted that the show “catches her in the midst of swing from Abstract Expressionism to a figurative style. The power of color and form have remained dominant in these works. . .The change lies mostly in the highly erotic subject matter and in the discipline that the figure has imposed on her formerly very free treatment of form.” Where the Arts critic was impressed by the “discipline” of Semmel’s newly figurative style, several other visitors to the exhibition were dismayed, even “shocked,” by her sexually explicit content. “I was shocked that they were shocked,” remembers the artist, “given what you could see at any newsstand in New York.”

Figure 3: First Erotic Series, oil on canvas, 1970-1.

Far from softening the sexual charge of her art, Semmel sought to heighten it.  Preliminary to a second series of erotic paintings, she shot photographs of a man and woman having or about to have sex. The photographs were taken with the prior consent--and, by mutual agreement, without payment--of the copulating couple and occurred over several sessions in different locations.  In a rather remarkable arrangement, Semmel photographed the couple while the experimental filmmaker Rosalind Schneider recorded 16-millimeter footage of them as source material for subsequent film projects.  Both Semmel and Schneider recall the presence (though not the name) of a third female artist who joined them for these sessions. 

Rather than using pornography created for someone else’s--which is to say, a man’s--pleasure, Semmel and Schneider documented sexually explicit scenes from a different perspective (their own) and for quite different purposes (large-scale oil painting in one case, experimental film in the other). Upending the logic of a commercial porn shoot or peep show, the “live sex acts” in this case were performed free of charge for an invited audience of female artists.

Figure 4: Joan Semmel, contact sheet (couple having sex), 1972

    Following the sessions, Semmel selected individual photographs as sources for her Second Erotic Series (1972-1973), also known, unofficially, as the “fuck paintings.” In moving from photographic source to full-scale painting, the artist swept away every contextual detail and bit of decor—the patterned bedspread, the nearby plants, the window-sill—leaving only the (now) super-sized bodies in carnal combination.  She was attempting, in her own words,

“to find an erotic language to which women could respond, one which did not reiterate the male power positions and prevalent fetishization in conventional pornography and art. I was not interested in simply reversing the position of male and female and in objectifying the male body in the way that the female body has been used for so long. I did not want to romanticize the sexual experience but to develop a language whereby a woman could express her own desires, whatever they might be, without shame or sentimentality.”

Figures 5 -7:  Second Erotic Series—Erotic Yellow (1972); Indian Erotic (1972), Untitled (1972);

Semmel used high-contrast colors (iridescent greens, oranges, and purples for flesh tones, for example) to defamiliarize scenes of heterosexuality as well as unexpected angles of vision, croppings, and positions to unsettle the male-active/female-passive binary.  In several of the paintings, The resulting paintings combined specific moments of sexual coupling (e.g a woman fingers the space between her male partner’s spread legs) with a vivid, anti-natural palette (e.g. the woman is painted lavender-pink, the man yellow-green). To the critic John Perrault, the pictures looked “almost as if each of the lovers had bathed in vats of dye,” a description that nicely captures both the saturation of the colors and their Day Glo artificiality.  The paintings retain a strong sexual charge even as--and perhaps precisely because—they pull away from verisimilitude.

Semmel could not find a commercial gallery in New York willing to show the Second Erotic Series in 1973: “I went to every dealer in town where I could get past the secretary. . .I really tried. .and I couldn’t [convince anyone to show them].” Taking matters into her own hands, the artist rented a space in SoHo and exhibited the wroks herself. Although only one canvas sold during the run of the show, the exhibition was widely reviewed, attracting positive notices by Lawrence Alloway in the Nation, Perrault in the Village Voice, and, most memorably, Maryse Holder in Off Our Backs.  In a survey article on what she calls the new “sexualist” art by women, Holder describes the Second Erotic Series in detail:

