‘I Wanted a Real Person to Be Seen’: Joan Semmel on Her 60-Year Career Painting the Female Form—for the Female Gaze

Joan Semmel, Skin in the Game (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates.

How did you come to abstraction?

At Cooper Union. Some of the instructors where deeply involved in the Ab-Ex experiment at that point. My whole education at Cooper Union was very much involved in the whole philosophy of Abstract Expressionism, of the gestural art, the expressivity of it and so on.

With the Ab-Ex American specialization you became successful in Spain.

True. I showed at the best gallery there in Madrid. I have traveled to South America with a big show of 35 paintings to the Museum of Plastic Arts in Montevideo in Uruguay, from there it went to the Bonino gallery in Buenos Aires, and I was also scheduled to do something in Brazil, but I opted out of that because I was advised that it would be difficult to get my work back out.

You had a career as a woman artist.

Yes, I was a novelty. Being an American woman making art was a sheer novelty. It gave me an identity immediately. I didn’t get lost in the crowd, so to speak. It meant that I had visibility and respect, but I wasn’t part of their network system. I was friends with Spanish artists.

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