If to empathize means to put yourself in someone else’s place, then Joan Semmel’s self-portraits offer us an exercise in empathy. Four decades before selfies became a thing, this American artist was resorting to photography to document her body and sexuality, an approach that offered her a unique vantage point, further explored through painting. One element to keep in mind is that Semmel was, and still is, a staunch feminist, who has always contested the way women are portrayed in pornography, media and the arts – as sexual objects, existing only for the viewers’ gratification.
Not surprisingly, many art critics and fans have viewed Semmel’s art through these feminist optics, while perhaps overlooking its artistry, skillful composition and ingenious use of color. Though her early career was defined by abstract expressionism, by 1974 her art had reached a turning point: she embraced figuration, using her own body to capture “the feeling of self, and the experience of oneself” and offer us, for a change, the opportunity to explore nudity from a woman’s point of view. “My return to the figure in 1970, from an Abstract Expressionist background, was prompted by a need to work from a more personal viewpoint…to express personal and social concerns has led me to the most literal possible interpretation of female self-determination, a first person definition of self”, is how the artist explained her departure from her earlier works.
Painted in a photorealistic style, Intimacy – Autonomy is one of Semmel’s best known works, showing the artist with her partner, lying naked in bed. Their foreshortened bodies can only be seen from the neck down, since the perspective is set at the top of the bed. It was actually Semmel’s camera that originally recorded this moment, which later became the entry point for the viewer’s presence. Instead of turning us into voyeurs, we are as much a part of the painting as the couple is. It’s not so much an identification with either one of the partners, but the chance to inhabit the space between them, their intimacy and the opportunity to live a moment as seen from either one’s perspective. It’s as if we’re physically there, our gaze following their stretched limbs down the middle of the bed.
And as they’re lying there, relaxed and vulnerable in their post-sex nudity, the two lovers’ intimacy isn’t defined by desire –since it’s already been consumed – but by their bodies and the physical boundaries which they impose. Notice how in spite of being so close to one another, the partners do not touch or overlap. It’s an intimacy shared while maintaining one’s independence.
Given her background in abstract expressionism, the American artist had always placed a great emphasis on color. But as opposed to her other 1970s erotic artworks, defined by warmer, vivid and complementary hues, here the bodies appear almost statuesque – especially her own, which looks like it’s made of stone. The grays and blues turn this moment into a slightly chilly scene, perhaps a reference to the lovers cooling down after sex. Whatever the intention of the artist was, the foreshortening and the cool colors make this couple look larger than life, a landscape of bodies on a pale apricot bed sheet, with the deep blue of the wall above the horizon.