“The larger-than-life figures loom forward from the ground.  Semmel is interested in their ‘being in the room with you,” in “forcing a confrontation.” In [one] painting, a male figure, seen frontally, fucks a female figure upside-down but facing forward.  I try to visualize where the camera would be if there were one but can’t, just as I can’t describe the positions. The male figure, midnight blue, is cut off just before the shoulders at top-frame; the female, chartreuse, is cut off at the breasts, at bottom frame and at mid-calf on the right.  The male torso describes a powerful, thrusting arc: the female torso is compressed and back. One feels the conjunction of vectors. . .Semmel’s paintings have a “2001” quality: extraordinary angles, gods fucking in free fall in the total silent concentration of empty space. The giant bodies are cut off at unexpected points: a knee, a heel, the top of rib cage . .[T]he cropping and the angles recharge sex by focusing our attention on unexpected bodily configurations, points of contact and sensations.” Writing for a newspaper whose title, Off Our Backs, defied the sexual objectification of women, Holder characterized the Second Erotic Series in suitably explicit terms.  Alone among critics at the time, Holder recognized that the sexual intensity and spatial disorientation of the paintings went hand-in-hand with their feminist critique of conventional pornography. 

  At around the same time that Holder’s essay appeared in Off Our Backs, Semmel received proposals from both Penthouse and Playboy to publish selected paintings from the Second Erotic Series.  While she “really could have used the money at the time,” the artist declined both offers on political grounds. Her paintings were intended as alternatives to commercial pornography, not contributions to it.  The interest of Playboy and Penthouse in the Second Erotic Series nevertheless indicates something of the challenge of making sexually explicit art “from a woman’s point of view” in 1973.

A slightly later experience would confirm this challenge as it pertained specifically to Semmel’s work.  Early in 1974, the art critic Gregory Battcock requested transparencies of work from the Second Erotic Series for a critical anthology he was preparing on Super Realism. Semmel happily provided them.  What Battcock did not reveal was that he was also working on an article about contemporary erotic art for the pornographic tabloid Screw, a publication that prided itself on “lead[ing] the league in tastelessness.”  In May of that year, Battcock’s “Prurient Primer of Erotic Art: Up Your Arthole” was published as the lead story in a special “Hot Erotic Art” issue of Screw. Erotic Yellow appeared as a half-page reproduction in the opening two-page spread, directly beneath a photorealist painting by John Kacere of a prone female figure in panties and a hiked-up shirt.  Semmel only learned of the existence of the article when she received an anonymous phone-call from a male admirer who said he “loved her work” in Screw.  “I hung up on him,” she recalls, “and ran out to the newsstand to buy a copy. I was appalled.  Not because there was anything wrong with the article but because

Scew was not the audience I wanted to appeal to.“

In considering this anecdote, we might recall that it was the “girlie magazines” on New York newsstands that provoked Semmel to initiate the first erotic series in 1970.  The artist responded to commercial pornography by creating a different and, she hoped, less degrading form of sexual imagery.  The publication of Erotic Yellow in Screw marks no failure on the part of either the painting or its maker (though it does mark a violation of Semmel’s copyright to the image).  Like the force of sexuality, the Second Erotic Series exceeded the limits of any single context or viewing audience, whether feminist or pornographic, whether Off Our Backs or Screw.  Semmel’s paintings necessarily engaged with the culture of “sexploitation” they sought to counter.

Painting in the First Person

In the summer of 1973, Semmel turned away from portraying other people engaged in sexual activity and began to depict her own body.   A work from that summer, Untitled (Coffee Cup), marks the shift with surprising precision, as though the transitional moment had been captured and made over into paint.  According to the artist,

“That summer, I was teaching in Baltimore at the Maryland Art Institute.  I knew nobody down there, so I would sit and look out over myself and I remember always seeing that same view: my hand, the coffee cup, the dungarees, looking over at the paintings.  It was constant.  So the first painting I did was that, of my self in that situation, contemplating the last painting. And from there, I went into the idea of myself as I experience myself, my own view of myself.” 

Figure 8: Untitled (Coffee Cup), 1973?

In this “first painting” of the self, we look down on the lower half of Semmel’s body—the ends of her denim shirt falling over the top of her jeans, right hand holding a dark ceramic mug, left leg crossed into an inverted “v”.  Propped against an otherwise blank wall on the far side of the room, we see Untitled (1973), the last and least explicit painting in the Second Erotic Series.  The picture offers a man’s back and forearms in naturalistic tones. Two grey legs (presumably female) snake around the man’s waist and lower back. And that is all.  It is as though the couple, like the series of which they are part, has already begun to slide out of view, to slip beyond the reach of visibility.  In a clever bit of mirroring, Semmel’s left foot and open-toed sandal align with the right foot of the grey figure in the erotic painting across the room.  This moment of pictorial rhyming bridges the divide between real and represented bodies, between self and other.  In doing so, however, it also reminds us that everything on the canvas is equally fictive, equally fabricated in paint.

