“I do not pretend to address the problems of all women in the world. My work is personal and I speak for myself.” At the age of 89 years old, NYC-born Joan Semmel has had decades of influence over a wide-ranging collection of painters, and yet she is only now getting her first museum retrospective in Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. In her statement above, you get the sense that she was blazing a path for herself as much as a generation of women painters behind her, but that in turning the gaze onto herself, with some of the most provocative and intimate nude self-portraits you could see, she became groundbreaking. Her depictions of flesh have the sort of texture that feels like realism, but her work has a sense of almost abstraction in that the self recognizes only so much of its own consciousness. 

Skin in the Game takes almost six decades of work, from more abstraction to her more wider known erotic and sexual paintings, and creates a rare narrative of how an artist can be internationally recognized as a political painter and yet create works that don’t go too far astray from the own artist’s body as a subject. In an interview a few years ago, Semmel noted this and said, “The whole feminist idea of why I was doing what I was doing was important to me at the time. I wanted the work to exist with that but also independently of it.” From Lisa Yuskavage and Jenna Gribbon, Marliyn Minter and beyond, Semmel is a conduit and starting point, and that she now has the vaunted retrospective is long overdue and spectacularly in time.