The Artist of Our Time? : Francesco Clemente is talented, prolific and commercially successful, but his place in art history is unsure

Is Italian artist Francesco Clemente the greatest painter to emerge in the past 20 years? Or, as some critics claim, is he a facile draughtsman whose ability to turn out gorgeously composed, easily accessible images threatens his potential to evolve into a truly important artist?

Like David Hockney, Jim Dine and R.B. Kitaj--gifted individuals all, who, some say, betrayed their talent in order to win a mass audience--Clemente has an unerring graphic touch that stands as the central barrier to his creative development. His images are so arresting and pleasing to the eye that he'll always have an audience for his work, regardless of whether he continues to challenge himself. And, with the price of a Clemente hovering around $250,000, his days as a starving artist are gone for good.

The money may be pouring in, but the jury is still out on Clemente's significance to posterity.

"It's precisely Clemente's apparent willingness to satisfy the public's insatiable appetite for 'good drawing' that erodes his credibility," says Art in America magazine's Robert Storr, while Time's Robert Hughes dismisses him as "a feeble draughtsman." Critic Carter Ratliff describes him as "a manipulator of insecure tastes who, so long as the momentum of his career demands it, will submit to the art-world moment."

Critical carping aside, there's no denying that since debuting as part of the Neo-Expressionist wave of the early '80s, Clemente has established himself as a hugely successful artist who bears comparison with Picasso in the breadth of his achievement. Just 38, Clemente is a compulsive worker who turns out a torrential river of art. Among the mediums he's mastered: drawing, painting, pastel, etching, photography, mosaic, sculpture and Indian miniatures.

At the age of 34 he was the subject of a major retrospective that originated at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., in 1985, then traveled to six American cities (it came to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1987), and he's had a hand in the production and publication of approximately 60 books. He has created frescoes in Italy, woodcuts in Japan, handmade paper for Muslim hangings, and frequently collaborates with artists and writers on joint projects.

His immediate agenda includes: a major survey of works on paper that opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Oct. 15, then travels to Virginia, San Francisco and Hartford, Conn.; an exhibition of new painting, sculpture and watercolors opening at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York on Oct. 18; and two major museum surveys, in Japan and at the Kunst Museum in Basel, opening early next year.

Is it possible for any artist to turn out the volume of art Clemente routinely produces and maintain a high standard of quality? That too is the subject of some debate. Faulted for "overproduction" by several critics (an objection first raised in 1985 when he had concurrent shows of new work at three major New York galleries), Clemente regards the sort of career evaluation typical of the art community--and the American art world in particular--as a bit strange. He takes an entirely different view of his work, and life in general.

Steeped in the philosophies of India and the Far East that espouse an integrated, non-linear approach to life that's the antithesis of the progress-obsessed West, Clemente rejects the conventional view of art making--which is traditionally seen as a progressively more grandiose evolution that builds toward that massive crescendo known as the masterpiece.

"I view the work as an ongoing ebb and flow," says Clemente during an interview at his spacious loft in lower Manhattan. "There are ideas and themes that interested me 10 years years ago that no longer seem too compelling, so yes, you do bring things to a conclusion. But in a larger sense the paintings don't change at all. The mysteries that exist in life are eternal, so although the way one approaches those mysteries might change from year to year, the mystery itself remains the same."

Arranging a meeting with Clemente requires considerable tenacity. Maintaining homes in Rome and Madras, India, in addition to his New York residence, the peripatetic artist is notoriously hard to track down, and once you've found him, he's apt to say no to your interview request (he's done just a handful over the past 12 years). Knowing that he's less than fond of the press, one rings his buzzer with trepidation that's exacerbated by the fact that Clemente's persona is as powerful as his paintings.

Perceived as a restless seeker who roams the globe living in casual bohemian splendor, he is by choice a perpetual exile. From early childhood the strange culture of India seemed within Clemente, and from the first time he visited the country, in 1973, he recognized aspects of himself there. He now spends a good part of the year in Madras, a city located in the southwestern province of Tamil Nado. Once home to the great mystics Madame Blavatsky, Krishnamurti and Madame Montessori, Madras is a city steeped in magic, and Clemente too has come to be seen as something of a mystic. He's also a classically educated scholar fluent in several languages, including Hindu and Sanskrit, who reads works of late Latin literature for instance--for pleasure. It's a rather intimidating package. However, on meeting Clemente one is immediately put at ease.

There's a charming weightlessness to his personality, possibly rooted in his refusal to draw rigid conclusions about anything in life. An oddly handsome man with piercing blue eyes, a soft speaking voice and an easy laugh, he seems to view life with a bemused playfulness not uncommon to those on intimate terms with their demons. Talking in a small room off his main work space, he perches on a small, uncomfortable-looking wooden bench, fidgeting and squirming like a restless schoolboy.