Following Untitled (Coffee Cup), the artist began to paint herself naked from a first-person perspective “looking down” upon her own body. She did so without the aid of mirrors. Nearly as imposing in scale as the Second Erotic Series, the early self-portraits never include the face because, in the absence of mirrors, the artist could not see her own visage. In the midst of second-wave feminism and the women’s art movement, Semmel devised an ingenious method to “liberate” the female nude.  In place of come-hither seduction or erotic submission, she proposed female self-regard and embodied agency. In pictures such as Me Without Mirrors and Foreground Hand, 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. 

These early self-portraits remain Semmel’s best-known works and have been widely discussed in the critical literature on the artist.  From Harmony Hammond in 1979 (“In Semmel’s paintings the feeling is one of a woman’s body as directly connected to a cycle of nature. . .we become the female in the picture, in this case the artist looking at and feeling herself” ) to Laura Cottingham nearly twenty years later (“Semmel’s new perspective [on the female nude]. . .forced viewers to ‘become’ rather than objectify the image”), critics have embraced the self-portraits as sites of female identification and “becoming.”   And this  limited to female viewers since, as David McCarthy sees it, Semmel has “destabilized the male voyeurism inherent in traditional paintings of the female nude by forcing the spectator to consider the possibility of perceiving himself as an object of vision.”

Figure 9, 10: Me Without Mirrors, 1974; Foreground Hand, 1976? (check date)

But is this, in fact, the case?  Do Semmel’s “looking down” self-portraits invite the viewer to project herself (or even himself) into the position of the artist? If we step back for the moment from questions of gender, the “looking down” self-portraits may be seen in a somewhat different light.  In paintings such as Me Without Mirrors and Foreground Hand, the artist offers a first-person perspective that cannot be fully shared by the viewer since our body, whatever its gender or age, is not hers. Our upright orientation before the painting neatly inverts that of the figure depicted in it, a figure whose breasts and upper torso typically fill the lower reaches of the composition and whose lower body extends toward or past the top.  When viewing Semmel’s self-portrait, we see the painting figure not from the extreme close-up position of the artist looking down upon her own body but from a greater distance of say, three or four feet away.  Our view of the picture never aligns with Semmel’s view of her own body and the discrepancy between the two creates uncanny effects. 

The painted nude seems to press up against, even to crowd, the surface of the picture plane.  Radically cropped yet massively scaled, the figure reiterates the large format of the canvas while simultaneously threatening to explode its limits.  Rather than inviting the viewer’s identification, Semmel’s nudes might equally be said to defy it. The seemingly freestanding left hand and corner-right wedge of flesh in Foreground Hand, for example, challenge our ability to make the painted figure cohere, to, as it were, put all the pieces together.  According to the artist’s own account,

“My intention was to present a confrontational view of the body rather than a voyeuristic one.  I wanted the body to move out into the viewer’s space and challenge the viewer.  I depend on abstract choices rather than narrative ones to achieve impact.  By keeping the image large and up close the formal aspects are emphasized.  Pushed back into space, the narrative quality would become more dominant.”

The cropping, fragmentation, and extreme close-up perspective of the self-portraits recall the prior pictorial moment that rendered the paintings possible in the first place.  For Semmel did not sketch or paint herself while looking down at her body. Rather, she photographed herself and then used the photographs as sources for subsequent paintings.

Figure 11: Photograph, source for Me Without Mirrors

In composing Me Without Mirrors, Semmel masked the source photograph so at to crop out much of her left arm as well as virtually all the negative space above her hands and legs.  But for a bit of breathing room on the right margin, the nude figure is thus pinned even more tightly within the rectangular frame. 

