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Joan Semmel

American painter Joan Semmel (b. 1932) is renowned for her decades-long commitment to representations of the body from the female perspective. Typically working in series and taking her own naked body as the primary subject, her oeuvre explores themes such as identity, gender, sexuality and female self-actualisation. Originally trained as an Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s, Semmel rose to prominence in the 1970s with her Sex Series (1971) and Erotic Series (1972), both of which depict intimate sexual encounters and female desires. By foregrounding the female experience, the works not only subverted societal norms but also undermined the male gaze. Semmel’s use of unconventional angles and viewpoints – which still distinguish her work – was another means by which she overturned traditional female stereotypes.

Semmel’s unapologetic and empowering take on the female body, which she invariably portrays in frank and unidealized terms, has firmly established her as a pioneer of feminist art. Her five-decades long oeuvre also constitutes an exploration of the ageing female body that challenges the societal obsession with youth and idealised beauty. Notable series include Self-Images (1974–79), Echoing Images (1979-81), With Camera (2001-06) and Shifting Images (2006-13). 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.” She is also known for her expressive use of colour. Drawing, both as a preparatory process and as an autonomous medium, is an important part of her practice alongside photography. Semmel has long championed gender equality in the arts and worked tirelessly to redress the historical marginalisation of female artists.

Joan Semmel (b. 1932, New York City) studied at The Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, and the Art Students League of New York. She was recently the subject of a career retrospective, Skin in the Game, presented by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, in 2021, and subsequently at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (2022). Other solo exhibitions include The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY (2020); Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Germany (2018); The Jewish Museum, New York, NY (2018 and 2010); Whitney Museum of American Art, NY (2016); and Dallas Contemporary, TX (2016). 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.

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