Breaking Boundaries: Joan Semmel's Unapologetic Artistry Redefines the Female Form

Aug 22, 2023
Written by
Karlo Gomez
Photographed by

oan Semmel's artistic journey spanning over four decades has been one of fearless exploration and unwavering honesty. Through her vibrant oil paintings that magnify the shapes of her own flesh, she has not only embraced her feminist and artistic principles but also challenged societal norms. Her creations stand as a rallying cry for change, urging gender equality and defying the notion that women's bodies must conform to a specific mold. From "Mythologies and Me" (1976) to the "Self Images" series (1974–79), Semmel has deftly examined society's scrutiny and regulation of women's bodies, a testament to her courage and vision.

Joan Semmel, Seated In Red 2018.
Joan Semmel, Fleshed Out, 2018

Her artistic evolution was triggered by personal experiences of gender discrimination, catalyzing her focus on the female body. Settling in Madrid in 1963 with her family, her initially planned year-long stay turned into more than seven years due to her affection for the country. Amidst this period, Semmel's artistic identity emerged, characterized by her Abstract Expressionist style that echoed Grace Hartigan's work. Recognition and acclaim, aided by Ernesto Heine's support, resulted in exhibitions across Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Joan Semmel
Joan Semmel
Joan Semmel

The genesis of her focus on the female body stemmed from her own encounters with gender bias. In 1963, Semmel moved to Madrid with her husband and two children, initially planning a year-long stay. However, they extended their stay to over seven years due to their love for the country. During this period, Semmel, known for her Abstract Expressionist style characterized by colorful, blocky canvases reminiscent of Grace Hartigan's work, garnered positive acclaim. Ernesto Heine, a critic from South America, championed her art, facilitating exhibitions in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Joan Semmel, Foreground Hand, 1971.
Joan Semmel, Hold, 1972.
Joan Semmel, Bottoms Up, 1992.

As Joan Semmel prepares to unveil her latest creations at Alexander Gray Associates in Chelsea this January, her enduring journey of self-exploration, advocacy for gender equality, and bold artistic expression continues to captivate and inspire. Through her canvases, she has left an indelible mark on art history, challenging perceptions, and championing change with every stroke of her brush.

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