Joan Semmel

Secret Spaces


Not on display

Joan Semmel born 1932
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1772 × 1738 mm
Presented by David and Maria Wilkinson (Tate Americas Foundation) 2016, accessioned 2021


Secret Spaces is a large-scale oil painting on canvas produced by the artist in 1976. It depicts a nude female body, tightly framed within the composition against a narrow strip of blue ground at the top of the canvas. Based on a photograph that the artist took of her own body, the painting employs a radically foreshortened perspective. Cropped at the neck due to the position of the camera, adjacent to the artist’s head, the body is conveyed as abstracted elements viewed from above – a breast, thigh, arm crooked at the elbow and stomach with undulating folds of skin – and depicted in a realist style with a naturalistic palette and shading. Alluding to the provocative nudity of the female form, the title is also, perhaps, a reference to the way in which the skin on the stomach resembles a vulva.

Following an education at The Cooper Union, Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of New York, Semmel began her career in Spain where she moved in 1963 with her husband. On her return to New York in 1970, she turned from abstraction towards figuration, producing works which responded to her involvement with the burgeoning women’s movement. A staunch advocate for women’s rights, Semmel attended meetings at the Ad Hoc Women Artist’s Committee and joined artists including Judy Chicago (born 1939), Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015), Nancy Spero (1926–2009) and Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), who had all begun to use the female body in their work. Semmel has explained her decision to turn back to figuration:

My return to the figure in 1970, from an Abstract Expressionist background, was prompted by a need to work from a more personal viewpoint, and was charged by my then-emerging consciousness as a feminist. The search for a plastic means with which to express personal and social concerns has led me to the most literal possible interpretations of female self-determination, a first person definition of self.
(Quoted in Paintings by Joan Semmel, exhibition brochure, Jorgensen Gallery, The University of Connecticut, Storrs, 24 October–10 November 1978, in Marter 1995–6, p.24.)

A response to the proliferation of pornography, Semmel’s ‘sex paintings’ from the early 1970s represented the artist’s efforts to assert female agency. Reclaiming the female nude for her own agenda and refusing the romanticisation of popular culture, she portrayed couples engaged in sexual activity as equal partners. In the mid-1970s, however, the artist turned to her own nude body as subject matter, alongside artists such as Hannah Wilke (1940–1993) and Carolee Schneemann (born 1939) who had likewise viewed it as a way in which to subvert the male gaze. In these self-portraits – of which Secret Spaces is an example – Semmel worked from photographs that she took of herself, using the camera, in her own words, ‘as a tool to locate and structure the image’ (quoted in Alexander Gray Associates 2015, p.5). By holding the apparatus close to her head and looking down on her torso, Semmel pictured herself in a reclining position. The resultant images are intimate representations of her own body as experienced by herself, and liberate the female nude from the male spectator by ensuring that it is experienced from a female perspective. Speaking about her intention to position the viewer as female body – and, fundamentally, female artist – Semmel has said:

I positioned the nude lying prone and the viewer seeing the body from the model/artist’s point of view. I was never focused on self-representation but rather on finding a way of reimagining the nude without objectifying the person, of using a specific body rather than an idealized form. I wanted the body to be seen as a woman experiences herself, rather than through the reflection of the mirror or male eyes. The fundamental problem of subject and object was always present, and using my own body was one method of dealing with this. More importantly, it made it clear that the artist was female, and undercut the stereotypes of male artist and female muse. I wanted to subvert this tradition from within.
(Ibid., pp.5–6.)

Reflecting the position from which the preparatory photograph was taken, Secret Spaces depicts a body abstracted; the right breast flattened, the upper torso dramatically foreshortened, and the limbs appearing as overlapping shapes, rather than a coherent whole. Crucially, the first work in which Semmel painted directly from a colour photocopy, rather than from the photograph itself, the painting is thus characterised by a further layer of abstraction from the body. Whilst Semmel continues to employ a camera to frame the composition, hers is nonetheless a practice rooted in the medium of painting. In this work, the texture of the artist’s flesh and the hairs on her arm are conveyed naturalistically with fine brushstrokes, and the contours of the female form – enlarged and cropped within the frame – begin to resemble the gradations of a landscape.

Further reading
Joan Marter, ‘Semmel’s Nudes: The Erotic Self and the Masquerade’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol.16, no.2, Fall 1995–Winter 1996, pp.24–8.
Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades, exhibition catalogue, Alexander Gray Associates, New York, 2 April–16 May 2015, reproduced p.104.
Joyce Beckenstein, ‘Joan Semmel: Naked Came the Nude’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol.36, no.2, Fall/Winter 2015, pp.3–11.

Hannah Johnston
May 2016

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