Joan Semmel (b. 1932)
Joan Semmel (b. 1932)


Joan Semmel (b. 1932)
signed and dated 'Joan Semmel '72' (lower right)
oil on canvas
46 ¾ x 68 ¾ in. (118.7 x 174.6 cm.)
Painted in 1972.
Lerner-Heller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
L. Crawford, "Women in the Erotic Arts," Viva, vol. 1, no. 4, January 1974, p. 81 (illustrated).
D. Seiberling, "The Female View of Erotica 'Joan Semmel: Sex to Hang Art On'," New York Magazine, vol. 7, no. 6, 11 February 1974, p. 55 (illustrated).
New York, 141 Prince Street Gallery, Joan Semmel, May 1973.

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Sexuality has long been a fascination of artists the world over. The earliest examples of erotic art date as far back as the Paleolithic age, when prehistoric paintings and drawings were executed by firelight on the walls of caves. There are countless Mesopotamian and Sumerian artifacts depicting sex, as well as Greek ceramics, Peruvian pottery, Japanese Shunga woodblocks, European Renaissance paintings, and, perhaps most famously, the Indian Kama Sutra manual. The reproductive act represents a potent symbol for human vitality, intimacy and power dynamics, and so it is no surprise that it has been a constant touchstone for artists from a diverse array of temporal, cultural and personal backgrounds.

In the modern era, especially after the advent of commercially distributed print media, erotica became a commodity, attaining an increasingly complex taboo status as shifting cultural mores restricted society’s attitude toward sex. By the mid-twentieth century in America, explicit depictions of sexuality, once a staple of fine art, had been relegated almost exclusively to the station of pornography–something to be shunned, blushed at, banned, and certainly not celebrated.

Beginning in 1970, Joan Semmel embarked on her first series of erotic paintings depicting heterosexual couples having sex. Semmel’s largescale paintings are intensely provocative for their taboo subject more generally, but also deeply stimulating, even confrontational, on an intellectual and a formal level. Semmel’s couples seem to float in an undefined serene space. Nonrepresentational colors and tightly cropped compositions amplify the surreal quality of the image, which, despite its photorealistic rendering, sometimes borders on the abstract. Limbs and digits stretch, contort, clutch and bend. Torsos seem tensed with effort and concentration, wholly absorbed by the focus their activity demands. What is perhaps most striking about Semmel’s paintings, though, is the way that neither man nor woman seems to dominate the other. This implied equality roots the paintings firmly in a Feminist foundation.
Semmel explains, "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" (J. Semmel, Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades, exh. cat., Alexander Gray Associates, New York, 2015, n.p.).

The present work belongs to Semmel’s second erotic series, executed in 1972-1973. The compositions of the paintings in this series are drawn directly from photographs the artist made of a man and woman having sex over the course of several sessions. They are records of specific sexual encounters, and in this way, they can be considered a novel result of combining performance, collaboration, photography and painting. When no commercial art gallery in New York would agree to exhibit the paintings, Semmel rented a space in SoHo to show them independently, a perfectly complimentary act of female empowerment that garnered the attention of the press. While the artist refers to these works as her “fuck paintings,” any display of vulgarity is hard to pin down. The expletive belies Semmel’s sensitive handling of her subject. All the brutality and violence often associated pejoratively with sex has been stripped away, or at least transformed into something more akin to passion, maybe even with notes of love. Through Semmel’s brush, sex becomes a vehicle for the emancipation of femininity from the domination of a patriarchal society; or, as Semmel states, “I’m using sex to hang my art on” (J. Semmel, quoted by D. Seiberling, “The Female View of Erotica,” New York Magazine, February 1974, p. 55).

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