In 1963, after Semmel had gotten a BFA from Pratt Institute, her husband’s firm relocated him to Madrid. “We went for a year,” she says, “and I stayed for seven and a half.” She liked how far money went in Spain — the family lived in a duplex apartment with a pool on the roof — and the liberating experience of being a nonnative. In a revealing essay titled “A Necessary Elaboration,” which appears in the catalog that accompanied her 2015 show, “Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades,” at Alexander Gray Associates in New York, the gallery she has been with for a decade, she writes, “As an American artist and a foreigner in Madrid, I was not expected to conform. They considered all foreign women totally immoral, so it didn’t really matter.” She enjoyed, too, the “heady mix” of people from “all strata of life,” including “foreign correspondents … business expatriates and any number of characters out of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Semmel notes that “I emerged a different person.” She had a son, Andrew, in 1965 and, after her husband left for South America, she remained in Madrid, where she exhibited her abstract paintings. (“I think they were very strong,” she asserts.) In 1970, when her son was of school age, she returned with the children to New York and filed for divorce, which she had been unable to do in Spain, where it was illegal.
SEMMEL’S LIFE AS an artist really took off after she settled into her loft. It was then that she started working figuratively, a bold move at a time when the style was considered if not dead, then at least passé. She also discovered feminism, which led to her involvement with other women artists, including Joyce Kozloff, Judith Bernstein, May Stevens, Miriam Schapiro, Anita Steckel, Carolee Schneemann, Juanita McNeely, Nancy Spero, Emma Amos and Hannah Wilke, who all wanted to change the culture with their work. (I tell Semmel this list of names is too long to include in this piece in full, but she is adamant about my keeping every one.) “There was great excitement in New York City at that time,” she says. “There was a constant interchange that lasted through the down years.”
In 1973, Semmel joined Steckel’s nascent Fight Censorship (FC) group, whose agenda focused on the wider acceptance of sexually explicit artworks by women. Shortly thereafter, Semmel began to create her “Sex Paintings” and “Erotic Series,” which consist of large-scale depictions of naked heterosexual couples performing sex acts. With the “Erotic Series” she moved from working from drawings to black-and-white photographs she’d taken of the couples, mostly friends (in some of Semmel’s works, she’s included an image of herself wielding the camera), but continued to employ nonrepresentational color as a primary element. “At that time, the use of photography by a painter was considered not quite legitimate,” she writes in “A Necessary Elaboration.” But, she goes on, “I appropriated the modeled form and smooth surface of the closely cropped photograph into my paintings, which tended to push the image out from the picture plane into the viewer’s space. … This served as a distancing device defining the object as art, and separating it from the realm of pornography.”