Regarding painting – The experience of ‘surprise’ is a holy moment. This may be the only moment necessary. It’s not a state of the mind nor body, but one of the spirit. Goya perceived this revelation in the mental asylum of Saragossa, Van Gogh among the wheat fields of Arles, Pollock on the ground in East Hampton – the best painters always and must – Francesco Clemente as well. Granted, of the above mentioned names, Clemente is the only ‘Italian’, and as we know – Italian painters require a bit more desertion. Let’s begin with Alighiero Boetti… Although Boetti was/is classified as a ‘conceptualist’, the historical nature of his work resonates beyond mere ideas to embrace whole-heartedly the urgency of poetics, leaning towards a painting mindset. A direct correlation can be drawn between this notion and the early works on paper of a then younger and impressionable Francesco Clemente. Boetti was Clemente’s active mentor during the time-frame of the late 1960’s early 70’s. While the accompanying geographical travels that were undertaken by both Clemente and the senior artist of ten years, Boetti, led to Afghanistan, it became the southern locale of India where Clemente had his artistic revelation, his ‘holy moment’. (I decided to write this piece independently of interviewing Francesco Clemente, opting instead for a broader interpretation from one painter to another.) In past interviews though, Clemente mentions various inspirational troupes of the 1960’s as touchstones that eventually would act as pillars as well as springboards for his early iconography. Ancient wisdom, various architectural spaces, The Beats, eroticism, global religions and the esoteric, Hendrix, LSD, ex-pats and the muses – these are just a few examples of the deep content needed in order to fill the active imagination of a serious painter not willing to accept mediocrity and easy outs. So, Clemente created an encyclopedic volume of drawings while traveling in India – pastels, graphites, pen and inks, and watercolors. This early body of work located what would later blossom into the defining backbone of Clemente’s oeuvre, a self-replenishing well of images that he would return to again and again. The intellectual rigor of artists coming up at the same time as Clemente under such giants of influence as Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, created a new way of looking at the world through the use of contemporary art. Reintroducing traditional aspects of the figure, self-portraiture, and classical materials – this challenged the very notion of the conceptualists’ stance of the period prior to the 1980’s. The advent of the digital age had yet to present itself, artists were still capable of getting ‘lost’, and there was no other example of an artist more diligent and aligned to this task than Franceso Clemente. His travels took him throughout the world, discovering and dissecting world cultures and adapting them to a bracingly beautiful sense of painting. From ephemeral frescos to heavily laden oils on linen, temperas, miniatures (which he would employ local artisans to assist in the production), textiles to a degree, and paintings on assemblages, etc. Endless imagination… which begs the question, “Where do you go when you’ve gone everywhere?” You go to New York!
New York is ever the port city. A home away from home of Clemente’s original birthplace of Naples, Italy. It makes perfect sense that New York would eventually become a nest for him, his wife and their four children. New York City has a specificity to it as well as the ‘otherness’. A walking city lends itself to an explorer, as it did and does for Francesco Clemente. Exhibiting throughout the 1980’s primarily at Sperone Westwater in New York, Clemente’s work arose to the world stage and consciousness. Collaborating with various poets on illuminated texts, such as ‘White Shroud’ with then good friend Allen Ginsberg in 1983, or Savino’s epic masterpiece ‘The Departure of the Argonaut’ that Clemente illuminated as well in 1983. These poetic outlets expanded the vision even more so and were beautifully installed in Clemente’s mid-career Guggenheim retrospective in 1999. Also, within the collaborative framework, in 1984 Clemente was approached by the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger and asked to begin passing some paintings around with Andy Warhol and Jean Michel-Basquiat. These rather large canvases resulted in a tremendous collaborative body of work between the three painters and now only grow stronger with age and time. Exhibited recently in their totality at The Federal Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn, Germany – the Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente collaborative paintings resound with buoyant innovation and focuses each of the three painters artistic temperaments. Then, in the winter of 1987 – February 22nd to be exact – Andy Warhol died at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City of a heart attack related to surgery. The New York art world would never be the same. It had lost it’s great sage, the king was dead. Shortly thereafter Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose on August 12th, 1988 in his downtown Manhattan atelier. Granted, Francesco Clemente’s ‘star’, if you will, rose way above the isolation of stardom that success had brought to the likes of actually both of the aforementioned painters above. Clemente is and remains to be primarily a ‘painter’s painter’. Mourning past… the 1980’s past… new modes of artistic expression were ushered in via the 1990’s approaching the new millennium. Clemente continued to exhibit regularly in New York and abroad, most notably at Gagosian Gallery. Exhibition after exhibition would unfold continued chapters of Clemente’s ever evolving body of work. From shows such as ‘Testa Coda’, ‘The Black Paintings’, ‘Purgatorio’, ‘Anamorphosis’, ‘The Book of the Sea’, etc… these are not your average post-modern paintings. Only relentless questioning along with an almost unconscious or sublime sense of self can produce such pictorial weight. Looking at Rothko, Kline, even DeKooning – the true foundational painters of the New York School, including Philip Guston – this is what Clemente became as a painter in the late 1990’s, a true New York painter. But what is ‘truth’ in relationship to the idea of a New York painter? Or the New York School for that matter? It’s not a title that belongs strictly to the Greenbergian painters of the 1950’s, on the contrary – the ‘truth’ is an old tire, worn out on the road. Miles and miles of canvas, tons of paint, a thousand brushes and rivers of linseed oil and turpentine, dinner parties stretching deep into the night and wee mornings, discussions in crazy and refined places with some of the most absurd, wild and endlessly intriguing minds of an age. THIS is the truth of a New York painter… and then 9-11.