In moving from photograph to painting, Semmel exaggerates the foreshortening of the body rather than correcting it. The distortions wrought by the camera are redoubled in the painting: the compression of the torso, the elongation of the left calf, the crescent-shaped shadows cast by the fingers of the left hand.  The source photograph for Me without Mirrors reveals something of the careful contrivance of Semmel’s self-portraiture.   The tape that crops the photograph also preserves a few splatters and drips of oil paint—here a bit of peach, there some dark brown.  Rather than framing “woman’s body as connected to a cycle of nature,” Semmel portrays herself as a body of painted materiality and photographic fragmentation. From a distance, the surface of Semmel’s paintings often appear seamless only to reveal, on closer view, intricate gradations and micro-climates of pigment.  In Me Without Mirrors, for example, the pink towel is far more loosely painted than the figure who holds it.  The towel pushes toward abstraction while remaining recognizable enough to perform its descriptive task. [figure 12: detail of Me Without Mirrors].

There is one additional sleight-of-hand that should be taken into account in the case of Me Without Mirrors. In the source photograph for the painting, we see Semmel’s left hand caressing her knee and her right holding a rag beneath her foot.  Neither hand, in short, holds the camera.  Although the central conceit of the “looking down” paintings is that Semmel portrays her body from her own, first-person perspective, she could not herself have taken the photograph on which Me Without Mirrors is based.  In this case, the picture was shot by a friend who attempted get as close as possible to the artist’s viewpoint before clicking the shutter release.  A painting that has been seen as a direct transcription of the artist’s self (with, in the words of one critic, “No cameras, no reflections, no male artist reinterpreting her body—just. . .Me Without Mirrors.”) therefore relied, in the most literal sense, on the presence of another.

Speaking Out

Several of Semmel’s of earliest “looking down” self-portraits include the figure of male partner. Rather than the explicit sexuality of the erotic series, these double portraits convey both erotic proximity and physical separation, both, as one of Semmel’s titles puts it, “intimacy and autonomy.” [figure 13] In composing Intimacy and Autonomy, Semmel pasted together two separate photographs, one of herself and one of her lover at the time. [figure 14] The painting’s theme of intimate proximity and distance is thus extended, as Judith Tannenbaum noted in 1975, by “subtle distortions since the foreshortened figures do not have the same perspective.” As viewers of the painting, we take up a third, yet more discrepant, perspective on the scene.

As the “looking down” series progressed, it focused more intensively exclusively on the female nude and the male figure dropped out of the pictorial scene. According to the artist,

In the mid-to-late seventies, my self-images series became very well-known, and included several paintings in which a male lover is also seen. Predictably, if I was asked to participate in a group exhibition, I was usually asked for the female nude image [without a male partner]. . . I put together a book on sexual imagery in women’s art and got a book contract and advance. Several art critics did essays on the work. The publisher held it for two years and then told me he couldn’t go ahead with it, because “Feminism was over.”

Semmel describes the subtle pressure enacted by two different forms of constraint:  the curatorial preference for her solo self--portraits (i.e. for images of the female self unencumbered by male sexual partnership) and the premise, already in place by the 1976, that “feminism was over.”

Semmel sought to challenge the constraints imposed both on her own work and on that of other female artists.  In 1973, she joined the Fight Censorship (or FC) Group, a loose-knit collective of “women artists who have done, will do, or do some form of sexually explicit art, i.e., political, humorous, erotic, psychological.” Founded by the figurative artist Anita Steckel, the group included Judith Bernstein, Louise Bourgeois, Martha Edelheit, Eunice Golden, Juanita McNeely, and Hannah Wilke. The group made public appearances on cable television and at colleges and universities where they discussed their work within the context of a broader struggle for women’s sexual and creative freedom.  Although little documentation of these appearances survives, a set of slides record the group’s visit to the New School for Social Research in October 1973.  On this occasion, FC Group members brought examples of their work—rather than slides or Photostats—to the stage.  At one point, Semmel addressed the audience while two (male) assistants displayed a painting from the Second Erotic Series, titled Red, White, and Blue. [figure 15: Semmel at New School, 1973] Later, Louise Bourgeois delivered remarks while propping Fillette, an oversized phallic sculpture, across her lap.  [figure 16: Bourgeois at New School, 1973] The presence of each woman on stage was thus linked to the material specificity and creative vision of her work, whether oil painting or latex and plaster sculpture. By displaying and discussing their art in public contexts such as the New School, the FC group sought to embolden other women—and men—to join in the feminist struggle for free expression.

