I hope you find yourself in a comfortable and erotic situation like this on this Valentines Day.
I hope you find yourself in a situation like this on Valentine's Day. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art
I first saw Joan Semmel's "Touch" at a sweaty Whitney Museum, in its Human Interest exhibition. That experience (and crush of bodies) feels so impossibly far away right now, but I remember the moment of first viewing this painting quite clearly: I gasped. The subjects' intimacy and what I could glean about them just from the neck down bowled me over and imprinted the piece in my memory.

Depicting the moments just before sex, "Touch" is not the most idealized or explicit work, but an eroticism thrums through it that I still find thrilling. That's due to the couple's nudity, of course, but also in other aspects: his hand on her inner thigh, her resting hand over her pubic hair, the twist of their bodies on top of each other. I always imagine the two sharing this moment on the beach as the light seems to blare down on them, but the ruffled sheets near their feet tell a different story.

Maybe what struck me the most was the depiction of the female body. As a viewer, it's clear that we see her body and her lover's body from her perspective. And that lens looks at its subjects in a markedly different light than, say, a softcore magazine or porno—you can see her belly and the pancake shape that boobs take on when you're laying down. Her leg drapes over his body as both of their hands angle toward the piece's focus. It feels real. And all the bunched-up want and desire emanates from her, not him.

"I was being confrontational and I wanted the painting to confront the audience with an image that was different than the way they normally saw this subject," Semmel said about the work, stressing her desire to depict a female point of view. "I was interested in finding an erotic language that would be interesting for women. So, for me, the whole idea of 'the touch' is very important and one feels the flesh as the most important part of what's happening."

Check out more of Semmel's erotic and wonderful work here.