Joan Semmel: A Necessary Elaboration

at Alexander Gray and Associates, NYC (through February 16)
Reviewed by Phoebe Hoban

Joan Semmel is the master of the anti-Selfie. For decades she has turned the camera on herself, using candid photographs as references for her large-scale nudes, which are both sumptuous and unsettlingly intimate. For an age obsessed with instant, miniature self-branding imagery, pervasively produced by iPhones and through Instagram, her large, flawed, vulnerable figures open a nearly forgotten door onto the pure pleasure of painted flesh.

Alice Neel famously painted herself nude at age 80, and Lucian Freud depicted himself naked at 52, but few artists have chosen to make their aging naked bodies their main subject matter. Semmel, trained in abstraction, originally began doing figurative work during the Feminist wave of the 1970s, becoming known for a series of sexual paintings (The Erotic series), which by the mid-70s focused primarily on herself (The Self-Image series), sometimes coupled with a male figure, and constructed of complex images from skewed perspectives, both of her own single body or of a duo’s entwined, partial body parts.

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Fleshed Out

All images courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates, New York © Joan Semmel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interestingly, as the artist has grown older, the images, now focused solely on herself, have ultimately become, in some ways, more revealing. Even in her last show, in 2016, which featured paintings in which the artist, as she has before, played with multiple overlays, a blurring device that amplified herself as the central figure, but also obscured her naked form, Semmel — as her own complete subject matter — was visible from head to toe. Now, at 86, she has torn away those veils to show her body up close and personal — in luminous, glowing, almost neon colors.

But far from being shocking, these paintings exude sheer beauty. Evoking both the voyeuristic intimacy and lustrous palette of Bonnard and something of the formal grace of Degas’ bathers, they remain completely contemporary in their bold and graphic exploration of aging female flesh. Rather than mourning the demise the corporeal self, Semmel, who retains more than a little of her own youthful beauty, finds it a fascinating subject to examine.

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In the Green

She does so in nine beautifully composed images, that zoom in on strikingly angled poses, painted in saturated, gem-like hues. Two of the standouts in A Necessary Elaboration, the stunning show at Alexander Gray and Associates, are Fleshed Out (2018) and In the Green (2017). In Fleshed Out, Semmel’s body is cropped from neck to knee, depicting one arm, a pair of pendulous breasts, a folded belly and two modestly closed knees. Her skin is rendered in tones that range from beige to amber to a rich violet; the background is a luminous indigo blue. One hand grips a leg, tightly pressed to a glimpse of a stool. It is the scale, composition and palette of the piece that impresses; the brushwork, though visible, is not emphasized. This is the body as still-life; a contemplative study of old age.

With In the Green, Semmel comes the closest to a classic self-portrait; this is one of the only paintings that shows her whole face (although the crown of her head is cropped). The artist is shown in profile, gaze down, legs bent and slightly akimbo. The background, acid green and baby blue, sheds some of its lambent light onto the figure; the arms are green-tinged and the lower body is swathed in violet. Semmel’s pale head and face, just detailed enough, hits the very top of the canvas, which is otherwise dominated by her body and the background’s compelling colors.

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My Saskia

Less idealized is the self-image in My Saskia (2018), which also shows most of her face, but is devoid of the alluring spectrum — the turquoise, plum, green and ruby–of the other paintings in the series, vivid colors, which, in Semmel’s words, “are the seduction.”

It also features the least flattering pose, making it, perhaps, the most straightforward depiction of her 80-something-year-old self. Her white-haired head is bowed above hanging breasts, her hands are placed loosely on her thighs, she is either sitting on an unseen stool, or bent over, standing. It is a brave painting, all the braver because it is stripped of any softening effects; in it her skin doesn’t look wrinkled so much as raw or bruised. . .

To read the rest of Hoban’s review, go to Riot Material magazine:

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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