The Four Corners
Pondicherry paper, joined by hand-woven cotton canvas
96 1/6 x 94 1/2 in.
Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum, NY
Clemente, a Retrospective
The "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum was getting most of the
attention, but I was more interested in another exhibition held in New York
last fall. Francesco Clemente's Guggenheim Museum retrospective offered
a cornucopia of paintings not often seen where I live, on the West Coast.
I was familiar with Clemente's work primarily through reproductions, in
magazines and books, and admired his color and freedom of line. Still, I
believe (unlike Sister Wendy) that you have to stand before a work of art
to really experience it, so I journeyed to see this sweeping show.
Clemente has merged many streams of the world's art making, from
Indian miniatures to New York subway graffiti, with personal myth. He was
associated with the Transavanguardia group of Italian painters of the late
1970s, a movement marked by expressionistic figuration and restless migration.
A cultural nomad, he moves easily between New York, where he has had a home
and studio since 1980, Madras, where he has spent years working, his native
Italy, and New Mexico.
The more than 200 works on view, dating from the early 1970s to
the present, included paintings, drawings, large frescos, books, and a few
sculptures. An oceanic sensuality tempered by bitter observation characterizes
the paintings. Clemente's spontaneous line is particularly tender in outlining
lips and eyes, infusing them with eroticism. But it is a weary eroticism,
not fresh with youthful discovery. He fixes a beloved face-his wife's, his
own-in the moment before it disappears forever into the endless round of
death and rebirth. This sexuality is beyond the individual, of the realm where
form constantly regenerates itself in the eternal dance of becoming and dissolution.
Clemente's overripe colors shade toward hues of decomposition.
Decay can be seductive-I think nothing is more beautiful than water-stained
Venetian walls. Clemente's color is far more allusive than what I saw in
reproductions, with dark implications. A red reminiscent of Pompeian murals,
a dark, earthen shade, often recurs. It suggests terrible mysteries, blood
rituals, and at the same time speaks of warmth and life. In the large fresco
called Priapea, of 1980, cherubic infants are surrounded by this red.
I was first drawn to the color enveloping the pale, childlike figures. Then
I realized that the putti are dismembering a male figure in suit and tie-a
billboard-sized allegory of contemporary anguish.
A well-known image is The Four Corners, a giant hand emerging
from a watery orb, fingers and thumb arranged in what could be a mudra, or
sacred symbolic gesture. Stars spangle the sky above. Drawn on the hand is
a map of the world centered on the African continent, an idiosyncratic diagram
of intimate terrain. Examining it to see what boundaries and names Clemente
included, I realized how fragmentary and inaccurate a world map I would
draw from memory. The painting is a mysterious emblem, indecipherable yet
possessing strange significance.
Besides his self-images, Clemente often uses animal figures in
his work. His depictions of them in Oblation evoke a sense of wonder
at the diversity of forms spawned upon this planet. Again the Pompeian red
ground, upon which the white animal silhouettes-crocodile, bird, elephant-have
fallen from a black form above, a yoni that gives birth to their variety.
I found Clemente's portraits of friends most appealing, for their warmth
and evident affection. Black lines and spare watercolor washes capture personalities
such as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Morton
Feldman with convincing immediacy.
Among my touchstones for looking at paintings is whether they make
me feel a visceral desire to paint. Instead, Clemente's work kindled a desire
to draw, to conjure with lines on a surface.
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