Semmel’s participation in the Fight Censorship group flowed from her conviction that female sexual expression was a key site in the struggle for women’s liberation, a conviction she sustained well after the group’s demise. From 1973-1976, Semmel researched and edited an ambitious book manuscript titled “The New Eros: Sexual Imagery in Women’s Art.”  The book included an introduction by the artist, essays by critics Lucy Lippard, Eunice Lipton, and Carol Duncan, among others, and a dazzling dossier of sexually suggestive and explicit art by nearly one-hundred contemporary female artists. 

Some sense of the scope of “The New Eros” can be gleaned from a related project on which Semmel worked in the months after her book manuscript was rejected.  In 1977, “Women Artists, 1550-1950,” the landmark exhibition organized by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, traveled to the Brooklyn Museum.  Semmel, a newly-hired faculty member of the Brooklyn Museum Art School, decided to curate a concurrent show of contemporary work that would bring the theme of women artists up to date.  The show was mounted in the designated “school galleries” of the museum. Rather than proposing a single sensibility or stylistic approach linking the work of the 29 artists selected for the show, Semmel offered four “thematic ideas,” “sexual imagery, both abstract and figurative; autobiography and self-image; the celebration of devalued subject matter and media that have been traditionally relegated to women; and anthropomorphic or nature forms.” 

In addition to conceiving the show, writing the exhibition essay, and transporting many of the works to and from the museum, Semmel designed the exhibition’s poster. [figure 17: Consciousness and Content, exhibition poster, 1977] It presents a grid of images of works in the show surrounded on all sides by the names of the participating artists in alphabetical order.  Semmel organized the grid through a logic of visual contrast (rather than chronology, theme, or medium) such that narrow images are juxtaposed to wider ones and abstraction plays off against representation.  The placement of a particular artist’s name in relation to her work thus becomes marvelously random, with, for example, “Miriam Schapiro,” stationed directly beneath a set of bronzed dildos by Lynda Benglis, “Hannah Wilke” printed beside a bulbous sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, and “Judy Chicago” hovering just above and to the right of Semmel’s Foreground Hand. The scrambling of names and works suggests a collectivity forged across individual achievements and stylistic differences.  Semmel’s map of “Contemporary Women” cannot be codified according to visual form, subject matter, or artistic strategy.  The poster therefore allows for both abstract painting and goddess performance, both central core and phallic screw, both figurative sculpture and textile assemblage, both mythic women and naked men. The Brooklyn Museum, however, was not quite so accommodating. Although “Contemporary Women: Consciousness and Content” was well-received in the press, its poster was not permitted on the premises of the museum.  

At a public forum on “Bad-Girl Art” held some years later, Semmel would recall the Brooklyn episode as follows:  “The poster had a tiny, postage-sized stamp image of each person’s work.  Several of them were somewhat sexual, like a Nancy Grossman piece that had a figure with a gun, head, and penis. . .The Brooklyn Museum would not allow me to show the poster in the museum.  If one thinks of the kinds of material in art men make, with women spread out in every which direction, and at every newsstand there are hundreds of pictures of women displayed in every possible position.  That’s called art, and shown all over the place. . .When women made any statement at all in those areas, and however mild (these [images on the poster] were hardly shocking), there was an uproar.” 

The censorship of the “Consciousness and Content” poster suggests something of the discomfort aroused by Semmel’s sexually forthright projects in the 1970s.  While her paintings conjured a world of female monumentality and self-presence, the social and professional spheres the artist inhabited were rather more restrictive.  This was the case not only with institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum but also within the women’s movement.  As Semmel recalls,  “I was told by other women ‘you shouldn’t paint (painting is patriarchal), you shouldn’t do the nude (it’s not feminist).. . .but I didn’t think feminism should be about proscription. In the studio, I wanted to be free.”

Self and World

In a recent grant proposal, Semmel notes that “although my work has been labor intensive I have in the past preferred to be alone in my studio and forego studio assistants.”   The artist’s ongoing project in self-portraiture might be said to manifest this preference since, notwithstanding Me Without Mirrors, it typically requires no studio assistants or models.  The theme of aloneness also surfaces in Semmel’s accounts of her early career, whether as an abstract expressionist in the 1960s (“I had been doing. . . a certain kind of introspective painting that had. . .to do with the kind of isolated life I had lived in Spain.”) or an incipient self-portraitist in the summer of 1973 (“I knew nobody down there, so I would sit and look out over myself and I remember always seeing that same view: my hand, the coffee cup, the dungarees, looking over at the paintings.”)

