By: Adam McGovern
September 20, 2023

Off-Topic brings you over-the-transom, on-tangent essays, dialogues and subjective scholarship on an occasional, impulsive basis. This time, a blaze of creativity and color for an autumn that isn’t what it used to be…


For decades, Joan Semmel has made the body — her body — the subject, context and canvas of her work; an autobiography of her times through stylistic evolution, and of time in its imprint on her physical image.

The pure frame of the figure and the infinity it encompasses are the protagonist of her latest set of paintings, grouped as “Against the Wall” at New York City’s Alexander Gray gallery, through October 21. We see Semmel’s articulated body sharing almost equal presence with its flatter, fancifully colored shadows; it’s as if, at this stage of her career, the very contact with light casts embodied creativity against the nearby surfaces.

These shadows invoke spirits of art history’s long lifeline, as in the angular German Expressionist cut-out look of the alter-ego in Shadowed Cover (2022); conjure an almost totemic figural abstraction, as in the jagged visual projections of her bodily attitude in Morphing (2023); reveal as much dark-matter definition and contour as her corporeal form in Against the Wall (2023).

In these elemental contact points of shadow and substance we are at the partition between the perceived and the potential, where true artists always position themselves, but few with either the courage or composure that Semmel shows here. “It’s what I do,” she told me at the opening, in reference to my praise of the pace and ambition of the cycles she continues to produce. But what she also does is face down the abyss of existence, of the blank canvas, of the social indifference she long had to endure, and find the fullness to let into it and the still deeper paths to be taken ahead and through.

Always an astute and honest self-observer, in many of these paintings Semmel has portrayed her own likeness with the most radical simplicity yet, in a striking masklike shorthand; her persona is merging with the basics of representation and the nature of paint itself. Yet she remains distinct from her creations, orchestrating their essence; in Connected (2022), while assuming what could be a posture of collapse, at the same time she could be bowing to her own dancing shadow in a duet of existence and ephemerality. The silhouette in Shadowed (2023) seems more like a rock to rest against; this too is generated by the artist, the darkness propping her up while she leans into it, perhaps exhausted but seemingly not afraid.

Even 90 years in, you can’t take the brash Bronx sense of humor out of the woman; Semmel’s idea of confronting mortality is titling a self-portrait focused on the bottom half of her body Feet First. Yet she can channel the grand tragedy of a painting like Silent Scream (2022), one of the most remarkable in her oeuvre, with its raptures and agonies choreographed to the primal positions of ancient Greek theatre and its escalation of scale expanding her figure past the picture’s frame and perhaps our plane. This is an image which defies disappearance and approaches divinity, but not without the profound pangs of rebirth. It is the triumph of these paintings, and the achievement of their artist, still very much in-progress, that the shadows, the surfaces, the brushstrokes and compositions and most phenomenally the painter herself, have all taken on lives of their own.

Images (top to bottom): Morphing; Shadowed Cover; Against the Wall(detail); Connected; Shadowed; Silent Scream; all snapshots by the author.


MORE POSTS by ADAM McGOVERN: OFF-TOPIC (2019–2024 monthly) | textshow (2018 quarterly) | PANEL ZERO (comics-related Q&As, 2018 monthly) | THIS: (2016–2017 weekly) | PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HELL, a 5-part series about characters in McGovern’s and Paolo Leandri’s comic Nightworld | Two IDORU JONES comics by McGovern and Paolo Leandri | BOWIEOLOGY: Celebrating 50 years of Bowie | ODD ABSURDUM: How Felix invented the 21st century self | KOJAK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: FAWLTY TOWERS | KICK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JACKIE McGEE | NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JOAN SEMMEL | SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRO and THE LEON SUITES | FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JULIA | FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: KIMBA THE WHITE LION | CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM: WASHINGTON BULLETS | KLAATU YOU: SILENT RUNNING | CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: QUINTET | TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: HIGHWAY PATROL | #SQUADGOALS: KAMANDI’S FAMILY | QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: LUCKY NUMBER | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JIREL OF JOIRY | KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Data 70 | HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM: “Freedom” | KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Captain Camelot | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Full Fathom Five | A 5-part series on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos | Reviews of Annie Nocenti’s comics Katana, Catwoman, Klarion, and Green Arrow | The curated series FANCHILD | To see all of Adam’s posts, including HiLo Hero items on Lilli Carré, Judy Garland, Wally Wood, and others: CLICK HERE