Preparing to leave that week for some time in Europe with his wife and four children, Clemente will then travel on to India alone. Much must be done to close up his New York studio, so several workers are bustling about packing things. He finds all the activity distressing, explaining that he rarely uses assistants and that his studio is usually a place of solitude and silence.

It's also a place of casual beauty, a place where exquisite things--gorgeous rugs and works of fine art--are strewn about, sharing space with tacky bits of kitsch. A plastic shower curtain, for instance, is hung as a room divider, while open steamer trunks function as shrine/display cases filled with lovingly arranged photos and artifacts. A uniquely interesting interior, it reflects Clemente's personality and his life, which seem to be an exotic blend of bounty and austerity.

Born in Naples, Clemente was an only child born to prosperous parents. His father was a judge, and he recalls his upbringing as "solitary. I was the sort of child who could sit alone in a room all day and speak to no one--and I'm still that way. On the other hand, a friend of mine recently told me of a dream he had where he and I retired to the woods alone to live as hermits. In his dream I arrived for this life of solitude trailing a caravan of people behind me--and I must I say, I recognized myself in his dream," he laughs. "Living in a crowded, chaotic way appeals to me, too."

One of the oldest ancient Greek settlements, Naples has an extremely rich history--Pompeii and Herculaneum are nearby, and the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome all left their mark there. Clemente grew up keenly aware of the ghosts that haunt the streets of Naples. "I was part of the last generation in Italy to receive a classical education," he says. "After us--whoosh--it vanished, and my children have made me aware that the frame of reference I have will soon be gone from this world. I suppose it's always been that way. Languages die and new ones are born, and my language--the language of books and history--is on its way out."

A self-taught painter, Clemente began making work at the age of 8 and became involved with contemporary art in Rome in the late '60s. In 1970 he moved to Rome to study architecture, then left school and spent much of the decade traveling in India and Afghanistan with friend and early mentor Alighiero Boetti, an artist associated with the Arte Povera movement, and Alba Primicieri, whom he subsequently married. Much of his time in the '70s was spent studying the occult and a wide range of philosophies; Cy Twombly and Joseph Bueys were also important influences on him during those years.

Even when he was very young, however, Clemente never aped the artists he admired, and he arrived at a relatively mature style when barely out of his teens. At the age of 20 he began to regularly exhibit in Europe, and he had his first show in New York at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in 1980. In 1983 he set up a studio in Manhattan and almost immediately assumed a prominent place in the American art world.

A quick look at Clemente's work would suggest sex, death and transformation to be subjects that preoccupy him. However, a closer look reveals faith, fear, the weight of history and the excruciating burden of consciousness to be the central themes in his work.

A gifted draughtsman with an extraordinary command of pictorial conventions, Clemente is an explicitly autobiographical artist who casts himself as Everyman, then positions himself front and center in his paintings. His images often feature an unsmiling, ghostly protagonist with closely cropped hair and a wide mouth, who gazes at the viewer with inscrutable, almond-shaped eyes--a figure easily recognizable as Clemente himself.

Shattering the idea of the fixed self in his ongoing series of mutating self-portraits, Clemente's work is in the Surrealist tradition in its attempt to rupture conventional readings of the self and of reality. Like the Surrealists, Clemente perceives the dream state as being of equal importance as waking reality, and his work has an unsettling kaleidoscopic quality. Grappling with erotic fantasies and fears, the figures in his paintings are lost in a hallucinatory hall of mirrors, and a current of dread and barely contained violence pulsates through the interior realm he invokes.

Asked about the dark subtext in his work, he laughs, "I deal with fear in my paintings so I won't have to talk about it."

On another level, his work is a study in dualities--interior/exterior, human/animal, male/female, and especially, spirit/flesh. "The West perceives a big split between spirit and flesh, whereas in India they're seen as intertwined. As to whether I see the flesh as a means of achieving transcendence or an obstacle in that pursuit, it can go either way."

Depicting the body as a mystical vessel in a manner reminiscent of Caravaggio and the French writer George Bataille, Clemente interprets sex as simultaneously a vehicle for transcendence and degradation. His images are a pungent blend of the debased and the sublime and much in his work is inarguably grotesque. Gaping bodily orifices representing boundaries and taboos abound, and he's done several paintings involving orgiastic sex scenes. This sort of imagery isn't unusual in Indian art, with its venerated tradition of unbridled eroticism. However, the notion of flesh as a vehicle of liberation is alien to the West, which tends to view the body as something to be perfected and controlled for maximum efficiency.

Not surprisingly, the work has been criticized as sexually obsessed--a charge Clemente rejects with the comment "There's no more sex in my work than there is in anyone's life on a given day. The sexuality might strike some people as excessive because most people are frightened of and disconnected from the erotic aspect of their nature--and rightly so," he laughs.

While some observers take issue with the abundance of sex in his work, others interpret the paintings as neurotically fixated on death. Clemente objects to this reading as well.

