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Number 28

February - April 2000

Francesco Clemente
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

Francesco Clemente, The Four Corners 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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