Arguably, Clemente’s greatest and most significant body of work had yet to be produced. The period was 2000-2003. The exhibition that Clemente mounted spanned the entire West 24th Street gallery of Larry Gagosian. The art-world was still very much reeling from the epic attack and devastation brought onto the city on 9-11. Francesco Clemente faced this narrative head on in one of the most epically charged painting exhibitions in New York City history. It was a full meal, and was permeated with an indelible feeling of loss and sadness. One could feel humanity slipping away. The figure was reduced to emblematic material of other forms – a house of cards, musical notes, a torn libretto, an overturned bowl, a drifting cloud on a mundane horizon. The works included in the exhibition ranged from smaller paintings on linen, to monumental tempera paintings on denim, and frescos on plaster panels. The show was panned by critics across the board. Maybe it was still to soon for such an intimate statement by one of New York’s greatest artistic sons. Because, as we know, sometimes the subtlest move can be the grandest gesture. But the painters got it, they understood the level of commitment of that particular exhibition of Clemente’s. Now that history has again moved on in some time, one can look back and appreciate the immensity of that particular body of work. See, paintings stay exactly the same. It’s the world around them that changes. To the degree that Clemente was able to pinpoint the feeling of that loss of innocence for New York City, as well as the reverberance felt throughout the other locales of the world in which Clemente had ties to, this was meaning, this was structure as a whole, yet fractured, like America on 9-12-2011. It would be the final New York exhibition to date of Francesco Clemente’s at Gagosian Gallery.
A garden compost pile is made up of old debris and detritus. The organic waste is spread on young top soil. The waste then becomes a replenishing fertilizer for new growth for new plants. In the years to follow leading up to present day, Clemente made changes. He moved his primary studio from Manhattan to Brooklyn, yet keeping the old location in Manhattan as an additional space. He walked and biked across the bridge, back and forth and back and forth. He was creating again anew with a returned focus. Portraiture had always played an important roll in this work. Clemente continued work on a series of portraits of friends, family, colleagues, artists, musicians, poets, collectors, socialites – a newly minted courtesan painter for the new millennium. The paintings were actually rough in appearance. Again, one might revisit the example of Goya painting the Spanish aristocracy by day, and the madness of the insane asylum inmates by night. There had to be overlap… it was inevitable. With Clemente, he was also concentrating on large scale watercolors in a series aptly titled, ‘A History of the Heart in Three Rainbows’. The watercolor series was exhibited at Deitch Projects in 2009, and the portrait paintings were exhibited earlier at Mary Boone Gallery in 2007 – both galleries being located in Manhattan respectively. This is good stuff, because it opened back up the exploratory aspect of the work. There also seemed to be a revitalized humor in the work. The palette became lighter, more ‘Mediterranean’. The proliferation of images and the outpouring of effort resounded in exhibitions of Clemente’s shortly thereafter in Rome, Madrid, Frankfurt, and other cities abroad – most notably a museum show at The Uffizi in Florence, Italy of ‘The Tarots’. The Tarots series is a collection of individualized Tarot cards that were created by Clemente depicting real life people close to the artist as particular symbolic characters, and the artist also characterized himself into the fold. Of course The Uffizi houses Botticelli’s great masterpiece, ‘The Birth of Venus’, an appropriate metaphor for another re-birth of Clemente’s artistic self, much like the sprouts in a new garden at springtime.
So where does all of this stuff eventually end up? Museums? Estates? Archives? Private collections? Auction houses? Etc… The answer is in the oral history of the medium itself. That is where these works belong, and dare I say that Clemente is very conscious of this. Painters are guided by other painters. The illusion that a painter exists independently is absolutely ridiculous. There would be no ‘so-and-so’ without ‘so-and-so’. And herein is found the treasure of inspiration, the gift, to other generations to come
Even with Picasso during his triumphant late period, he was in absolute dialogue with those great Spanish painters who came before. Ripping apart Velasquez’s body of work and rebuilding it in his own image. Yes, the muses were there too. But it is this dialogue, this acknowledgement – that there are links within the chain which makes the whole odyssey worth embracing the call to adventure. This is what Francesco Clemente has done and continues to do. We are invited to participate as active witnesses. It still has yet to be seen where history will place this complex body of work. That being said, it is the silent dream of every great painter to save their best for last.
In conclusion, this essay is meant to act as a proposition as much as a brief overview of the work and development of Francesco Clemente. It’s an essay for painters, to open the doors of possibility. To say to the reader that anything is truly possible, and not. It remains up to you to do with the time you have – to really step up, to go beyond the borders of country, self, and other… to challenge the known and embrace the unknown in order to make the unknown known. This is the quiet quest, the loud journey. ‘Surprise’ is found in these spaces, our holy moments.