"People say there's a lot of death in my paintings, and I have no interest in death. I've never subscribed to the Western understanding of it, which is that it's an ending," he claims. "I admit that I have given a lot of thought to the subject over the past few years, however, because so many of my friends have died. Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Morton Feldman--there've been so many. Prior to the '80s, I'd never experienced death. And of course, becoming a father made me feel my mortality even more."

A relentlessly experimental painter who uses color with the fearless bravado of Matisse, Clemente makes frequent allusions to the ancient past. His paintings are shot through with references to metaphysical systems, Christianity, alchemy, astrology, mythology and the Tarot. Reinterpreting various traditions--ancient Greek and Latin, Renaissance, Surrealist, Hindu, Expressionist--Clemente is struggling to find new forms in old formats, and in the view of Adam Gopnik, art critic for the New Yorker, this is the greatest challenge he faces.

"Clemente seems to be trying to recapture a historical dimension that's been absent for several decades as painting has become increasingly abstract and ironic," says Gopnik. "He's obviously a gifted artist of genuine sensibility--you can talk about something having a 'Clemente look' and people know what you mean--but he has a very self-conscious relationship to painting and for me, everything in his work seems to be held in quotation marks. He's also a rather theatrical painter, and it's easy to see the set of moves being made. And I wonder if it's possible to restore a kind of classical, Mediterranean high seriousness to painting--and that seems to be one of Clemente's intentions--through such direct means.

"I also know that if I were a painter today I'd have a terrible time knowing how to go about that, and in being caught in that dilemma, Clemente is very much of his time. Much of Clemente seems to come out of early Picasso, and Clemente clearly wants to paint like Picasso. However, he can't play the Picasso part without a certain ironic distance from Picassoism. Many people find something profoundly moving and true about our time in that situation, and I recognize that there's an aspect of Clemente that's very much of our time. Some people think it will remain as the image of our time, but I'm not convinced."

Clemente's desire to reinvest painting with an epic historicism is reflected in the fact that while many of his contemporaries on the New York art scene cite mass media as the central source of their work, he looks to the written word for inspiration.

"Francesco's always had a tremendous interest in books," says Raymond Foye, the owner of Hanuman Books, who's been collaborating with Clemente since 1983. "He made 12 handmade artists' books which were printed in Madras by his friend C.T. Nachippan, he's collaborated with several poets on books (Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Rene Ricard among them) and has been the subject of three books. Together, he and I have done 42 books through Hanuman Press. Francesco does the covers and chooses the photographs and I edit the text."

Clemente and Foye are presently at work on a collection of interviews with Jack Kerouac, a book of stories by Cookie Mueller (a New York writer who recently died of AIDS), a book on Picasso by David Hockney and a compilation of the gospel speeches of Bob Dylan--apparently, yet another manifestation of Clemente's fascination with religion.

"I was raised Catholic but for several years I've been studying the religious traditions of India and the East," he explains. "I've had no formal religious training and I don't meditate, although I certainly pray--for me, prayer goes on constantly in one form or another. I've had a few pivotal experiences in the course of my spiritual studies and have met some extraordinary people. I met Krishnamurti, who lived in Madras prior to his death, and I met another very powerful man in Delhi who was close to Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti's ideas have been quite important for me."

Another facet of Clemente's quest for self-knowledge is reflected in his unending travels.

"I travel because I like to be reminded of different ways of living," he explains. "It's very liberating to see that the law of one land is meaningless in another. Lately I've found myself very curious about Africa, yet I feel shy about opening a new chapter. Still, I feel I know Africa in the way I knew India without ever having been there.

"I love New York, partly because I've always felt strong emotional ties with the Beat Generation and the New York School of painting. And I've enjoyed the time I spent in L.A., but I don't think I could live there without being on drugs. That seems like the way you're supposed to experience the place, no?

"Generally, I like this country very much, although I find that there's a unique way of feeling worthless in America. Because there's no class system here commerce has been made god, and if you have no product to send to market, you're nothing. There's an intense kind of loneliness that's peculiar to this place--but loneliness isn't always bad. Loneliness can be sublime."

Clemente's years of travel are visually manifested in the sweeping universality of his paintings. Designed to be felt rather than interpreted, his work is infused with great tenderness--one senses in these images an acute awareness of the fragility of living, and a profound affection for the endless parade of faces that pass through--all of whom are struggling with the bonds of consciousness, all of whom are basically the same.

"The faces in my paintings all look alike because I want the figures to have the quality of just faces in the crowd--because that is what we all are," says Clemente.

Yes, one concurs, but how does Clemente reconcile this humble understanding of man's place in the universe with the fact that he's treated as a god within the art world?

"The fringe benefits and attention that go with being an artist can be amusing, and when I first came to New York I socialized a lot and enjoyed it immensely. But the 'career' part of my life doesn't change the fact that I'm disappointed in myself all the time. Even when my work is hailed as successful and people respond positively to it, it has little effect on my perception of myself because I feel that I'm just the vehicle for the work. It passes through me, that's all. I struggle to remain aware of that because that understanding helps me to walk lightly through life."

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