        It would be a mistake, however, to understand Semmel’s artistic trajectory strictly in terms of introspection.  Throughout her career, the artist has painted other figures, beginning with the couples in the erotic paintings (1970-73), followed later by portraits of family members (1982-84), men and women at the gym (1986), women in locker rooms (1986-1991), and, most recently, mannequins (1996-2000).  As mentioned above, Semmel’s self-portraits occasionally included other bodies, notably those of male sexual partners (1974-77) and bathers on the beach (1985).

       Nevertheless, Semmel’s “looking down” self-portraits of the 1970s remain her most influential and oft-cited paintings. In this essay, I have linked those self-portraits to the artist’s immediately preceding erotic series and to her commitments as both a feminist and a painter--which is not quite to say as a feminist painter.  Semmel’s focus on painting herself since the early 1970s has functioned not to exclude the world beyond the studio but to engage with it—whether through writing, teaching, curating, editing, or activism.  I want to close this essay by suggesting how that engagement has also surfaced within the frame of Semmel’s more recent paintings.


In the early 1990s, Semmel returned to the Second Erotic Series in an unexpected way. She retrieved several of the original canvases (most had never sold) and began to paint over them. The idea was not to cancel or deface the original paintings but to reactivate them for a new moment. The overpainted figures are most often older women, sometimes Semmel herself, rendered in a loosely expressionist style.  The artist adapted these figures from a preceding series of “locker room” paintings that were, in turn, based on photographs of women at the “Big Apple” gym in SoHo, where Semmel was a member.  The Overlay paintings thus combine two distinct moments (the early 1970s and the late 1980s) and modes of painting (realist and expressionist).  [figure 18: Flash, 1992]  [and if possible: figure 19,  Twins, 1972-1992]

In Flash (1992), the naked figure in the foreground, watery to the point of partial transparence, is the artist herself.  Shown in the midst of taking a photograph, Semmel overlaps but also opens onto the erotic scene behind her.  The face of the artist, always absent from the ‘looking down” self-portraits of the 1970s, is once again displaced, though now by the camera and its flash of liquid light.

I will admit to some sense of disappointment when I first saw the Overlays. The compositional spareness and sexual audacity of the original paintings seemed compromised by the belated intrusion of these new figures.  Be this as it may, the Overlays create a series of dialogues between Semmel’s various pictorial practices and concerns—abstraction and figuration, sexuality and self-portraiture, photography and painting, me and not me.  Semmel retrieved different moments from her life’s work and placed them within the frame of the same composition. The point was not to reconcile the differences but rather to find a means, however unlikely, of seeing them side-by-side.

In Mirrored Sceen (2005), Semmel once more appears in the midst of photographing herself in the reflection of a mirror.  [figure 20, Mirrored Screen, 2005] This time, however, she holds the camera at chest-level and is fully clothed. The camera’s flash bounces off and across the surface of the mirror. In doing so, it seems to capture fragments of the world beyond the mirror—trees or buildings or lights across the street, a bit of night sky perhaps.   I ask Semmel whether she photographed herself in a mirror that faced a window with a view. “No,” she said, “it’s just that the mirror was dirty.  What you’re seeing is light reflecting off the smudges.”  I like this answer.  It reminds me that Semmel’s paintings do not reveal the deep truth of her life or self.  Instead, like the smudges on a mirror, they distort the surface of the world just enough to make us look again.

Dermasmooth is a topical Botox substitute developed for home use.  See www.dermandpeel.com.  On the anti-aging ethos of contemporary American culture, see Natasha Singer, “Is Looking Your Age Now Taboo?” New York Times: March 1, 2007: G1, G3.

In a 2006 artist’s statement, Semmel noted that “In the last three years I have explored the use of both the mirror and the camera as strategies with which to destabilize point of view, and to engage the viewer as participant.”  “Artist’s Statement” 2006 (Courtesy: Joan Semmel).

Joan Semmel, Interview with the author, New York City, October 8, 2006.

Joan Semmel, Artist’s Statement, undated.

The claim for “empowering women” was made by Joan Marter in the 1995 Woman’s Art Journal: “By empowering women in her canvases, Joan Semmel denies the patriarchal association of woman’s otherness with paper or canvas—the metaphor of her nonsignification.”  “Joan Semmel’s Nudes: The Erotic Self and the Masquerade,” Woman’s Art Journal 16:2 (Autumn 1995-Winter 1996): 28.

Three years earlier, Eleanor Heartney wrote that Semmel’s self-portraits “reflect her conviction that women can regain control of their lives, their bodies, and finally, the ways in which they are represented in the larger world.”  Eleanor Heartney, “Through the Object’s Eye,” Through the Object’s Eye: Paintings by Joan Semmel, ex. Catalogue (Universtiy Art Gallery, Albany, 1992): unpaginated.

Joan Semmel, “Narrative Account,” 2006.

“Interview: Joan Semmel,” Womanart 1977-78: 14.

See Laura Cottingham, “Painting as Gesture and Self-Representation,” Joan Semmel: Continuities (Guild Hall Museum, 1998): 6.

Arguably, Semmel’s status as a woman artist manifested most powerfully in the numerous photographs of her that accompanied reviews and catalogs of her work.   Photographs of Semmel, posing in her studio, appeared more frequently in the Spanish press than did images of her work

See, for example, the English language article “Joan Semmel: American Dynamism and European Tradition,” which mentions DeKooning and Guston as significant influences as well as Miro and Gorky as “superficial” relations.  Guidepost (Spain’s American Weekly), June 17, 1966: 8.   In the Spanish catalog essay for Semmel’s one-person show at the prestigious “Sala Del Prado Del Ateneo,” Carlos Arean proposes Pollock, Hartung, and Soulages as her artistic guideposts.

Carlos Arean, “Joan Semmel,” Joan Semmel (Sal Del Prado Del Ateneo De Madrid, 1966): unpaginated

In 1977, Semmel would describe her success abroad as follows, “I had shown with men in the best galleries in Spain and in South America.  I had made it, not in New York, maybe, but wherever I had been. And nothing could be worse in those places than to be called a woman painter.  Salon feminino was the kiss of death. . .” “Joan Semmel: Interview,” Womanart: 18.

In her 1996 book Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe, Anne Wagner notes that the term “woman artist”  has often been resisted by the female subjects it means to name. For Wagner, such resistance marks not a denial or misrecongition of the self but a refusal to submit to the terms of a professional identity forever qualified by the condition of femininity.  The title of Wagner’s book nicely enacts this point by presenting the phrase “Three Women” as both prominent and parenthetical, as both partnered with, and set off from, the phrase “Three Artists.” Three Artists (Three Women) suggests that the relation between artistic and female identity cannot be understood as symmetrical, straightforward, or fully resolved.

Joan Semmel, Interview with the author, March 19, 2007.

“Joan Semmel: Interview,” Womanart: 14.

Semmel, interview with the artist, March 20, 2007.

In the introduction to an unpublished book manuscript (“A New Eros: Sexual Imagery in Women’s Art,”) Semmel would recall this moment:

“The ferment of feminist activity in New York city in the early 1970s broke the profound isolation in which women artists had always worked.  Meetings—innumerable meetings—began bringing women together.  Into each other’s studios they trouped, exchanging information on jobs and exhibition opportunities and comparing tales of put-downs and rip-offs.  Looking---looking—looking, they at long last saw each other’s work, some of which had never been shown.  Exhibitions began to take shape, and many of us who would have previously cringed at the identification “women’s exhibition” began to show together. Semmel, “Through the Object’s Eyes,” (1975-76): typescript 1.

  “Interview: Joan Semmel,” Womanart: 15.

William D. Case, “In the Galleries: Joan Semmel,” Arts Magazine 46, no. 6 (April 1972): 71.

According to the artist, multiple comments in the Pratt Institute visitor’s book denounced the show as obscene and shameful.  Interview with the author, by phone, March 20, 2007.

Joan Semmel, Inteview with the author, March 20, 2007.

These sessions never took place at Semmel’s studio in SoHo, in part because Semmel was raising her two children at the time.

On certain occasions, a fourth female artist may have been present.  Semmel does not remember the artist’s name. Interview, March 20, 2007.

The feminist art critic Joanna Frueh has attributed the phrase to Semmel: “Joan Semmel’s ‘fuck paintings,’ to use her term, focus on heterosexual partners. . .” “The Body Through Women’s Eyes,” The Power of Feminist Art: 202.  In an e-mail of July 18, 2003 from Semmel to Rebecca Morse, Curatorial Assistant, Museum of Contemporary Art, Semmel writes, “There were two groups of ‘Fuck Paintings,” the first more expressionistic and the second more “realist” or non-gestural.”  E-mail correspondence, “From: Joan Semmel, To: Rebecca Morse, Subject: Re: Fuck Paintings.” Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art.

Joan Semmel, correspondence with the author, August 11, 2005.

  Joan Semmel, correspondence with the author, 11 August 2005

Womanart: 17

Maryse Holder, “Another Cuntree: At Last, A Mainstream Female Art Movement,” Off Our Backs, September 1973, reprinted in Feminist Art Criticism

Joan Semmel, interview with the author, March 20, 2007.

“Interview: Al Goldstein,” Playboy Magazine, October 1974.  According to Goldstein, the publisher of Screw, “We lead the league in tastelessness. Our photographs are filthier and our stories more disgusting. We make no effort to be artistic.”

Battcock, Gregory. "Prurient Primer of Erotic Art: Up Your Arthole," Screw, New York, May 13, pp.4-7.

Joan Semmel, interview with the author, March 20, 2007.

Ellen Lubell, “Joan Semmel: Interview,” Womanart, Winter 1977-1978: 16.

Harmony Hammond, “A Sense of Touch,” New Art Examiner (Summer 1979): 4.

David McCarthy, The Nude in American Painting, 1950-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 182.

One of the few critics to comment upon this at the time was the (male) critic Peter Frank: “Semmel’s pictures are visually troubling because the extreme foreshortening her unique vantage creates seems awkwardly radical outside a continuous visual-spatial context, excepted arbitrality by the limitations of the canvas edge rather than continuing in all directions as in true sight. “  Peter Frank, “New York Reviews: Joan Semmel,” Art News 74: 10 (December 1975): 123.

“Dialogue: Donald Goddard and Joan Semmel,” Joan Semmel: Continuities, exh. cat (Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York, 1998): 10.

Although Semmel never denied the role of photography in her self-portraiture, neither did she draw attention to it by, say, exhibiting the source images or allowing them to be reproduced.

On this issues, see Catherine Wilcox-Titus, “Skin Deep: Authorship, Authenticity, and Picturing Self in American Art Since the 1970s,” Ph.D. dissertation (Boston University, 2002): 51. Wilcox notes that “. . .in the photographs she used for Me Without Mirrors, the artist had a friend take a picture over her head and as close to her point of view as possible.  . .Though Semmel paints herself without a mirror, her self-portrait becomes a construct, a masked presentation of the self that only metaphorically, elliptically, artfully, imparts the appearance of the avoidance of objecthood.”

Eleanor Heartney, “Through the Object’s Eye,” unpaginated.

Judith Tannenbaum, “Joan Semmel,” Arts, October 1975: 7.

Joan Semmel, e-mail correspondence with the author, August 11, 2005.

Fight Censorship, press release, March 1973.

Joan Semmel, “Contemporary Women: Consciousness and Content,” essay printed on verso of exhibition poster, Brooklyn Museum, 1977.

Joan Semmel, “View from the Pendulum,” Mutiny and the Mainstream: 255.

Joan Semmel, interview with the author, October 8, 2006.

Joan Semmel, “Proposal,” 2004? [Courtesy: Joan Semmel].  Semmel goes on to note that her preference for working alone in the studio may no longer be a pragmatic option:
“However with the demands of using computer technology to make the work, as well as the necessary researching and retrieval of early slides, archiving, etc, the correspondence and administrative work, and the physical work needed to continue to develop large paintings, I now should hire assistants in order to use my time and energy more productively.

In one well-known instance (Mythologies and Me, 1976), Semmel created a triptych consisting of one of her “looking down” self-portraits in the center, a painting based on a Penthouse model on the left, and a mock de Kooning Woman with an appended rubber nursing nipple on the right.